"We will not accept crumbs": a last conversation with Richard Trumka

The legendary union leader died today

It took the wind out of me when I heard that Richard Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. federation of unions, had passed away.

Just a few months ago, we had two different conversations — one an interview by me of him, the other a public conversation. He was sprightly and curious and full of the passion that has fueled him through decades of a bruising fight for working people.

I know many of you join me in sending love and condolences not only to his family and friends, but to so many of the people around the world who called him their champion.

In remembering him, I thought I’d share an excerpt of an unpublished transcript of that interview we did earlier this year, capturing his reflections on the new administration and the new political moment we found ourselves in.

“We will not accept crumbs”: a conversation with Richard Trumka

THE INK: Every administration learns from the failures of the same party back when they last had power. What do you see President Biden learning from?

RICHARD: Well, first of all, I think he's not gauging his response to the political opposition, but to the magnitude of the problem that he's facing. I think he learned that if you're going to take on a fight, the solution has to be worth it. It has to solve the problem. It can't dabble around the edges because when you're done, you still have a problem and you've spent a lot of time and a lot of energy. So I think understanding that.

The other thing I think is he understands, more than any president before him that I'm aware of, the importance of collective bargaining and how it's part of the solution. And in order to give you that answer, I need to frame it just a little bit.

Right now, we've seen growing inequality over the last four or five decades. Corporations and the rich getting more powerful, and working people getting less powerful.

And, as we saw, that inequality actually threatens the system. We're on a pathway to implosion. And when I talk about inequality, there are three facets of it. There's inequality of wealth and wages. There's inequality of opportunity. And there's inequality of power. And you can't fix the first two unless you fix inequality of power. And that means labor law reform. And that means the PRO Act. And Joe Biden understands clearly that we must fix inequality of power in order to fix inequality of wages and inequality of opportunity. He sees that more clearly than any president that I've known in my lifetime.

THE INK: Just to flesh that out a little bit, I would imagine if Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were on the conference call with us, they would object and say, No, I was for labor. Everybody says they're for labor. Can you be very clear about what you think Biden has said or done that is different from what Obama and Clinton said or did?

RICHARD: Well, I don't think Clinton or Obama actually ever understood that collective bargaining was part of the solution. They looked at us; they weren't hostile to us. They worked next to us, but they never looked at us as part of the solution. Joe Biden understands that we are part of the solution, and unless and until you rebalance the scales of power among employers, corporations, the rich, and working people, you can't fix the economy. And that trajectory to implosion continues to go at a higher rate and a steeper altitude.

THE INK: A lot of what you're describing is the Reagan-era consensus that we've never broken out of which has hemmed in Democratic presidents as much as Republicans — a set of assumptions about big government being problematic, assumptions about the deficit, etc. Do you think we're breaking out of the Reagan consensus right now?

RICHARD: First of all, the Reagan consensus is classic neoliberalism. Neoliberalism said anything that gets in the way of the market should be eliminated. That means unions get in the way of the marketplace, so they should get eliminated. And we've found out that an untamed or an uncontrolled market is dangerous and destructive, and it is not fair at all. So I think what's happening is society is saying we've had four or five decades of globalization where everything has flowed to the top, and now it has to be readjusted. We will not accept growing inequality. We will not accept crumbs. We need to be more central to things.

I think we are definitely moving away from the neoliberalism of the past, into a society that's saying it must be fair to all of us, not just those at the top of the feeding chain.

THE INK: There’s this question, of course, of the Senate filibuster. A lot of the priorities you all have advocated for, whether it's $15 or the PRO Act — there's a real question of whether those things can get through this Congress. Do you want to see Joe Biden get out more in front in terms of calling for the end of the filibuster? What would your advice be to him?

RICHARD: Let’s say the truth here. For the rich and the powerful, the filibuster has already been eliminated. There is no filibuster when it comes to tax cuts or things that benefit the rich and the powerful. There's no filibuster. There's no 60-vote rule there. It's only when it comes to things for working people that the filibuster is used. It was used to prevent civil rights. It's been used to stop labor law reform. It's been used to stop minimum wage increases and health and safety laws and pension protection and pension relief. It's only for working people that the filibuster exists.

They use that rule to make sure that the rich and the powerful maintain the edge they have. That has to change. And I believe one way or another during this period of time and during this presidency, the Republicans will either become bipartisan and help us rewrite labor laws so that they're fair and they're not used to prevent people from getting wage increases and a voice on the job. And if they don't, we will find a way to do that. And I believe Joe Biden is committed to that.

THE INK: Would you say that Presidents Clinton and Obama were part of the neoliberal consensus that you believe is now cracking?

RICHARD: I think both of them didn't understand the importance of changing the rules to benefit workers and that workers were part of that solution. As a result of that, they surrounded themselves with a lot of Wall Street people, with a lot of Wall Street ideas, and those Wall Street ideas benefited Wall Street more than Main Street.

THE INK: One thing I've heard is the Biden administration is willing to talk to all parts of the coalition, whether or not they're aligned. I was just talking to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who is not aligned with Joe Biden on a whole bunch of stuff, but she said, Look, he reaches out; he listens. And they seem to adjust based on that listening. Can you contrast the consultative approach that labor has with this White House to past administrations?

RICHARD: I think it can be summarized this way: This administration actually calls you. They want to hear what you have to say. And they ask for your point of view. Past administrations used to call us to tell us what the decision had been.

Richard Trumka, who died today, was the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Photo: Drew Angerer