Trumka: Key battle ahead is the 2018 elections
Richard Trumka. Alex Brandon | AP

HOUSTON — Saying when an economy “doesn’t support the majority of its citizens, it needs to be fixed,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says the 2018 elections are key.

And in fixing the economy — by sweeping anti-worker elected officials out of office — workers and their allies will also counter the right wing’s attacks on public sector workers, many if not most of whom are minorities, including African Americans, he added.

Trumka stated those conclusions in a wide-ranging Q-&-A during the opening session on Jan. 12 of the AFL-CIO’s Martin Luther King conference, held this year in Houston. Trumka and other speakers at the 3-day confab also cited King’s linkages of civil rights with economic rights with labor rights.

And in fixing the economy, “the 2018 election is a great place to start,” the fed chief said. Meanwhile, racism is behind the right wing’s attacks on public sector workers, he added.

Conference delegates spent their time listening to speakers pounding away at those linkages, discussing specific issues – such as the tie between immigrant workers’ rights and overall workers’ rights — and, on Jan. 14, working on political strategy and training.

One reason? The tilt of the U.S. economy away from most of its citizens, notably minorities, Trumka said. Another: Right-wing attacks on public sector workers, who are disproportionately female (60 percent), minority or both. And a third, to both enhance workers’ rights and to stop sexual harassment on the job.

Fixing the economy starts at the ballot box this fall, with the goal of overthrowing the rule of the right wing who hate workers, minorities and anyone but their very rich political backers. “Our labor movement is committed to justice for everyone, not just the privileged few,” Trumka said.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher. Our democracy is being tested, not just by” Republican President Donald Trump “but by a harder and more fundamental test,” he explained. “Wages haven’t gone up in 40 years. Politicians talk about tax cuts, job lines and trade deals – but those things don’t help us.”

Conditions for average workers “have been so bad for so long” that people “are starting to equate poverty and democracy. The rules have been written for us to lose – and democracy is being threatened” by the rich and powerful, he said. “Unless we elect enough people to help change things for the average Jane and Joe, we’ll be on a continuing slide.”

That slide will particularly affect African Americans, and African-American public workers, Trumka and the other speaker in the q-&-a, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who represents much of center city Houston, added. That’s because the same forces – the right wing – that have skewed the economy also make public workers their particular targets.

“African Americans are 30 percent more likely to work in the public sector than whites, and that’s largely because of Dr. King,” Trumka said. They’re also more likely to be union members, the latest federal data, from 2016, shows. Data for 2017 will be unveiled Jan. 19.

In 2016, 13 percent of African Americans were unionists, two percentage points higher than for all workers. Forty percent of local government workers, 29.6 percent of state workers and 27.4 percent of federal workers were unionized, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said.

Some 48.6 percent of elementary, middle school and secondary school teachers were union members, the federal Current Population Survey adds, down six percentage points from before the Great Recession. The Postal Service reports 21 percent of its workers – who are overwhelmingly unionized – are African American and 8 percent each are Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans.

And different laws govern the public sector, including federal, state and local government, public schools and universities and the Postal Service. Some experts point out that in many respects, those laws are fairer, and supervisors are forced to be fairer, to minorities than in private-sector firms governed by the main federal law, the National Labor Relations Act.

Trumka did not say if the right wing knows those numbers, but he said to them the data doesn’t matter. Racial ratios in the public sector “make it easier” for the right to attack public workers, he explained. “That’s why we have all these attacks on the public sector from the right wing right now. It’s just another ‘dog whistle.’”

The way to counter such right-wing racist-based attacks is to “build a broad coalition to overcome them,” he added. It helps, Lee added, that “the labor movement has been in places where others have not been” over the years, fighting for the rights of African-Americans.

“Dr. King did not differentiate between civil rights and labor rights,” Trumka explained. “He knew” they “were connected to each other.” But there are other connections, as well, he declared – and the labor movement “has to be at the tip of the spear,” not holding back, for causes such as women’s rights and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender rights.

Then he circled back to the economy. In a theme other speakers echoed throughout the weekend, Trumka and Lee both noted King linked economic rights and economic success to civil rights. A favorite anecdote during the sessions saw Trumka and the others quoting King as saying the right to sit at a lunch counter was meaningless if the sitter – African-American – couldn’t afford to buy a hamburger, french fries and a cup of coffee.

“If we elect people” who can change that “we’ll create an economy that is a lot more fair and one that looks more like the America you read about in the civics textbooks.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.