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A rally in New York City on June 27, 2018, after an anti-union Supreme Court ruling. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Can Organized Labor Come Back?

Many attribute Donald Trump’s election to the anxiety, uncertainty, and anger of American workers who were drawn to his promises to shake up an economic system that hasn’t delivered for average people. While organized labor has opposed much of the agenda of the Trump Administration, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, wholeheartedly agrees on the need for change to the system to benefit workers.


Labor unions have suffered a decades-long decline. In 1954, 34% of U.S. workers were unionized. Today, just 10.7% are, and that falls to 6.5% in the private-sector. While most Americans, 55%, have a positive view of unions, according to a Pew research survey, there’s a notable partisan split, with 70% of Democrats holding a favorable view versus 40% of Republicans. That split isn’t surprising given that it has been conservative efforts that created “Right to Work” laws in 28 states, which limit unions’ ability to collect fees from workers who don’t belong to a union but benefit from a collective bargaining agreement. 

Yet some point to the voting of union members, often breaking with leadership, as decisive in the election of Donald Trump. Politico noted that 52% of white union households went to Trump, a level of support for a Republican previously only achieved by Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Looking ahead, what role will organized labor play in workplaces, policy, elections, and society broadly? To better understand, Yale Insights talked with Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.


Q: What is the state of organized labor today?

The union movement is stronger than it has been in decades. According to polls, our perception and support has never been higher than right now. We’re focused, and people understand that collective bargaining is really the hope for the future. Last year, we had a net gain of 262,000 new members. Seventy-five percent of them were under the age of 35. 

Q: What’s the impact of legislation in many states making it harder to organize?

It’s interesting; the more they try to stop people from organizing, the more determined people get to organize. We organized 800 nurses last week, in Texas, not what you’d call a worker-friendly state. 

People need to come together; they need the power of collectivism to be able to change the economy, because the economy’s not working for them, and they see that, and instead of just being angry, they’re channeling it into constructive activism. 

Q: Is there an industry, sector, or geographic region where you’re having the most success?

It’s a little bit of everywhere. Last week, for example, we organized 15,000 people including 5,000 JetBlue Airways workers, over 1,000 people at a utility in Georgia, and the nurses in Texas. We’ve been having success with highly-skill professionals like doctors, nurses, and engineers; people in the middle in blue-collar manufacturing jobs, and people at the bottom of the spectrum. They all need a voice.

Q: We’ve seen several wildcat teachers strikes this year. What do you make of that?

Teachers are the ones we really should be focused on the most, giving them a good wage, because they’re teaching our kids—that’s the future of our country. The better job they do, the better the country will do. 

But they’ve been denied raises; they’ve even been denied textbooks. In one state, they went on strike to get textbooks that were actually printed in this century, not the last century. So they’re striking to get more resources and better wages so that they can just be teachers, not needing three or four other jobs. 

That same wave is taking over in other places, in other industries. We’re starting to see people come together and say enough is enough. 

A study last year asked millennials, how important is it to live in a democracy? Just 30% said it was important. Seventy percent said it wasn’t important, including 24% that said it was bad to live in a democracy. Those are startling figures, but millennials have borne the brunt of a broken economic system. They’re starting to fight to fix that system. 

As I said, last year, 75% of the quarter million people we organized were under 35 years of age. I think part of that is because we’ve stopped saying, here’s what we are, come join us. We’ve started saying, what do you need us to be, so we can help you? We’ve tried to change ourselves, so that we are the support they need us to be, and it has been successful. 

“Elites have tried to say it’s either free trade or Neanderthal protectionism. There’s a whole lot of room in the middle.”

Q: How is the labor movement using social media?

We were slow to understand that it’s a tremendous way to communicate with our members. It’s an opportunity to learn what they want and need, what their fears and aspirations are, and how we can help. We’re growing into it faster and faster; we’re using it in every facet of what we do—political action, organizing, collective bargaining. 

Unions are based on a simple idea; we all do better if we come together. Well, that same idea applies to society. For the last four or five years, we’ve reached out to say, we’re in this together.
We’re using social media to communicate with different progressive groups—church groups, environmental groups. We talk to everybody to push a shared agenda forward.

It’s exciting to go back to our roots in the community with social media and data analytics at the heart of that and becoming more and more important to us. 

Q: What are the biggest threats to unions and workers right now?

There are number of threats, including bad legislation and politicians who are determined to minimize workers’ voices while making things easier for people like the Koch brothers. That’s a threat not only to workers, but to democracy itself. The impact is becoming clear: people have less and less faith in democracy because it’s producing a society that is more unfair and more unequal.

The model—cut taxes on the rich, starve resources for schools, infrastructure, and other fundamental things we need—has failed in state after state. We just did it at the federal level, too—we just gave a $1.4 trillion gift to rich people that don’t really need it, and we’re not going to see that translated in anything. And now we have $1.4 trillion less in the federal budget to invest in schools, infrastructure, healthcare, or pensions. All the things that people want, deserve, and should have.

Q: What was the role of union members in electing President Trump? 

Trump got 3% more of our members than Romney did. That wasn’t a giant jump. The difference was, Hillary got 10% less of our members than Obama did. When we dug into that, we found out that, for a lot of reasons, they just didn’t believe the things that she was saying. Now, 30 years of being attacked will do that, and I have some empathy for her.

But Trump talked about workers’ aspirations in a lot of different ways. He talked about trade and how it has been done in a way that benefited Wall Street and the rich while hurting working people. Elites, Democrats and Republicans alike, have tried to say it’s either free trade or Neanderthal protectionism. There’s a whole lot of room in the middle where we could negotiate better trade deals. We can keep trade while making it better for workers in Mexico, Canada, and the United States. 

Trump appealed to that and talked about changing the rules. Our members knew that the economy was not working for them. They wanted somebody who was going to fight to change the rules of the economy. They didn’t believe that Hillary would. So far, Trump hasn’t been changing things the way they wanted, but he has changed the rules of the economy, and that’s what they were looking for. 

Q: Do you see union members continuing to support him?

After the election, I promised to call balls and strikes. If he does something that’s good for workers, I’m going to say it. If he does something that’s bad for workers, I’m going to say that. 

He is working on trade, and we’re working with him to get a fair trade bill. We tried to work with him on infrastructure, because that’s so important to make the country more competitive in a global economy. But he came up with a pretty feeble plan to invest $20 billion a year for 10 years when the Society of Civil Engineers says we need trillions. Twenty billion dollars won’t even repair what becomes obsolete each year.

We give our members the facts every day. The less he does to change the rules to help working people, the more he doubles down on the rules that favor Wall Street and the very rich, the less support he has. 

A group of people, perhaps 25% to 30%, are going to be with him no matter what he does. So, the rest of society is deciding: do we drift toward more inequality or do we really try to change the rules to benefit everybody? 

Q: Trade isn’t the only thing shaping work and jobs. Do you think that workers should fear the rise of robots and AI in the workplace? 

We need to look forward and say, which skills are we going to need and how do we get them? The union movement is a good place to get them. It’s one of the things we do best. People don’t understand—we train more adults every year, and give them skills training, than any institution, other than the U.S. military. No university, no school system, trains more people than we do.

We’re proud of that. In many cases, we’re taking people that would’ve been left behind, giving them remedial courses, then getting them into our apprenticeship program, paying them a good, decent living wage while they’re learning skills and getting college credits. When they come out of our apprenticeship program, they have an associate degree, and they’re about two thirds of the way to a bachelor of science degree. 

All of our trades do it; we’re doing it in manufacturing now, too. We’re also partnering with junior colleges around the country to find places where there are small manufacturers that may need 8, 10, 12 employees with high skills. The company can’t do it themselves; we do it for them, and then they guarantee jobs at a good wage. We both win.

Q: If you look back at previous waves of technology introduction, are there lessons we can apply to the next round?

We’ve always done something that I call bargained acquiescence. When new technology came in, we agreed to it, but we bargained to make it work the best way for the worker. Technology made mining safer and more productive. It made bad jobs into good jobs with higher wages. That’s what unions do—make bad jobs into good jobs. The key is managing the process. 

We don’t have bargained acquiescence at the societal level. There’s no mechanism for us to manage a major change. Artificial Intelligence, robots, the full range of technology—they’re all just tools. They’re not inherently good, and they’re not inherently bad. It’s how they’re employed. It’s how the benefits of what they produce are distributed. 

If it all goes to the people at the top, should workers fear that? Absolutely. Should society fear that? Absolutely. Should democracy fear that? Absolutely. If instead of people being put out of work, they get a higher wage and work fewer hours so that they can spend more time with their family, more time at the schools, more time at the church, more time at community affairs, then it can be a wonderful thing. In the past, we’ve seen technological change employed for the good, and we’ve seen it employed for the bad. 

If the economy is working right, productivity increases and the benefits are spread out by having higher wages and more time off. If the economy’s not working right, all that money will go to the very rich, and inequality, unfairness, and injustice will expand, and the system will collapse. 

When a system cannot or will not provide a rising standard of living for the majority of its citizens, history tells us that system is changed, one way or the other. 

Q: What will that look like?

What you’re seeing right now are the beginnings of people demanding that change. Only 30% of millennials say it’s important to live in a democracy because the democracy that they know has produced a society that is unequal, and in many cases, blatantly unfair. 

The system isn’t working for most people; it hasn’t worked for 30 or 40 years. People are saying now it’s time for change. Women are saying “I’m sick and tired of being sexually harassed in the workplace.” People of color are saying, “I’m sick and tired of being discriminated against and denied opportunities.” White males are saying, “I’m sick and tired of my wages being cut, my healthcare being cut, my pensions being cut, my time off being cut.”

We see all of this pressure on workers while corporations are making record profits. We’re the wealthiest nation on the face of the Earth during the richest point in human history; we ought to be able to take care of our citizens. Instead, what we’ve seen is an economy where the wealth accrues to a few while the majority of people are seeing their circumstances worsen. 

We need a national debate on how we’re going to have an equitable system that doesn’t continue to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots. We need to actually lower that gap, so that everybody benefits from the massive increase in productivity that all this new technology is going to spawn, in ways that we can’t even conceive. It’s going to happen.

We need to force our policymakers to start consciously deciding how they’re going to manage it, what they’re going to do to make the economy better for everybody. We need to hear answers to get a better understanding of who should be policymakers, and perhaps who shouldn’t be policymakers.

I go back to the core question: What happens when a system is incapable or unwilling to provide a rising standard of living for citizens? That system gets changed every single time. 

President, AFL-CIO