Showing a stubborn belligerence more commonly seen in the coal mines where his father worked than in the leader of one of the largest labor unions in the country, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, spoke at the National Press Club in Washington DC Monday.
A tense exchange ensued at the end of his speech when Press Club President Donna Leinwand quietly stood up to note the appointed end of the speech and the beginning of the question-and-answer period. Trumka looked back at her and asked, “Are you trying to tell me something?” Leinwand responded that 25 minutes had elapsed and it was time to move on to the Q&A period. Trumka shot back “Well, I’m not done with what I have to say.”
After Trumka said he simply was “going to continue with [his] speech.” Leinwand asked if he could wrap up in 30 seconds. Once again, Trumka would not back down, saying, “No, I can wrap up in a couple of minutes, but not 30 seconds.” Leinwand reminded Trumka, “Working people have all these questions for you,” and showed a stack of index cards submitted from the audience. The moment ended with Leinwand politely standing back and the AFL-CIO President finishing a couple of minutes after.
The speech itself did provide some interesting insight. The two main issues—in addition to rebuilding the labor movement and demonizing Wall Street—were health care and the so-called Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
Trumka spoke at the Press Club mere hours before meeting with President Obama to discuss health care reform. He praised the House bill but derided the Senate version, saying that, “the Senate bill … drives a wedge between the middle class and the poor. …
“[I]nstead of taxing the rich, the Senate bill taxes the middle class by taxing workers health plans. Not just union member’s healthcare plans. In fact, most of the 31 million insured employees who will be hit by the excise tax are not union members. The benefits tax in the Senate and the Senate bill pits working Americans who need healthcare for their families against working Americans struggling to keep healthcare for their families.”
The most frequent question from audience members concerned about EFCA. EFCA in its current form would effectively eliminate the secret ballot in union organizing elections, by instead using a method known as “card check,” which could lead to union intimidation, a loss of privacy, and undue coercion.
The bill would also impose binding interest arbitration, with a contract created by a government bureaucrat, on companies that do not agree to a union contract within 120 days of a union forming. Binding arbitration would allow unions to stall and possibly obtain provisions in contracts which an employer would be forced to accept.
EFCA has been referred to as the number-one item on organized labor’s legislative agenda. Union membership has fallen dramatically and the labor movement sees EFCA as the primary way to attract new dues-paying members.
Trumka stated he believes EFCA would be voted on, and passed in the first quarter of 2010. He declined to comment on whether he would support a bill which dropped card check in favor of binding arbitration.
Trumka also gave the usual class warfare he is known for. He blamed Wall Street and “the rich” for America’s problems. He also said that taking on too much debt led to our current economic crisis. He did not, however, link the entitlements in the House health care bill with increased federal spending and more debt. Instead of constructive ideas he once again advocated an us-vs.-them mentality—with the solution being unions.