Just one week before Donald Trump’s inauguration, with mass protests planned in cities around the country, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka paid a visit to the Trump Tower penthouse in New York City.
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trumka staunchly supported Democrat Hillary Clinton and criticized Trump intensely, calling him racist, sexist and anti-worker. In a March 2016 speech, Trumka called Trump a “bigot,” pointed out that Trump thinks U.S. wages are too high, and denounced Trump’s insults to women and immigrants.
But after Trump “won” the election — even though he lost the popular vote count by almost 3 million votes — Trumka joined a long list of liberal politicians and public figures who quieted their outraged criticism of Trump in order to negotiate with him.
Foremost on the list was Clinton herself, who told supporters on the day after the election, “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
Trumka’s meeting with Trump on January 13 was hidden from the public, including union members. The AFL-CIO chief — head of the main U.S. union federation, with close to 12 million members — spent an hour and a half at Trump Tower, but refused to share any information about the meeting, telling reporters that they talked about “a lot of issues.”
Afterward, Trumka tweeted that he had had “a very honest and productive conversation with @realDonaldTrump.”
So let’s get this straight: One week before activists who oppose Trump’s bigotry were preparing to take the streets for anti-inauguration protests and the massive Women’s Marches against Trump, the official head of the U.S. union movement decided to hold a friendly closed-door meeting with Trump at the same headquarters where thousands of New Yorkers protested the day after the election.
Rather than help organize protests to oppose Trump, Trumka decided to meet with the president-elect instead. Considering all that Trumka knew — and said — about Trump before the election, this doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
In December, the AFL-CIO president wrote a statement called “Why Trump’s Cabinet Picks Should Worry You,” which denounced Trump’s cabinet nominations, including multimillionaire private and charter school supporter Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary and fast-food CEO Andrew Pudzer for Labor Secretary.
Pudzer opposes raising the minimum wage, and workers at Pudzer’s restaurants say that wage theft and sexual harassment of workers run rampant.
Trumka called Trump’s nominees “a cast of superrich, trickle-down true believers who will suppress pay, increase income inequality and embolden Wall Street.”
Then there was Trump’s attack on a local union leader representing workers at Indiana’s Carrier heating and air conditioner manufacturing company.
Trump talked a lot about Carrier during his presidential campaign. The company announced last February that it was shutting down and transferring one of its factories and around 1,300 production workers’ jobs to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages.
Seeing this as an opportunity to claim he was saving American jobs, Trump helped arrange major tax cuts for the company as an incentive to keep the Indiana factory running. Trump loudly claimed credit for saving 1,100 jobs. The true number turned out to be at most 800 — at least 550 workers would still be fired, by the company’s own admission.
When United Steelworkers Local 1999 President Chuck Jones, which represents Carrier workers, called Trump a liar, Trump denounced him on Twitter.
He also blamed the union itself for causing the relocation of the plant — “No wonder companies flee the country!” Trump tweeted, and “Spend more time working-less time talking. Reduce dues.”
Union members came out in support of Local 1999 president, and Trumka issued his own statement loudly siding with Jones and criticizing Trump for attacking him.
So why would the head of AFL-CIO decide to meet with this union-hating politician?
There are a couple reasons, one having to do with how union officials like Trumka see as the best way to fight for their members. They see this fight as primarily one that happens in negotiations across the table from Trump — like the negotiations they participate in across the table from business executives.
Unlike the protests that erupted from below after the election of Trump, the goal is for negotiations to happen with as little conflict as possible. Sometimes protest, or even strikes, are necessary to show management that the union is serious and has the power to pull out its members. But union leaders like Trumka largely see these conflicts as most effectively resolved through negotiations at the top.
This is the product of the social position that top union leaders occupy — as the negotiators of the terms of exploitation between employers and workers. Union officials naturally look to their own ability to negotiate with Corporate America, not rank-and-file power, which could disrupt the status quo.
As we face four years of the meanest representative of Corporate America in the White House, we have to ask, does this strategy work?
In December, Trumka wrote an op-ed for the New York Times laying out his criticisms of the incoming president. “Trump’s emerging cabinet and policy pronouncements seem to treat actual working people as bottom lines rather than human beings, our unions as a threat rather than a partner, and rising wages as a problem rather than the foundation of our prosperity,” Trumka wrote.
But can unions and the corporate interests that Trump represents really be considered “partners,” working together for mutual “prosperity”? It flies in the face of what workers experience on the job. Take wages, for example. No matter how “progressive,” bosses see the idea of paying higher wages as a problem.
This applies to Trump and others like the fast-food and oil CEOs he is nominating for his cabinet. And it also applies to the Democratic Party candidate, Hillary Clinton, who Trumka claimed would raise workers’ wages and standards of living, even though she never supported these things.
While they talk about representing workers, Democratic Party politicians like Clinton, like the Republicans, are loyal to the interests of big business. That’s why both major U.S. parties also oppose public single-payer health care. What would amount to a massive raise for workers would cut into health care industry profits, so even the “party of the people” won’t support it.
In his New York Times piece, Trumka calls for “a coordinated suite of public policies that preserve, nurture and create good jobs.” But what can workers expect to negotiate from Trump, after eight years of Obama did very little to improve workers’ conditions.
Despite high expectations for an Obama administration, it did nothing serious to assist workers who lost their jobs or were forced into lower-paying jobs during the financial crisis. The federal minimum wage still sits at $7.25.
According to the Pew Research Center, the average real hourly wage in the U.S. is less today than it was in 1973. That means workers have received nothing in return despite all increases in productivity.
But even though the Democrats have done little to improve conditions for his members, union leaders like Trumka have made support of Democrats the focus of their strategy.
By meeting behind closed doors with Trump, Trumka missed a huge opportunity to help expand the massive opposition that was demonstrated at the January 20 and January 21 protests.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Trumka has decided to take the wrong side in struggles of large numbers of people organizing for greater justice and democracy.
In September, as the Indigenous resistance movement to the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota was intensifying, Trumka announced his support for the pipeline project, claiming that it created good jobs — although such pipelines employ only a tiny number of operators after construction is completed.
In 2014, when the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, Trumka gave a speech in which he emphasized the frequency of racist police violence — but he also said, “Our brother killed our sister’s son,” outrageously equating the cop who murdered Brown, as a member of a police union, and the victim’s mother, who was a union grocery store worker.
These were opportunities for the union movement to show its solidarity with struggles against racism and injustice. In the coming months and years, building solidarity and linking our struggles — immigrant, women and Muslim workers — will be key if we are going to keep Trump from rolling over all workers’ rights.
Union members and other workers who were among the massive numbers who protested on Inauguration Weekend in Washington, DC, and in cities across the country showed the potential for building an opposition to Trump, and taking a stand against his anti-worker agenda.