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Top Labor Leader Praises Biden’s Early Moves, Says Unions Are Key To Preparing For Uncertain Future

J. Scott Applewhite
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka arrives for a news conference with Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 5, 2020.

Days after Joe Biden’s inauguration, the nation’s top labor leader said the new president was “off to a tremendous start” with early actions aimed at enhancing worker protections. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka predicted that Biden would continue to advance key policy priorities of organized labor.

“What we need and what we want the president to do is: One, get COVID under control so we can fix the economy; do a large infrastructure stimulus package; and then help us get rid of the antiquated labor laws in this country that have been used to keep workers’ wages and benefits and pensions down,” Trumka said.

The AFL-CIO is the country’s largest federation of unions, representing 12.5 million workers in sectors that range from the building trades and energy to health care and service and retail.

AFL-CIO president since 2009, Trumka is slated to speak Monday evening at the annual meeting of the Battle of Homestead Foundation, a local nonprofit whose programming focuses on the role of labor and industry in the region’s history and in today’s economy.

In an interview before Monday’s event, Trumka noted that the National Labor Relations Act, which in 1935 codified a range of labor rights, hasn’t been updated since the 1940s. Since then, “right-to-work” laws in many states and other legal maneuvers have weakened protections for many workers, Trumka said. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that just 10.8 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to unions in 2020, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available.

Trumka is lobbying for the passage of the “Protecting the Right to Organize,” or PRO, Act, which aims to strengthen organized labor. The measure would give workers more power to unionize and to resolve disputes with their employer.

Trumka likened the bill to a civil rights measure.

“This pandemic has demonstrated and laid bare the fact that our economy is not fair towards people of color or women, that they need to be protected more,” he said.

House Democrats approved the bill in early 2020, but it did not advance in the Senate. Although Democrats now control both chambers, with a razor-thin majority in the Senate, Trumka anticipates that Republicans will remain a hurdle to enacting the PRO Act.

“The Republicans under [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell will fight [pro-union policies], I'm sure, viciously,” Trumka said. But he added, “I think there will be some Republicans who will go along and hopefully will be able to get the labor laws that were written in the '40s rewritten and help people, help workers get ahead.”

In the meantime, Trumka praised worker-focused executive orders that Biden signed in the days following his Jan. 20 inauguration. One directs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to update guidance on COVID-19 workplace protections. It also has OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration consider whether emergency regulations are needed.

A separate order restores collective bargaining power to federal workers after former President Trump restricted it. Under the directive, the minimum wage for the federal workforce will also rise to $15 an hour.

Trumka’s remarks at the Battle of Homestead Foundation meeting will address the future of work and unions. Prior to the event, the Nemacolin, Pa., native said that unions will play a key role in ensuring that workers can adapt to and benefit from continually developing technologies, including artificial intelligence and alternative energies.

“The pace of current technological breakthrough … is happening fast [and] it affects every single group of workers out there. Some it may affect more readily, more quickly, but it will affect all workers at some point,” Trumka said.

“If in fact technology is used, and the benefits of technology only go to the people at the very top,” he continued, “it’s going to make the growing inequality in this country worse.”

That prospect, he said, led the AFL-CIO to launch its Technology Institute two weeks ago. The institute will serve as the “labor movement’s think tank,” and along with expanded apprenticeship programs, it will help to prepare union and non-union workers for a changing economy, Trumka said. “We are uniquely positioned as the only force in the country with enough power to make sure that working people are at the center of the issues on the future of work,” he added.

That approach could complement Biden’s vision for promoting clean energy development and reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. The president campaigned on investing $2 trillion in new energy sources, with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. While that shift is expected to eliminate jobs in coal, oil, and related industries, Biden predicted that his plan would create 10 million jobs in newer markets.

Even so, anger and fear about worker displacement has been a key political factor in recent years, especially in rural and post-industrial communities that have suffered from job loss and poverty. In 2016, those mostly white communities galvanized around Trump’s pledge to roll back environmental regulations, raise barriers to trade, and crack down on people who enter the country illegally.

Trumka said that, by prioritizing workers and strengthening unions, Biden could help to alleviate the anxieties to which Trump appealed.

“That anger results from the fact that the rich keep getting richer and more powerful, and workers keep getting less. The attacks on unions over the last three or four decades have contributed to that,” Trumka said.

“You can't fix inequality of wages and wealth without fixing inequality of power,” he said. “And that's why … the antiquated labor laws that we have … have to be changed and modernized so that we can change that equation. If we do that, then the benefits of technology will be shared equally, or fairly at least, across the entire spectrum of people in the country. And that anger that you see will begin to lessen.”

The Battle of Homestead Foundation will host Trumka at its annual meeting Monday. The virtual event begins at 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public. Register here to receive a Zoom link.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at
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