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John Sweeney: Unions believe Obama will deliver the Employee Free Choice Act

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you again from Washington, DC. We are at the conference America’s Future Now, and we’re now joined by John Sweeney, who is and was president of the AFL-CIO for 14 years, for 15 years before that was president of one of the United States’ biggest unions, SEIU [Service Employees International Union]. Thanks for joining us, John.

JOHN SWEENEY, PRESIDENT, AFL-CIO: Thank you. Nice to be here.

JAY: So, John, to start on a kind of difficult point, I guess, there’s less American workers, at least as a percentage of the workforce, in American unions than there have been in decades. The United States has one of the lowest unionization rates of industrialized countries. And from the private sector I think it’s about 7.2 percent, maybe to 7.3 percent. If you push in the public sector, you may make it up to 11 percent. Most other industrialized countries are at least 20-something percent of the private sector and even higher in the public sector. Why?

SWEENEY: Well, the labor movement has been organizing very aggressively, especially since 1995. When I was first elected to this job, our focus was on how do we make the labor movement grow, and we instituted all kinds of programs to train rank-and-filers to be organizers and so on. And while we were organizing, the changes that were taking place in our economy were significant. And this was because of a bad trade policy in our country, a government that was not supportive of workers organizing, and a labor law that became weaker and weaker, allowing employers to be able to harass and terminate workers because of union activities. This was not the intent of our early members of Congress when the national Labor Relations Act was put together. It was intended to be enacted. It would allow a fair process for workers to organize and for them to decide in an election whether they wanted to be members of a union or they didn’t want, and whether they could have collective bargaining, and it brought a sense of fairness. Well, employers have put so much money into anti-union activities, the law firms that they have retained have been law firms who are as bad as the goon squads that we saw in the 1930s. And it’s now that we’re seeing a change taking place. We have a Democratic majority in the Congress, and we have a Democratic president, and we’re going to accomplish a victory with the Employee Free Choice Act that will be fair to employers in what process is established that will allow workers a democratic process to—.

JAY: Where do things stand on the Employee Free Choice Act? The American Chamber of Commerce has a multimillion dollar campaign going on to try to defeat the legislation. The unions have a multimillion dollar campaign to try to pass the legislation. But the word around town is that the leadership of the Democratic Party is not as committed to this legislation as they said they were during the election campaign.

SWEENEY: Well, that’s not true, and it’s folks like yourself in the media that are getting the wrong message out there. If you look at the last election or even the election prior to that, where the Chamber of Commerce put their money in terms of media, with all these lies about the Employee Free Choice Act, there’s no democracy taken away from workers in the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. There’s a sense of fairness and protection for workers in terms of how they express themselves. They can have a free democratic ballot if that’s what they wish. But it should be the workers’ decision and not the employer’s decision. In every single race that the Chamber of Commerce poured money into for TV ads and so on about the Employee Free Choice Act, they did not win a single election. No member of Congress was elected as a result of the media campaign conducted by the Chamber of Commerce. And that’s a fact. You can get that information yourself.

JAY: Now, you’re obviously directly in touch with the Obama administration. He was asked this question in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the town forum, about what’s happening with the Employee Free Choice Act, and he endorsed it again, as he had in the election campaign. But we have not heard very much about this since he was elected. Are you convinced that he and the leadership of the Democratic Party are going to pass this and are still committed to it? Because there seems—we hear waverings.

SWEENEY: We campaigned hard for the election of President Obama, and all of us were successful. He was the most successful in terms of being a great candidate, and we trusted him and believed in him, not just for the employee Free Choice Act but for what he talked about the economy. And we talked about health-care reform and all of the other major issues for working people. The president is committed to supporting the Employee Free Choice Act. The vice president is just as committed and has been working directly with members of Congress on this legislation, and the leadership of both houses of Congress are firmly committed, both Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate, and also Nancy Pelosi, the speaker. We are not concerned about so-called wavering that’s going on. We are concerned about making sure that we’re educating people and communicating on whatever the issues might be. There are issues in any legislative campaign about what they’re hearing from their constituents in terms of criticism and getting the right answers, and we think that we’re doing a pretty good job at that.

JAY: The other major issue, obviously, his health-care reform. And when one listens to Senator Baucus in a press conference at the Kaiser Family Foundation about a week ago, he said we’re going to have a little bit of public, a little bit of private, not too much either way. And the indication of at least what’s happening at the Finance Committee is that this is really kind of a negotiation with the private insurance companies to find something that’s acceptable to them. That’s not quite necessarily the same as a full, robust public plan that’s going to compete with them. What is your sense of where this health-care reform is at? ‘Cause there are even some people asking the question: never mind single-payer’s not on the table, is a full, robust public plan still on the table, even if it’s going to compete with private plans?

SWEENEY: And we believe that, with the support, that a full, robust public plan is still very active in the discussions that are going on. We believe that Chairman Baucus will be leading the battle for true national health-care reform that is going to be very comprehensive and going to address the issues. But I don’t think anybody knows exactly what’s going to come out of all these discussions. But I do believe that the Democratic leadership in the Congress, as well as the president, is very much concerned and focused on having true national health-care reform, and that there will be a major public piece to that health-care reform. And the whole issue of taxation of benefits for taxation of cost of health care is an issue that the Congress is taking very serious, and we are strongly opposed to taxation.

JAY: Are the unions—if there’s a compromise, significant compromise on the health care, on the public component of the health-care plan, if there’s a significant compromise on the teeth of an Employee Free Choice Act—’cause there’s talk about a watered-down Employee Free Choice Act—are the unions prepared to take on even a Democratic administration if that’s what it takes to—? I mean, right now, you’re quite sure of this, but there’s a lot of forces working against you, including within the Democratic Party.

SWEENEY: And what is your question?

JAY: My question is: is the AFL and the major unions ready to publicly critique and take on the administration and the Congress if you’re not going to get something as robust and with-teeth as you want?

SWEENEY: We may have to do a lot of discussions and maybe some negotiations, but I am convinced that the Democratic leadership in the Congress, as well as the president of the United States, is not going to waver on a strong, meaningful Employee Free Choice Act.

JAY: Thank you very much for joining us.

SWEENEY: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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John Sweeney is the president of the AFL-CIO. An AFL-CIO vice president since 1980, he was elected president of the AFL-CIO at the federation's biennial convention in October 1995 and was most recently re-elected in 2005.