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With Its Primary Opponents Voted Out, What's Next For Labor Unions?


We've talked a lot about how last Tuesday's election marked a turning point with the Democrats set to retake control of the House. But we were wondering what it might mean for this country's labor movement. Now, labor leaders are claiming victory after Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker lost his re-election bid after eight years of fighting to strip unions of their powers. And, in Illinois, Governor Bruce Rauner lost his seat as well. He initiated a lawsuit claiming that mandatory membership dues are unconstitutional for public unions, and the Supreme Court agreed with him earlier this year. As we said, both of those governors have now been voted out of the office.

But we were wondering what, if anything, labor can do to recover the ground it has already lost. So we've called the president of the AFL-CIO, Mr. Richard Trumka, to talk more about this. Mr. Trumka, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: So we discussed the Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner elections. Were there any other victories that you want to claim? And were there any setbacks?

TRUMKA: (Laughter) The labor movement really did prove to be the driving force throughout much of this cycle. We knocked on over 2 million doors. We passed out 5 million flyers. We had 12 million pieces of direct mail, and I just have to say this, Michel. This is part of something that's bigger than just politics or the last election. You're seeing a tremendous upsurge in collective action throughout the United States right now.

MARTIN: I think that a lot of people would agree with you. But if - are you seeing collective action as expressed through union membership? I mean, you certainly know better...


MARTIN: ...Than anybody that membership has been falling in recent years. In part, that's - what those two initiatives that we discussed in Wisconsin and Illinois did is that they helped sort of weaken the structural foundation of unions by making it harder to collect dues, for example, by depriving certain, you know, groups of workers of the opportunity to be represented by a union. Really, what can you do to address those structural problems?

TRUMKA: Well, first of all, actually, the last two years, union membership has grown. Last year alone, we organized 262,000 new members and three-quarters of them were under the age of 35. We've also begun doing strategic partnerships with other progressive groups. All of us have figured out that we're all better off if we stick together. And so we're reaching out to those community groups - people of color, any progressive group that's out there. We're working together more effectively and, quite frankly, in much more solidarity.

MARTIN: But we've seen states that had been reliably union - Democratic states like Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin - in the prior election supported President Trump. And the working assumption is that that could not have happened if some union members had not voted for President Trump. Why do you think that is? And do you think that you have changed their minds?

TRUMKA: A lot of workers believe that neither the economy nor the political system are working for them. Donald Trump said, I'm going to change the system. I'm going to shake it up from head to toe for you. They believed it. We went into Ohio in this last election. We talked to those people that had voted for Trump, and nearly 50 percent of them had changed their mind and are not going to vote for Trump or with Trump.

MARTIN: But the Republicans still won the governor's race there over a credible...

TRUMKA: They did.

MARTIN: ...Candidate.

TRUMKA: But we won up and down the ballot in Ohio. I mean, Sherrod Brown won a significant race. He's been one of our biggest supporters. He won because he has a very clear articulated economic message that resonates with working people. They want to know what you're going to do to help them with their wages, their health care, their pensions, their kids' education, their ability to live a decent life after they retire. And he talks about that every day and not just talks about it when the polls say it's - you should talk about it. But that's part of his core values.

MARTIN: You're talking about Sherrod Brown...


MARTIN: The Democratic senator won re-election. But Democrats did not succeed in retaking Ohio governor's seat.

TRUMKA: No, they didn't, but we made significant progress. And so, every time, we're making more progress. When you ask about those people that had voted for Trump, they're coming back across the street. They understand what's in their best interests.

MARTIN: Overall, what's your sense of how the country is going? I mean, if you asked that classic polling question, is the country headed in the right direction or on the wrong track, what would you say?

TRUMKA: I would say we're on the wrong track right now because of the rise of some of the ugly rhetoric out there that is polarizing the country rather than trying to heal some of the wounds that are out, try to bring us closer together. And so we're going to work to try to bridge that gap, try to heal people, try to solve some problems so that we can, actually, maybe help take the first step towards bridging the gap rather than widening the gap that exists in the country.

MARTIN: That was Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. We talked to him at his office in Washington, D.C. Mr. Trumka, thanks so much for talking to us today.

TRUMKA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.