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The Newsmaker Memo: an Interview With AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, recently spoke with The National Memo about the sequester's automatic budget cuts, the danger of cuts to Social Security, the Keystone XL pipeline, immigration reform, President Obama and how to defend labor in an era of attacks on the right to organize.   

The 64 year-old Trumka worked his way through college and law school in Pennsylvania's coalfields. Fourteen years later, he became the youngest elected president in United Mine Workers history -- and went on to election as secretary-treasurer and then, in 2009, as president of America's largest labor federation.   

Tough, outspoken and progressive, he didn't hesitate to criticize President Obama -- or the labor movement itself. And he offered surprising remarks about climate change, the possibility of a carbon tax and his hope for dramatic changes in the house of labor.   

On the federal budget sequester, which is harming millions of union workers in and out of government, Trumka said that unions will continue "to educate people that the Republicans are trying to hold the economy hostage. They manufacture crisis after crisis after crisis ... Disarming the hostage takers -- and I'll call them that -- means repealing and not replacing sequestration."   

Moreover, he bluntly rejects any budgetary "Grand Bargain -- or at least the Washington version of such a deal.   

"If the Grand Bargain includes cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, then we would be very, very worried about that -- not just worried, we will oppose that.  Let me just give you one example -- the 'Chained CPI (consumer price index, used to calculate increases in Social Security).  That's another example of how Washington creates fancy sounding phrases to mask stupid policies that only work for the rich. "   

Instead, the union leader -- who led two successful strikes against major coal companies -- prefers to see the federal government use its enormous bargaining power to reduce the cost of health care, which is the biggest driver of federal deficits.   

"Every other country in the world does that ... I met with the head of a pharmaceutical company, and do you know what he told me? He said the reason Americans pay too much for drugs is because the rest of the world pays too little.  (Other nations) negotiate down to a fair price, and we don't do that. We gave that away in the debate -- the president did -- and got nothing in return for it."   

He also notes that the effective corporate tax is so low that some firms pay no taxes at all.  He urges a surtax on millionaires, a "tiny tax on Wall Street speculation" and closing "loopholes" that favor Wall Street hedge fund managers and derivative traders.   

Yet even as he slaps corporate America for evading its "fair share," Trumka is negotiating with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over immigration reform -- specifically, how to treat "guest workers."  Optimistic about a "reasonable path to citizenship" for all 11.5 million undocumented workers, Trumka wants to be sure that any new program won't allow renewed exploitation of Latino immigrants.  New guest workers must be treated fairly -- and allowed to bring their families along.   

For Trumka, this debate is deeply personal: His grandfather emigrated from Poland; his mother, from Italy.  

"My grandfather came to this country, landed at Ellis Island, and was immediately shipped to the coalfields in southwestern Pennsylvania. He worked two years before he could send for my grandmother; he worked even longer before he could send for his daughters. ... That shouldn't happen to any family."  

Unlike many raised in coal country, however, Trumka acknowledges global warming. "Do I believe there's global climate change out there? Yes, I do. I think the facts support that, and I think that we as a nation and as a world have to address the problem and correct it -- so that our grandkids and our great-grandkids and their great-grandkids can have a quality of life that's sustainable. "   

But that doesn't mean he opposes the Keystone XL oil pipeline, current bete noir of environmental movement. Although the AFL-CIO hasn't directly backed Keystone, it has endorsed "pipelines in general," says Trumka, who argues that the pipeline will have "a smaller carbon footprint" than other methods of transporting those petroleum products.   

The nation would be better served, he says, by reducing "seeps and leaks" from existing oil facilities, "which represent a bigger hazard to the environment." Would that create jobs?  "Far more than the pipeline itself -- about 125,000 jobs a year. But it would also be a win-win. The environmentalists agree with us on that, we should clean up the leaks and the seeps."   

How about a carbon tax that would raise revenue and confront the true costs of fossil fuel consumption?   

"I would not exclude consideration of that," replies Trumka, "but it would have to be evenly administered and fairly applied. So it would have to apply across the board in many different ways, and not so much that it would eliminate an industry. (The energy industry) would need time to be able to adjust to that, so it would depend on the timing of it as well. But would I exclude it out of hand? No."   

The coal industry once warned that the Clean Water Act and the Mine Reclamation Act would put them out of business, he recalls. "I said we live with this water, it poisons us and maybe -- maybe -- if you can't do better, you should go out of business." Both laws passed, and of course the coal companies have hardly ceased operating. The same would be true, he implies, of efforts to stem climate change.

As for his stewardship of labor -- under withering attack across the country from the far right -- Trumka promises nothing less than sweeping change as he prepares for the AFL-CIO convention next September.   

"In the past we would pull together committees two or three days before, and draft up some nice resolutions, and then we'd have 10 speeches and a resolution, 10 speeches and a resolution, 10 speeches and a resolution, and then on the last day we'd all go home -- and nothing changed."   

This year, he's naming committees to create a new convention agenda now -- and they will include not only labor leaders but "our progressive partners, our allies" from the environmental movement, the civil rights and women's movements, academia, as well as rank-and-file workers.   

With those allies, the AFL-CIO toiled passionately to re-elect President Obama. Trumka is gratified that the president is pushing hard for immigration reform and appreciated the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which he calls "exciting because we got something done."   

Yet "every time (Obama) talks about the deficit instead of job creation, we find that disappointing. We think it's a strategic mistake because the country doesn't have a short-term deficit problem, it has a short-term jobs crisis that needs to be fixed. Every time he talks about chained CPI that's a very, very big disappointment because it's the wrong (policy) at the wrong time."   

So on Obama, "the jury is still out," Trumka concludes. "We're going to push him for four years and hopefully he will live up to the ideals that he has espoused to us on numerous occasions -- and that I quite frankly believe that he believes.   

"So we've got to make them a reality. And some of that is up to us. And if we don't -- if we expect them to just magically appear from this president or any other president -- we will be disappointed."

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