Richard Trumka, the blunt-speaking head of the international AFL-CIO, was in town Friday for the retirement dinner for John W. Olsen, and joined Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to celebrate some state labor efforts in Hartford.
Trumka later addressed some tough issues.
One of the labor programs, launched late in 2012, gives veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan a better chance to get jobs back home as police and firefighters. So far 30 vets have been through or started the workshops for "Vets to Cops" and "Vets to Firefighters," and five have been hired in public safety jobs, the state Department of Labor said.
This was a way for Malloy to further align himself with labor in a non-controversial way. Who would oppose such a thing, which costs very little and gives Malloy a chance to talk about ways the state is making it easier for returning vets? He has, for example, issued an order requiring commissioners to review policies on licensing and certifying vets and their spouses for busines and education programs, "to give them all of the credit we can possibly give them," Malloy said at the labor center in Hartford's North End.
In another initiative, the state Department of Labor now sends out a list of jobs and training opportunities to unemployed people every week, culled from sources that used to be all over the place. "One of my personal great joys," said Karen Quesnel, a business services specialist who helped create the weekly email, is when someone says, "Take me off of that distribution list."
Trumka, a onetime miner who put himself through college and law school, talked about veterans with Malloy and about some hot-button issues with reporters afterward. "The best way to support our troops is to give them a good job with decent pay and benefits when they come home," Trumka said.
That's the easy stuff. Trumka recently raised some hackles by renewing his threat to go after and Democrats who support cuts in Medicare and Social Security – which many believe are necessary if the nation is to get out from under more than $16 trillion in debt. On Social Security, Trumka angrily said, "How about taking the cap off of it?"
He was referring to the fact that the Social Security payroll tax, 12.4 percent for employers and employees combined, is not charged on income above $113,700 per worker. Raising the cap more than the inflation-based increments that are scheduled would amount to a tax increase on the upper-middle class and the rich, something the Republicans, especially in the U.S. House, won't allow.
As for raising the retirement age or applying a means test to Social Security, Trumka is unwavering. Sure, for comfortable people like you and me, he said to me and two other journalists, we can work a couple of extra years. But my father worked in a coal mine until he couldn't last any longer at age 62, he said. "It's a life or death situation for some people!"
The AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation is more than ever the force of the economic left wing, not just a coalition of unions. Talking with Trumka shows why the Democrats, who still rely on labor support, can't easily negotiate on the national debt. "The rich had a party and we weren't invited to it," he said.
He was, however, invited to China, where he visited in October for four days, becoming the first AFL-CIO leader ever to do so. Could AFL-CIO, which has a few people in a "solidarity" office in China, play a role in the nascent union movement there? "I don't know where it goes," he said.
Trumka has been outspoken about China using unfair tactics to steal U.S. jobs, especially in manufacturing. He'd like to see better pay and improved worker protections in the world's most populous nation, and met with the Chinese equivalents of the labor secretary and head of the national safety administration.
That had to have been a bit uneasy – but no, said Trumka, a burly labor leader who can pour on the charm. "First of all, the Chinese are very, very gracious hosts," he said. "We talked very openly and very frankly about what's going on."
The Chinese consider strikes, including one at a Toyota plant recently, to be neither illegal nor legal, Trumka said. And while he doesn't consider the official Chinese labor union to be an independent movement, he quipped, "I wouldn't mind having some state help with organizing over here."
Trumka was in town for the retirement dinner for Olsen, who stepped down in September as president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO after 25 years. The two labor leaders go way back to the days when Trumka was president of the United Mine Workers and Olsen was consolidating power in Connecticut. "When we were fighting strikes like Eastern and Pittston [Coal Co.], I didn't have a single member in this state but he was always there. He was the first one to step up and the last one to sit down," Trumka said. "I'll miss him."