AFL-CIO chief still has an activist’s passion

Success and access to the halls of power haven’t robbed the passion from Richard L. Trumka, a third-generation mine worker who rose to the pinnacle of the U.S. labor movement.

“The middle class is under assault right now, nearly extinct,” Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said Thursday during his first official visit to Los Angeles since taking the helm of the federation last year. “We have the very rich and we have the rest of us.”

He laments what he views as the erosion of the U.S. social democracy since the mid-1970s. The Reagan years of the 1980s, he argued, accelerated an era of stagnant wages and benefits, concentrated wealth and systematic union busting.

“The economy hasn’t been working for us for the past 30 years,” said Trumka, who was reared in the Pennsylvania coal fields of the 1960s but later attended college and law school thanks to union help.

Today, Trumka heads a reenergized labor movement that invested much of its fortune, energy and political capital in the election of President Obama.

But it is also a movement desperate to stem decades of falling membership. Only about 12% of U.S. workers are now union members, compared with about 24% in 1973, according to most estimates.

Trumka bemoans the “demonization” of big labor by Republicans. “They always talk about ‘union bosses,’ ” he said. “Why don’t they ever say ‘corporate bosses’?” But others argue that unions’ failings help explain the criticism.

“The collapse of GM has done more to hurt the image of the union movement than anything that the Republicans said,” said James Sherk, a labor expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “The United Auto Workers was their vision of a unionized America. Look how it turned out for Detroit.”

Almost a year after Obama took office, some labor activists are disappointed that major priorities -- healthcare reform, immigration overhaul and new rules making it easier to join unions -- have not become a reality. But Trumka expresses confidence that labor’s agenda will move forward. And he praises the political sea change in Washington since the departure of George W. Bush.

“It’s a different attitude, an attempt to create a working partnership as opposed to a relationship that was totally adversarial,” said Trumka, 60, speaking between meetings and events that stretched through the day.

The plain-spoken Trumka, a frequent White House visitor who sits on an administration council of economic advisors, has been credited with bringing some fire back to the union movement.

Earlier this week, he was among those briefly arrested during a noisy protest outside a San Francisco Hilton, where management is enmeshed in difficult negotiations with the hotel workers union. On Thursday evening, Trumka was to march with hotel workers outside the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, where employees also have been seeking a new contract. Earlier Thursday, he visited a union-sponsored training site for electricians in the City of Commerce.

He credits union activists in California with being at the forefront of organizing low-wage immigrant workers, a population sought after by labor nationwide. He would like to see better integration of union efforts on the East and West coasts.

As healthcare negotiations drag on in Washington, Trumka expressed optimism that a bill acceptable to labor would emerge from Congress. That, despite his strong objections to a Senate plan to tax high-priced insurance policies -- including so-called “Cadillac” plans enjoyed by some union members. “When we proposed putting a cap on CEO’s salaries, everyone told us it was bad policy,” said the former mine workers president. “Putting a cap on healthcare is the same thing: bad policy.”

An extremely controversial bill that would ease unionization should also pass this year, Trumka predicted. Business has launched a massive campaign to derail the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, which critics call an anti-democratic bow to union chiefs. Labor advocates say increased unionization is vital to a democratic workplace.

“There’s a need for workers to sit down and come to the table as relative equals to their employers,” Trumka said. “When they do, better decisions are made for everybody, for the corporation and for the worker.”