Richard Trumka

Dick Meister: Labor’s big day


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED/TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Now that the election dust has settled, it’s clear that organized labor was a big winner locally, statewide and nationally.

In San Francisco, more than half the winning candidates for local office had labor backing, as did all local candidates for state office and all but two of the winning city propositions.

Labor did as well statewide, with voters soundly rejecting State Prop 32 that would have greatly diminished unions’ political strength.  Defeating the proposition was by far labor’s most important election goal.

Almost as important was Prop 30, which will provide badly needed increases in funding for education and other local services and reduce the state budget deficit.  Funding will come primarily from higher taxes on the wealthy.

Prop 38, which labor successfully opposed, would have provided only increased education funding and that wouldn’t even have included funding for the community colleges that provide vital job training. Funds for Prop 38 would have come from taxes on everyone, including the poor. 

Labor’s campaigning nationally was done largely – and extensively – for President Obama and Democrats who had hoped to substantially increase the party’s narrow margin in the Senate and even regain control of the House.

But though they failed to elect more friendly congressional Democrats who would back labor’s political agenda, unions can correctly assume that Obama will be as friendly to labor in his second term as he was in is first four years in office.  Pro-labor measures that unions might fail to push through Congress could very well be enacted through presidential executive orders, if not through presidential pressures on Congress.

Labor’s election victories included increases in the minimum wage rates in Albuquerque, San Jose and Long Beach, and the defeat of anti-union measures in several states.

Labor Notes’ Samantha Winslow reported, for instance, that unions helped defeat a measure in Illinois that would have changed the state constitution to require a three-fifths majority vote by the legislature to increase public employee pensions, while requiring only a simple majority to make pension cuts. It would have superseded collective bargaining over pension improvements at the state and local levels

Unions also played a major role in helping groups fighting voter suppression in Ohio and elsewhere, and in the successful re-election campaign of Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of the Senate’s most labor- friendly members.

Labor’s political efforts obviously aren’t going to end with the election over. Unions already are planning drives to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from benefit cuts.

“Some legislators and their backers on Wall Street are already set on reaching a ‘grand bargain’ in the next eight weeks,” says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. He says they’re aiming to raise the retirement age for Social Security and the eligibility requirements for Medicare and Medicaid.

Trumka has a better idea.  He says “Congress must let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest 2 percent and make no cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.”

Those are among the most important of the many tough political issues now facing unions and their supporters in San Francisco, and throughout California and the rest of the country. As the election proved beyond doubt, unions have what’s needed to seriously challenge their opponents and in the process provide important help to us all.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED/TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Meister: Walker won in Wisconsin, but so did labor


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,

Yes, labor lost its attempt to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, one of the most virulent labor opponents anywhere.  But as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka declared, the heated election campaign was “not the end of the story, but just the beginning.”

The campaign, triggered by Walker all but eliminating the collective bargaining rights of most of Wisconsin’s 380,000 public employees, showed that labor is quite capable of mounting major drives against anti-labor politicians, a lesson that won’t be lost on unions or their opponents.

And labor’s political enemies, while perhaps emboldened by labor’s failure in Wisconsin, undoubtedly will hesitate, lest they be confronted with similarly heavy union opposition in their attempts to restrict the bargaining rights of public employees.

Think of it: Labor was outspent hugely by outside corporate interests that funneled $50 million into Walker’s campaign, outspending labor seven-to-one. Yet labor managed to capture nationwide attention and support, and though losing the gubernatorial race, managed to wrest control of Wisconsin’s State Senate from Walker’s Republican allies.

Trumka was rightly awed by “the tremendous outpouring of solidarity and energy from Wisconsin’s working families, against overwhelming odds. Whether it was standing in the snow, sleeping in the Capitol, knocking on doors or simply casting a vote, we admire the heart and soul everyone poured into this effort” in response to “a gargantuan challenge” to labor.

The Senate victory was almost as important as recall of Walker would be. It gave Democrats a one-seat majority in the 33-seat Senate, which will make it much harder for Walker and his Republican allies to enact his anti-labor agenda.

Trumka says he believes  “the new model that Wisconsin’s working families have built won’t go away after one election – it will only grow.” The election, he adds, was “an important moment, and an important message has been sent: Politicians will be held to account by working people.”

Walker, as Trumka says, was forced “to answer for his efforts to divide the state and punish hard-working people.” Trumka optimistically believes that inspired working people elsewhere, union and non-union alike, will follow the lead of the anti-Walker forces and “forge a new path forward.”

Trumka concludes that the challenge to labor and its allies in Wisconsin and everywhere else is “to create an economy that celebrates hard work over partisan agendas.” He said the recall election moved that goal closer.

Of course Richard Trumka is highly partisan, as he should be. But that doesn’t necessarily lessen his credibility. Facts are facts. Although not victorious, labor waged an extraordinary campaign that laid the groundwork for future campaigns that could result in important labor victories.

That would at the least increase the strength of the nation’s working people and diminish the strength of those who, like Scott Walker, would weaken the vital rights of workers and their unions.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,

Dick Meister: Fair Trade: Not With Columbia


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

By all accounts, Colombia is one of the world’s worst abusers of workers and their unions. Yet President Obama has just signed a Free Trade Agreement with Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos.

The agreement, set to go into effect May 15, will align the United States with a nation in which working people have very few of the basic labor rights long granted U.S. workers.

In fact, trying to exercise those rights in Colombia can be fatal. Two-dozen Colombian labor leaders and organizers were killed during the past year.

The U.S.-Colombia trade agreement was supposed to implement an “Action Plan on Labor Rights” that the two nations agreed to in 2011. The plan was designed to “protect internationally recognized labor rights, prevent violence against labor leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence” in Colombia.

Violence continues, however, as does the anti-union actions of the Colombian government and Colombian employers. Colombian union leaders noted in a joint statement that though the action plan calls for some badly needed reforms, it does not address many others also needed. That includes combating the serious violations of labor and human rights that continue to plague Colombia.

Many workers, for example, are prevented from exercising the two most important of all labor rights – the right to collective bargaining and to free association. The labor leaders said the government has done very little to prosecute the employers who deny those rights and other fundamental rights of workers.

“Labor activists and other human rights defenders remain subject to threats and violence, including murder, when they stand up to fight for their rights,” the leaders concluded.

As now written, the leaders said, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement “perpetuates a destructive economic model that expands the rights and privileges of big business and multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers and the environment.”

Other trade agreements that have followed that basic model have “historically benefitted a small minority of business interests, while leaving workers, families and communities behind.”

Key U.S. labor leaders also have denounced the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement, even though it was championed by President Obama, who generally gets high marks from labor’s establishment, as he should.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka saw Obama’s signing of the agreement as “deeply disappointing and troubling. We regret that the administration has placed commercial interests above the interests of workers and their trade unions.”

That is, the administration thinks the returns U.S. businesses and the economy generally gain from trading with Colombia are more important than protecting Colombian workers from exploitation by rejecting deals with businesses that violate the workers’ rights.

Trumka and the Colombian union leaders want a new trade agreement with lofty but reachable goals of creating jobs on a widespread scale, boosting economic development and raising the standard of living in both the United States and Colombia.

Workers would be guaranteed stronger protections. But more than that, Trumka and the Colombian leaders would add provisions “to ensure a healthy environment, safe food and production, and the ability to regulate financial and other markets to avoid crises like that of 2008.”

That would be fair trade as well as free trade – a vital, necessary fair and free trade agreement that would benefit millions of people on both sides of the agreement.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.



Meister: The obvious solution to our social security problem


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Guaranteeing America’s working people a decent retirement has become increasingly difficult with the decline of traditional pension plans and the glaring inadequacy of the 401 (k) savings accounts that have replaced them.

So what to do? The answer is obvious to the AFL-CIO, and should be to everyone else: Increase Social Security benefits.

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka notes, “Social Security is a phenomenally successful program that represents the very best in American values and has virtually no waste, no corruption and almost no overhead.”

The program does have one serious problem, however – “its benefits are too low.”

Trumka certainly has that right. The average Social Security payout for men is only about $16,000 a year, barely above the minimum wage. Payouts for women average only about $12,000 a year, barely above the poverty line.

Most of those drawing benefits earned much more during their working days. The retirement programs in most other industrialized countries pay retirees benefits in amounts far closer to what they made while working.

It’s for very good reason that the AFL-CIO has taken an official position calling for “an across the board increase in Social Security benefits,” including adjustments to account for retirees’ steadily escalating health care costs and, among other economic setbacks, “the loss of home equity experienced by millions of Americans in the Great Recession.”

Remedial action is clearly needed. As the AFL-CIO says, “Our retirement system is falling apart at the seams. Millions of Americans are afraid to retire because they know they can’t maintain their standard of living in retirement, and more and more seniors have to keep working well past the age when they should be retiring.”

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who calls Social Security “the most successful program in history,” has introduced a bill – the Rebuild America Act – that includes changes in the program such as the AFL-CIO is advocating.

Harkin’s bill would increase benefits by about $60-$70 a month and guarantee that the trust fund from which benefits are drawn would remain solvent and able to pay out full benefits for at least another 40 years, in large part by removing the $110,100 cap on income subject to Social Security deductions.

Quite a contrast to what’s been discussed in Washington, where most of the talk about Social Security has been about Republican proposals to cut benefits. That has especially included increasing the retirement age and cutting back cost-of-living adjustments.

Harkin’s measure would not only revitalize the Social Security system. It also calls for modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures and education systems, increasing access to quality child care, expanding time-and-a-half overtime pay, raising the minimum wage, increasing the availability of paid sick leave, expanding union rights and increasing opportunities for disabled workers. The bill also would end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.

Increasing Social Security benefits remains a top priority with Harkin and other Democrats. As the AFL-CIO sees it, “the overwhelming majority of working Americans of every political persuasion in every part of the country ‘get’ the absolutely critical importance of adequate Social Security benefits, but our elites don’t seem to get it. Social security is the solution, not the problem.”

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Apple’s unethical innovation


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 300 of his columns.

Apple’s position as a worldwide leader in technological innovation has brought huge rewards to those who run the company or own stock in it, and has raised co-founder Steve Jobs to demigod status. But the men and women who manufacture Apple’s highly profitable products are not doing well – and the AFL-CIO wants very much for that to change.

“When it comes to technology,” notes AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, ” Apple has revolutionized its industry and set a standard other companies aspire to meet . It is now the biggest publicly traded company in the world, worth a whopping $465 billion.”

But, adds Trumka, “Apple’s record-breaking success comes at a back-breaking price.”

He cites news reports that workers who assemble iPhones, iPads and iPods at Foxconn, Apple’s major supplier in China, “have needlessly suffered lifelong injuries, and even died from avoidable tragedies, including suicides, explosions and exhaustion from 30- to 60- hour shifts.” There also have been reports of some workers suffering repetitive motion injuries that caused them to permanently lose use of their hands. Others have suffered from exposure to chemical toxins.

The manufacturing plants run by Foxconn clearly are sweatshops of the worst sort, relying heavily on child labor and rampant violation of basic labor rights. The working conditions are truly horrendous and brutal.

So what to do? For starters, the AFL-CIO is joining a global movement aimed at presenting hundreds of thousands of petitions from activists worldwide to Apple CEO Tim Cook. The petitions tell Cook to make sure that the workers who manufacture Apple’s products are treated fairly and ethically. Their work, after all, is essential to Apple’s success and its development of products happily bought and used by millions of people.

Trumka himself is one of those satisfied Apple customers. He uses an Apple iPhone, which he describes as “intuitive and powerful – an incredible piece of machinery.”

But the AFL-CIO insists that Apple “transform its industry by being ethical and innovative . . . to ensure the quality of its working conditions matches the quality of its products.”

The AFL-CIO wants Apple “to immediately allow genuine unions, with truly independent factory inspections and worker trainings” in its plants in China and elsewhere.

Apple obviously could afford the reforms demanded – and then some. Manufacturing costs, as the AFL-CIO’s Trumka notes, “are only a very small portion of Apple’s expenses. Chinese workers are paid just $8 to manufacture a $499 iPad, for example, while Apple pockets $150 of the retail price. And the company is sitting on nearly $100 billion in cash.”

Apple also could tell suppliers to improve their working conditions or lose Apple’s business. As one anonymous Apple executive told the New York Times recently, “suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

The Times cited another revealing quote from another anonymous Apple executive, which contradicts the AFL-CIO contention that Apple could be both innovative and ethical. The executive claimed there’s a trade-off between working conditions and innovation: “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories,” or you can “make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards.”

Apple’s choice, of course, has been to move its manufacturing to overseas facilities where it can indeed get work done “faster and cheaper” by highly exploited and easily manipulated workers under conditions that would not be tolerated in the United States.

Apple has been trying to fend off complaints by joining an employer group, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to arrange for inspection of Apple suppliers’ factories. That’s unlikely to change anything, however, since the FLA is funded and controlled by the multinational corporations that it’s charged with investigating.

As Richard Trumka points out, “What leaders do matters. And Apple is now the leader in its industry. That’s why the AFL-CIO will be watching Apple closely to make sure the company does right by the workers who make its products – no matter where they live.”

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 300 of his columns.

Dick Meister: Sit down, punk!


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

I spotted a forgotten hero at the memorial service for SF labor leader Walter Johnson the other day, a true but largely unacknowledged hero of the anti-Vietnam War movement – Art Carter, former head of the AFL-CIO’s Contra Costa Labor Council.

The AFL-CIO, you might recall, was a major and outspoken supporter of that damned war which was waged as a key part of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.  The AFL-CIO held tenaciously to its unqualified support of the war, whether it was being waged by a long-time labor ally, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, or by his anti-labor Republican successor, Richard Nixon.

It was in 1969, at the AFL-CIO’s national convention in Atlantic City, that Carter, a 28-year-old delegate, dared stand up to oppose a resolution unconditionally supporting the Vietnam War and the Vietnam policies of then-President Nixon, which delegates had loudly cheered when a guest speaker, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, had spelled them out. The measure was presented by hawkish AFL-CIO President George Meany and ultimately opposed by only six of the 700 delegates – including, of course, Art Carter.

Much to the open disgust and anger of Meany and most delegates, Carter offered a substitute resolution that urged the AFL-CIO “to exercise all possible influence and persuasion on the national administration to effect an immediate major reduction of American military involvement in Vietnam and to bring the Vietnam War to a speedy end. “

Carter called his proposed measure  “a rather modest resolution” that came from his members – “working men whose sons have either just returned from Vietnam or who face going to Vietnam.”

He urged the AFL-CIO ‘s national leaders to take a critical look at the government’s Vietnam policies rather than “giving carte blanche to a president to do anything he regards as in the national interest.” Carter followed that with a proposed resolution condemning the Nixon administration’s Vietnam policies that got but one delegate’s vote – his.

Boy, did the stuff hit the fan, as I and other reporters from around the country rushed forward to question the young renegade from the Bay Area. It was big news, someone inside the AFL-CIO actually challenging the imperious George Meany, who was rarely challenged within labor circles.

Consider the situation. There was Carter, a delegate from a small, nationally obscure labor council, surrounded by hostile men at least twice his age and faced with the barely concealed animosity of a 75-year-old who was known nationwide as “Mr. Labor.” How dare Carter question Meany and the other labor elders?

 Meany, at the convention podium, snapped back at Carter immediately. He derided Carter and others who sought “peace at any price,” equated their suggestion for a reduction of forces in Vietnam with surrender and claimed that would result in “the kind of peace you get in the jail house.” Carter tried to respond, but Meany abruptly ruled him out of order, and Carter was forced to move away from the floor microphone and resume his seat amid noisy catcalls and angry shouts of “sit down! sit down!”

Carter was hardly a wild-eyed radical, just an intelligent young man of liberal bent calling for a peaceful solution to an ugly, futile war that had already left many Americans dead. Yet, he asked reporters, with an air of angry futility, “Did you hear what they called me?  Young punk, that’s what they said: Sit down, punk!”

Although Carter’s brave stand – and, believe me, it was indeed brave – didn’t directly alter the AFL-CIO’s war mongering, or that of others, it couldn’t help but have an impact on millions of Americans both inside and outside the labor movement.

 Just a few days after the AFL-CIO convention adjourned, as many as three million people in more than 200 cities took part in marches and other demonstrations to  demand immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. It was the largest peace demonstration ever held up to that time.

Although the precise effect of Carter’s courageous stand is not clear, it undoubtedly did help inspire many others to openly oppose or at least seriously question the government’s Vietnam policies and pressure the AFL-CIO and others to at least tone down their support of the war.

In the context of the time, Art Carter’s was indeed a heroic act. Thankfully, today’s AFL-CIO leaders bear little resemblance to Cold Warrior Meany and his cohorts. The AFL-CIO’s current president, Richard Trumka, is an outspoken backer of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, for instance, as are many other AFL-CIO leaders and members who can cite Carter as an inspiration.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Meister: So, what about the state of the unions, Mr. President?


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Unions? Organized labor? The AFL-CIO? Those words were nowhere to be heard in President Obama’s State of the Union address, despite labor’s vital role in the economy and strong support for Obama. The continued support of the labor movement is essential if the president is to carry out the bold plans he outlined and if he is to be re-elected.

The president’s failure to mention one of the country’s most important economic and political institutions was unfortunate. It was perhaps understandable, however, given the anti-union climate stirred up by attacks on public employee unions and their allies.

Obama’s failure to mention unions and their leaders was ignored in the post-speech pronouncements of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other major unionists. They in fact proclaimed the speech a victory because of its endorsement of policies widely supported by labor.

“It was clear throughout the president’s speech that the era of the one percent is over,” Trumka declared. “We demanded a strong stand on behalf of working families – and the president delivered.”

Trumka cited, in particular, Obama’s promise to thoroughly investigate “misconduct in the mortgage industry that wrecked our economy,” his promise to invest in jobs and infrastructure, and his proposed tax rules that would help the 99 percent.

President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers praised Obama for making it clear “that children and our future must be priorities,” and for noting “what America’s teachers have long understood. We can’t test our way to a middle class, we must educate our way to a middle class.”

Praise, too, from President Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers Union. He singled out Obama’s promise to work “to bring manufacturing back to America.” Gerard said, “The president’s commitment to discourage job outsourcing and promote insourcing is a ticket to a better economy.” It was most welcome news, added Trumka, to the millions of Americans who are unemployed.

President Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees described the president’s speech as “a comprehensive plan to move our country forward, bolster job creation and find real solutions for the problems confronting our country.”

McEntee noted that “in today’s political environment, it takes guts to stand strong with working families – even when we make our voices heard, loud and clear, because the toxic influence of money in politics – which the president spoke out against – is powerful.”

So, although Obama made no mention of organized labor in his address, he said much that greatly pleased labor, and made promises to carry out measures high on labor’s economic and political agendas.

As the AFL-CIO’s Trumka declared, Obama showed he “listened to the single mom working two jobs to get by, to the out-of-work construction worker, to the retired factory worker, to the student serving coffee to help pay for college.” The president, in short, “voiced the aspirations and concerns of those who are too often ignored.”

Trumka cited the similarities between Obama’s approach and that of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Like the occupiers, the president is “speaking out forcefully against the staggering increase in inequality” between the one percent and the 99 percent. The president’s speech, Trumka added, demonstrated “a focus on job creation Republican House and Senate leaders should follow.”

It’s clear, certainly, that as long as Obama continues on his current path, he’ll have strong labor support. But should he stray, it’s clear that labor will forcefully remind him of his promises and of the needs of those who work for a living – or who are attempting to work for a living.

Whatever Obama does is certain to be in startling contrast to his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, one of the most virulently anti-labor presidents in U.S. history. Obama has already rescinded several of Bush’s executive orders that limited the union rights of some workers and has replaced openly anti-labor Bush appointees to labor-related federal agencies, boards and commissions with his openly pro-labor appointees, including Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Imagine Bush, or any of his GOP allies, actually saying, as Obama did, that “we need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests because we know you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.”

Important words. But they need to be heard – and acted on – by the millions of Americans who know little or nothing of unions and their important position in our economic and political lives.

President Obama failed to take advantage of a great opportunity to explain the true nature of unions and their importance to the country-at-large and make clear the often vicious anti-unionism of his political enemies. He missed a chance to explain the crucial role labor is certain to play in attempts to carry out essential reforms.

Obama needed to speak out forcefully to try to counter the anti-unionism that is limiting the chances of many Americans to find decent jobs at decent pay and a strong voice in workplace and community matters.

Obama missed an important opportunity. But if he stays true to his promises, the president will have plenty of other chances to show the country the true nature of the labor movement and its opponents, to speak out in favor of unions and the importance of their members, leaders and supporters, and to carry out his proposed and much needed reforms designed to help the nation’s working people.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.


Dick Meister: The lessons of Ohio


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has drawn some important lessons from last week’s election in Ohio that repealed a state law severely limiting the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Worse, it threatened to inspire passage of similar anti-bargaining laws elsewhere.

Listen to Trumka, a man who obviously knows what he’s talking about. In an article he wrote for Reader Supported News, he cites post-election polls showing that more than half of Ohio’s voters correctly “perceived the law as a political maneuver by Gov. John Kasich and state Republicans to weaken labor unions, rather than a genuine effort to make state government more efficient.”

Another poll, done for the AFL-CIO, showed that more than half the voters also found that Kasich and his allies “are putting the interests of big corporations ahead of average working people.”<–break->

Voters everywhere in the mid-term elections clearly wanted change. But, as Trumpka says, they did not want “political maneuvers and overreach” like those of Kasich and Republican legislators. They want effective action to curb unemployment, create jobs and deal with the other severe economic problems facing the country.

As Trumka notes, public employees, union members, Democrats and liberals voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Ohio law, but so did a majority of voters “from households with no public employee, workers without union representation and independents – as well as 30 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of conservatives.”

One of the key lessons Trumka draws from Ohio’s election is that “the myth of the pampered public employee has been busted. Public employees didn’t cause the economic crisis and they’re not the enemy. Demonization of public employees is neither a strategy nor a solution and the heartland Americans who voted to restore rights for public employees understood that.”

The election also reinforced the continued need for working people, public and private employees alike, to join closely together. That’s what happened in Ohio. There, as Trumka notes, “firefighters, teachers and other public employees were joined by plumbers, pilots and all kinds of private sector employees to win. Worker to worker, neighbor to neighbor, the message spread, and what began as an attempt to divide workers flopped famously. In the end, working people’s solidarity was the message.”

Politicians could also learn important lessons – if they will. For the Ohio voters “showed that when fundamental rights and livelihoods are targeted, working people will not only defend themselves, but come back stronger.”

The outcome of the Ohio vote should show politicians seeking office that it would be wise for them to pay much more attention to the wishes of working and middle class voters than to those of the wealthy and privileged. Says Trumka:

“Cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires, scapegoating working Americans and their unions and downsizing Social Security and Medicare may get you a standing ovation from the 1%, but the voters who decide elections will not be fooled – and you may just get more than you bargained for.”

Trumka’s correct. But despite the results in Ohio and the lessons they hold for the anti-labor political right, many undoubtedly will continue what the AFL-CIO sees as “part of Wall Street’s strategy to chip away at collective bargaining rights, piece by piece, law by law, until unions and collective bargaining rights are destroyed.”

Working people and their unions can be reasonably certain, at least, that they’ll have strong support in trying to withstand the attack – including support from the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Trumka credits with “redefining the political narrative.”

The next major test will come in the presidential and congressional elections in 2012. They’re especially looking for support from the swing voters who supported President Obama in the 2008 election and generally have the same political views as the majority of Ohio voters.

Trumka describes the swing voters as “working Americans with modest incomes, moderate views and little patience for polices that aren’t fair and don’t work.”

He says politicians seeking election or re-election next year must heed them and “support public policies for the 99 percent – policies that create jobs, invest in America’s future, safeguard Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and promote fiscal sanity by requiring millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share.”

OK, that’s asking for much more than we’ve been getting. But the Ohio vote demonstrated that it is possible to garner the votes necessary to overcome the forces that would deny us vital economic and political rights.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

The goals of Occupy Wall Street


Occupy Wall Street is an easy target — a group of protesters taking on one of the most powerful institutions in the country, with loose spinoffs in cities all over, and no clear leadership or (many would say) agenda. The Atlantic’s business writer, Danile Indiviglio, weighed in Oct 5 with an essay he called “Five Reasons Occupy Wall Street Won’t Work.” Some of it’s your typical musings from a guy in a suit who doesn’t understand direct action (“But the Occupy Wall Street movement’s anger is directed at bankers. Here’s the problem: they really don’t care.”)

But his main pitch is one that I’m sympathetic to, and so are a lot of other supporters of the growing movement. He says the protesters don’t know what they want:

Any protest that hopes to accomplish some goal needs, well, a goal. If a demonstration like this lacks concrete objectives, then its purpose will be limited at best and nonexistent at worst. At this time, all the protest really appears to stand for is a general dislike of Wall Street. But what does that mean?

And that’s where I think he’s wrong. The occupiers may have started off with only vague objectives, but some tangible, progressive goals are starting to emerge — and they don’t in any way require the bankers to care.

The Wall Street protests are growing — and some of the people getting involved have a very clear agenda. The most dramatic evidence is the growing role of organized labor in the actions. The nurses marched Oct. 5 — and they have a very specific platform, well thought-out, that calls for a financial transactions tax. AFSCMA, CWA and the city’s transit workers joined the march, too. And the head of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, is now on board. And while Trumka made it clear that labor isn’t going to try to dominate the spontaneous protests,

The labor leader was specific as he summarized his demands: make Wall Street invest in creating jobs for Americans, stop foreclosures and write down problem mortgages. Paying for government programs would come from a “very tiny” tax on speculation, he said.

I’m not seeing any kind of political turf war here — the original Occupy Wall Street folks seem happy to have labor on the team. And once you get tens of thousands of labor activists in the streets — and using the media and the growing groundswell of support for the protests to push a Congressional agenda — then something potentially powerful is happening.


Dick Meister: Unions save lives



A miner’s life is like a sailor’s

‘Board a ship to cross the waves

Every day his life’s in danger

Still he ventures being brave

—Traditional labor song

A new study shows that unionization is a sure way to dramatically lessen the many deaths and serious injuries that have been all too common in the nation’s coal mines.

That ‘s the unequivocal conclusion of the independent study of coal mining between 1993 and 2008 conducted by Stanford law professor Allson Morantz and funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

There’s no doubting it: Workers in unionized mines are far less likely to be killed or seriously injured than are workers in non-union mines.

The study indicates that the number of fatalities in individual non-union mines can decline by one-third up to nearly three-fourths and serious injuries decline by as much as one-third if the mines unionize.

It’s no coincidence, notes President Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers Union, that several major mine disasters recently were at non-union mines. That includes the explosion at Massey Energies’ Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners last year, the Crandell Canyon, Utah, blast that killed nine miners in 2007 and the Sago explosion in West Virginia in 2006 that killed 12.

“The simple truth,” Roberts concludes, “is that union mines are safer mines, and this study proves that.”

He gets ready agreement for that obvious truth from union leaders and members at all levels of the labor movement, right up to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. He was a coal miner himself, as were his father and grandfather.

Trumka says he learned firsthand “the vital importance of workers having a voice on the job through their union.”

Spreading unionization throughout the coal mining industry is a key mission of the United Mine Workers. But though that doubtlessly would lead to greater coal mine safety, the union’s Democratic Party allies must meanwhile continue pressing for stronger mine safety laws – and stronger enforcement of the laws.

Those steps and the labor-management cooperation in collective bargaining and otherwise that the steps would require would guarantee that coal mine job safety would continue to improve – perhaps at even a faster rate than shown by Professor Morantz’ study.

Labor, management and government would be in a far better position to do much more of what’s needed to continue lowering the still high number of mine worker fatalities.

That’s not just a daydream. Listen to the AFL-CIO’s Mike Hall. He knows. Says Hall: “With all we know today, and all the avenues of protection available, there is simply no need for even one life to be lost on the job.”

One of Congress’ most outspoken and effective safety advocates, veteran Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, sees the study as unassailable evidence that unionization leads to greater safety.

Miller, ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, is certain that “when workers have a voice in the mine through their union, they are safer. In union mines, workers are empowered to point out dangerous conditions to inspectors without fear of retaliation from management.”

It clearly demonstrates that “by giving miners the support they need to speak out, unions can save miners lives.”  So can the United Mine Workers’ stepped-up campaign to bring more workers under the direct protection of the union and the union’s expanding safety training programs for miners everywhere.

Saving lives. No union could have a greater purpose.


Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 300 of his columns.


Dick Meister: 11 Million a Year Bandits


Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has an important question for you.

“How much,” he asks, “did your pay go up last year? How about your friends and family?”

Before you answer, Trumka asks that you consider this: In 2010, the CEOs of major companies averaged $11.4 million for their year’s work. That was an increase of  an increase of 23 percent over their pay in 2009.

All told, the CEOs were paid $2 trillion last year.  That, of course. was during a recessionary time like now when working people were lucky to have jobs at all, whatever the pay. And the pay of those who did have jobs stayed pretty much the same, or actually went down.

The CEOs of major companies faced no such problems, obviously, with their pay increasing hugely to more than $11 million a year.  Which leads the AFL-CIO to wonder “how many firefighters, nurses, teachers or construction workers does it take to equal the pay of one CEO today?”

I’d also like to know how many CEOs do work as important as that of rank-and-file firefighters, nurses, teachers and construction workers?

The AFL-CIO’s Trumka notes that despite the collapse of financial markets three years ago at the hands of many of those same astronomically paid CEOs, the “disparity between CEO and workers’ pay has continued to grow to levels that are simply stunning.”

Think of it. Those CEOs collecting enormous pay were in charge when we sunk into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. When we lost 8 million jobs and millions of small businesses. When housing prices plummeted and millions of dollars in personal savings were wiped out.  Yet at the same time those in charge of the economy, notes Trumka, “still found a way to make out like bandits.”

Rich Trumka is a pretty outspoken guy, not known for understatement. But in this case, he probably is understating the situation.  The difference between CEO pay at major companies and workers’ pay is beyond stunning, beyond outrageous.

I’d say it’s virtually beyond human understanding. How could we let that happen? Is this not a democracy in which the great wealth generated here is spread more or less equally?


OK, I’m asking foolish questions. But if ours was a true economic democracy, the spread between CEO and workers’ pay would be far less than it is. How many workers got pay raises of more than 20 percent last year? How many were paid more than $11 million?

How many needed that much money to live comfortably?

Trumka, notes that corporate CEOs “are hoarding $2 trillion in cash.” Indeed, the money-grubbing CEOs chose to take their $2 trillion in raises rather than use the money, or at least part of it, to create decent -paying jobs for their fellow citizens who are so much less fortunate than they.

To describe the CEOs as greedy would be a gross understatement.

I know I’m laying it on thick, but I’m mad – damn mad – and think you should be, too. The CEOs and their companies are stealing us blind and getting way with it.

The AFL-CIO’s Trumka does offer the possibility of better times, however. He says that “although pay is more out of balance than it has been during most of our lifetimes, for the first time there is hope that things are changing.”

That, says Trumka, is because of a new law, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The act, as President Obama said when signing it into law last year, is “a sweeping overhaul of the United States financial regulatory system on a scale not seen since the reforms that followed the Great Depression.”

The lack of sufficient financial regulations sufficiently enforced was, or course, the main factor in the continuing Great recession, just as it was during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The new law is already under attack by Congressional Republicans who have announced their intention to try to repeal it. They particularly object to provisions that would give shareholders a vote on CEO pay and require companies to publicly disclose the ratio between the pay of their CEOs and their workers.

Trumka says it truly shocks him that companies and their GOP allies “have the nerve to argue against those provisions in public, and lobby against them – after the companies drove our country off an economic cliff.”

Trumka says the AFL-CIO “is ready to have this debate. We will take on Wall Street and we will win.”

Strong words, but the AFL-CIO has the powerful political allies, the funding and the troops to carry out Trumka’s bold promise. Let’s hope fervently that labor and its supporters can indeed win the debate, If not, we could be in line for more serious Wall Street-based troubles  – an extended recession for sure, maybe worse.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website,, which includes more than 300 of his columns.

Historic election for labor


Labor and Democratic Party leaders are concerned – and rightly so – that labor’s rank-and-file may not turn out in November to support labor-friendly Democrats in the massive numbers that played a major role in the election of President Obama and Democratic congressional majorities in 2008.

AFL-CIO officials are hoping to turn the anger and frustration that so many working people feel into votes, financial support and campaigning in behalf of pro-labor Democrats.  But the officials worry about an “enthusiasm gap” among unionists and their supporters stemming from the relatively slow pace of the progressive economic and political changes that they had very much expected from Obama and the congressional Democrats.

Many unionists are frustrated as usual by the lack of a viable progressive alternative to the Democratic Party. But they’d best beware, as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says, of the serious consequences of   being less than enthusiastic supporters of Democratic candidates in November’s elections.

“The Republican Party of NO doesn’t want our vote,” says Trumka. “All they want is for us to stay home. They want us to feel hopeless and disgusted so they can come back by default.”

 Trumka acknowledges that many union members, and many of their supporters and other progressives, are frustrated with the slow pace of economic change, the continuing high unemployment rate, continuing wars and other serious, unsettled problems.

But Trumka points out that in just a year and a half, Obama has had to dig out of a huge economic hole and “face extremist opposition on every point.” Yet, Trumka notes, “We’ve halted taxpayer bailouts … no longer are losing 700,000 jobs a month but are gaining a few… And by the end of this year we will have created or saved 3 1/2 million jobs and have fulfilled the dream of every president since Harry Truman and started to move down the road to health care for all. “

Organized labor has particularly good reason to be pleased with the performance of Obama and the congressional Democrats – particularly good reason to once again deploy millions of campaign dollars and millions of campaign workers in their behalf as labor did in the 2008 elections.

The Labor Department and National Labor Relations Board, virtually tools of the anti-labor right wing under President Bush, are under Obama returning to their job of enforcing the laws that guarantee workers the right to unionize without employer interference.

 And federal agencies are once again strictly enforcing the minimum wage and hour laws and other vital pro-worker laws that had been seriously neglected under Bush’s distinctly anti-labor administration. What’s more, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is actually attempting to clamp down on the widespread violation of the job safety laws that has led to the needless deaths and serious injury of millions of American workers.

“We know you are angry,” Trumka told a recent gathering of labor leaders, “but we have made progress. No one said this was going to be easy. Ask African Americans how long they have fought and continue to fight. If they had given up after a year and a half they would still be in chains.”

 November’s election, says Richard Trumka, is  “the most crucial election in 75 years.” It will in any case be of unusually high importance to America’s working people and their unions and of exceptional importance to the rest of us as well.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www., which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.

Labor widens and radicalizes its SF hotel fight


By Steven T. Jones

After a three-week break in their ever-escalating labor battle with the owners of San Francisco’s biggest hotels, Unite-Here Local 2 workers and their supporters plan to hit hard tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan. 5) with a rally featuring national labor leaders, an expansion of the union’s hotel boycott, and civil disobedience.

The action begins at 4 p.m. at 750 Market Street, in the plaza between between 3rd and 4th streets, forming into a march to O’Farrell Street outside the Hilton, which will be the latest hotel to be added to the union’s boycott list. The others are Le Meridien, Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf, Grand Hyatt, Westin St. Francis, Palace Hotel, and the W Hotel.

The big national hotel chains have claimed the recession and high health care costs are forcing them to reject union demands for a 1.5 percent increase in worker pay, but the union calls that ridiculous, noting that Starwood Hotels and Resorts – which owns more than half the hotels on the boycott list – made $180 million in profit in the first three quarters of 2009 and saw their stock price increase 66 percent.

Supporting the union tomorrow will be local progressive groups as well as Unite-Here’s national president John Wilhelm and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, both of whom will speak at the rally. In addition, organizers say about 100 workers will engage in civil disobedience and face arrest.