A groundswell of workers demanding their share of the nation’s wealth faces “sophisticated and ruthless” opposition from the rich, and the Pacific Rim trade deal is a crucial, symbolic battle in that ongoing war, said Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO.
“We are going to fight like hell against the TPP and kill this bad trade deal once and for all,” he said in a speech at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on Wednesday to a crowd of about 125, including former Vice President Walter Mondale.
TPP is the acronym for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the deal reached by the U.S. and 11 other Pacific nations last month to lower tariffs and other trade barriers and set product and service standards. It faces a long ratification process in those countries.
Trumka said it’s a myth perpetuated by the rich that the economy is an impersonal force out of anyone’s control. Policy is what shapes the economy, and for almost 40 years the economy has benefited the rich at the expense of workers, he said.
“The economy isn’t like the weather,” Trumka said. “The economy’s nothing but a set of rules. Those rules are made and written by the men and women we elect. Those rules set the winners and the losers, and for nearly four decades, they’ve been written so you and I are the losers.”
A bull of a man with a steel-gray mustache, Trumka is the son of immigrants from near Pittsburgh and a former coal miner.
He became president of the United Mine Workers in 1982 and has been a national labor leader ever since.
He took the reins at the AFL-CIO in 2009, a period of decline for the group. The federation’s membership had fallen from 13.7 million to 11.4 million in three years.
But the rolls have ticked upward since the recession, and the union reported 12.5 million members in September.
Trumka sees several independent initiatives across the country that are hopeful for the labor movement and working people in general: the push for a $15 minimum wage, the Black Lives Matter movement, retail workers demanding higher wages and domestic workers and adjunct faculty organizing unions.
“Our work raising wages has opened millions of eyes,” he said. “People now see some hope. They see solutions. They see a path toward a better future. Raising wages is how we lift our families, and how we lift up our communities.”
He said that unions have in the past used a one-size-fits-all approach to recruiting new members, which doesn’t work with people who are working multiple jobs or who are contractors.
He also said labor has lost too many marketing battles to the political right.
The AFL-CIO is working on building support among different types of workers, including more workers of color, and it must get better at arguing its case in the public sphere.
And it’s not just the political right and free trade that workers are up against, he said. Robotics will ensure that fewer traditional workers are necessary. Unions must grapple with that.
“If we don’t figure that out, we go the way of the harness maker,” he said. “And we’re working hard to figure that out.”