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 coal fields. 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 immigrated 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 bête 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.