The following is a condensed and edited interview with Richard Trumka, president, AFL-CIO.
After Ferguson [Mo.] cop Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, you went to Missouri and gave a speech where you said, “Our brother killed our sister’s son.” Concretely, what did that mean?
It was absolutely true: A police officer was a brother. Brown’s mother was one of our members. Our brother did kill our sister’s son. It was a way of saying, “We need to come back together.” Whether it’s racism, whether it’s homophobia, whether it’s xenophobia, whatever it is, we’re trying to get out in front and bring people together and show that these things are often used as a strategy and a tactic to divide working people.
Why should I try to unionize?
Because you have no power unless you do. When you come together, you have power. You get a more fair share of the pie that you produce.
What did you want to do when you grew up?
I don’t know if I’ll ever grow up. I grew up in a small mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Everything was owned by the coal company, except two things: the Catholic Church and the union hall. So both of those were staples of my life. From the time I was 12, I just wanted to be a union lawyer.
You did end up being a union lawyer—and also a miner and president of the mine workers’ union. What did you learn there that shaped how you do this job?
With some real determination and solidarity, we can do some pretty incredible things. We fought Pittston Coal Co., a powerful company that decided they were going to take health care away from pensioners. And we were successful.
Thousands of workers were arrested in civil disobedience. Workers stayed out on strike almost a year, despite injunctions, the threat that fines would bankrupt the union, and the jailing of union leaders. Should unions be taking an approach more like that now?
We were successful in winning. But we didn’t really win alone. We won because we were able to bring the community in and say: “If hundreds of thousands of people lose their health care, it’s going to be bad for your towns and your counties and your schools and your cities and your businesses.” And so the community rallied around us.
We had a strategy of bringing everybody into the fray. We attached ourselves to the community. Should unions be doing that? Absolutely.
When we go back out and we reach our tentacles back out and we become part and parcel of the community and we speak for the community—like we do on immigration, mass incarceration, equal pay for women—when we do that, we’re at our best, and we’re unassailable.
Donald Trump says of Hillary Clinton’s Trans-Pacific Partnership stance, “Here’s how it would go: She would make a small, token change, declare the pact fixed, and ram it through.” Does that concern you?
No, not at all. I think the thing that she did best was she went out and she listened to people. She understood how bad trade has been for them, that we need a new regime. And she said, “That’s what I’m going to do.” We will help her make sure she stays with that stand.
I’ve talked to her. I’ve looked in her eyes. I think I know people pretty well—I’ve made a living doing that. I don’t have any concern that she’s going to double back on us after the election, saying, “I was just kidding.” She’s too good a politician to start off a new administration jettisoning the largest portion of your support that you’re going to need to get things done.
Is there anything that you’ve learned over the seven years with Barack Obama about how to make sure a Democratic president doesn’t let you down or take you for granted?
Make sure they take Negotiations 101. I think that the president is a good person. He believed that the Republicans were actually going to work with him and meet him halfway, and he would start off going halfway. And they didn’t move. That’s just not a good strategy. I think he’ll leave office knowing that. I think Hillary knows that coming in.
Do you see any realistic prospect to reverse the decline in union membership?
We’re organizing in places that we haven’t—doctors, adjunct professors, engineers. Those people are coming together, saying, “We need a voice.” It used to be that a college degree guaranteed you a middle-class job and a good life—that’s not true anymore.
Is there a strategic shift that you think is going to get union density back up, or is it about attitudes that are changing?
We’ve changed. We went from being totally embedded in the community to being isolated and hunkering down and trying to hold on to what we had. Now we’re back, embedded in the community. And when we’re embedded in the community, unionism starts to flourish and grow, and you can’t be assailed, because you can’t assail the entire community and still survive. Scott Walker, who gives Wisconsin’s surplus away to corporations, now has a deficit and says, “See these workers? It’s their fault.” He won’t be able to get away with that, because we’re so ingrained in the community.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s law gutting collective bargaining is still in place.
Temporarily. We’ll see. We’ll see. It’s a 15-round fight. We still have 13 more to go. All of the nonsense that he spewed about the austerity policies—none of them have come true. He has nothing he can point to say, “Wasn’t my war on workers a success?” It’s started to run its course, the austerity policies. And you’re starting to see it internationally—part of what happened in the U.K. was because of austerity policies. You’re going to see a pushback, and you’re on the precipice of that here. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both of them tapped into the anger and frustration. Bernie did it with sane, rational policies. Donald Trump did it with fear and division, sort of like those other guys did in the ’30s—Mussolini and Hitler.
What’s the strategic lesson from the Fight for $15 so far?
People are very, very angry. They know they’re being cheated, and they know unless they come together they have no chance of getting out of that. People are waking up. America’s coming alive. These little fires where people start to come together and start to fight for something—don’t feel that you have to control it. Don’t feel that there has to be a central game plan from AFL-CIO headquarters. You encourage it, you support it, you enable it. But you don’t try to take it over.
Should there be more strikes in the U.S.?
Well, you’d hope not. You’d hope that employers would sit down with workers and bargain in good faith. But when you have an employer that, instead of treating us as assets to be invested in, treats us as costs to be cut, there’s going to be conflict. And by the way, our system is designed for conflict. You petition the National Labor Relations Board, and the first thing that happens is your employer starts firing people illegally, threatening to move your workplace, ripping you apart. If a person that you went out on a first date with did nothing but say, “You’re such an idiot, you’re a thief, you have no redeeming value whatsoever,” do you think there would be a second date? That’s what U.S. labor relations does. It makes you fight. It’s corrosive, and it doesn’t have to be that way. In most other countries, it isn’t.