Labor Crunch Puts Unions On The Front Lines

Monday is Labor Day, a holiday created to honor the American labor movement. But with unemployment now at 9.7 percent, just finding a job can be a job of its own. And that means finding a job with union guarantees can be a Sisyphean battle. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, about the state of labor unions in America.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Tomorrow is Labor Day, a holiday created to honor the American labor movement. But with unemployment now at 9.7 percent, just finding a job can be a job of its own. And that means finding a job with union guarantees can be a Sisyphean battle.

Richard Trumka is secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. He also serves on President Obama's economic recovery advisory council. And he joins us in the studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (Secretary-Treasurer, AFL-CIO): Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Are unions losing their clout?

Mr. TRUMKA: I don't think so. In fact, I think it's quite the opposite. I think we're on the resurgence right now.

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. TRUMKA: Yeah. If you just look at what's happened in the next several years, one: we played an instrumental part in electing the president and a progressive majority in both the House and the Senate. We are on the verge of passing labor law reform that will allow workers to have a choice in joining a union and have a voice at work without being intimidated, harassed or fired.

We're on the verge of passing health care reform. We have changed the way that we do our political action. We've changed the way that we outreach. And more people look at us right now and say they are the answer to my problems. They can help me solve the problems that I have, whether it's stagnant wages, the loss of health care, the loss of pensions. Unions will give me a stronger voice on the job.

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about the economy. I mean, with the state it's in, a lot of people would take a job regardless of whether it was a union job. Do you think companies are using that to their advantage?

Mr. TRUMKA: Well, I think companies always try to use something to their advantage when it comes to denying people a job. But last year, 60 - in polling - 60 million Americans said: I would join a union tomorrow if given the opportunity. Because they know a couple of things. One: our members get about 30 percent more than a non-union worker does. We're more likely to have health care. We're more likely to have pensions. And quite frankly, we're more likely to do things like vote. And so, people are looking to that and saying we are part of the solution.

HANSEN: You said - and I've read some of the interviews that you've done recently - that any effort to overhaul the health care system must include a public option. Do you mean to say that the AFL-CIO will not support members of Congress or the president in the future if an insurance reform bill doesn't include a public option?

Mr. TRUMKA: Well, let's talk about that. Let's talk about an insurance reform bill. Right now, every 30 seconds, one American declares bankruptcy because of medical bills. Profits for insurance companies have risen over a thousand percent in the last seven years. And health care premiums have risen 300 percent.

So, what we're saying is, if you really want to break that stranglehold, you need to set up a government program where you can negotiate tight costs and use the power of the federal government to reduce those costs.

HANSEN: But if it doesn't happen, will you withdraw support?

Mr. TRUMKA: It's likely that our members will. That's what the American public is telling us, as well. They want real health insurance reform.

HANSEN: But there's not a lot of support, or it doesn't seem to be much support, or the support is waning for a public option at the moment. Most Americans, we're hearing Americans say they don't want the government.

Mr. TRUMKA: That's interesting. They don't want the government because when you look at it, 61 percent of all expenditures right now in the health care market are covered by a government plan. When you think about Medicare, all the government employees, all Congress, those that say, we don't want a government plan out there, are covered by a government plan.

And then all the military - they're already covered by a government plan. And I think what you're seeing now is that the support for the public option is on the increase, not on the decrease. And so having people tell all kinds of stories - I mean, they came out with such ridiculous stories as the death panels and stuff like that.

I guess there might really be death panels, but they're the insurance companies right now that deny 30 percent of your claims, so that if you need treatment, the insurance company says no, I guess that could have an adverse affect on you.

HANSEN: The AFL-CIO convention is coming up and the president of your organization, John Sweeney, is going to be retiring. Are you planning to run for president of the AFL-CIO?

Mr. TRUMKA: I am indeed. And I announced my candidacy a couple of months ago. And I've been honored and blessed and humbled, quite frankly, by the number of unions that have now endorsed me.

HANSEN: And what are your plans for the future of the organization?

Mr. TRUMKA: A lot. We're really excited about things. You'll see us start to focus downward more. Try to create, at the grassroots level, a stronger organization. You'll see us reaching out to young people. We've already engaged in that. And you'll see us changing the way that we do things so that we can meet their needs rather than trying to pigeonhole what they do into the way we've done things in the past.

You'll see us be a little more - maybe not a little, maybe a lot more aggressive, and willing to define our positions a little more effectively along the sides.

HANSEN: Richard Trumka is the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and he came into our studios. Thanks so much.

Mr. TRUMKA: You bet. Thank you.

HANSEN: Millions of Americans won't be at work tomorrow - many because it's a federal holiday, many others because they don't have a job to go to. Nearly 15 million people are unemployed. The raw numbers reflect the state of the economy, but they don't as easily reflect the effects of stress and uncertainty on workers and their family.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis addressed those intangible costs of the recession in her Labor Day statement. She said: Americans are facing monumental challenges. I know that every job lost, every hour cut from the work week means another family having to make difficult decisions.

Last year, three listeners told us how they were making ends meet. We spoke to them again this past week. This is Donna Giannola of Sterling, Colorado.

Ms. DONNA GIANNOLA: All I hear from all my friends who are middle-America people is that they don't have jobs. And so what I hear on the radio is there's hope that things are better, and yet, what I see is things that are not a lot better.

HANSEN: Coming up, how three of our listeners continue to deal with economic uncertainty. Stay with us.

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