Auto union boss upholds faith in organized labor

Dan Rodricks

September 09, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Rodney Trump -- behind the wheel of a General Motors automobile, of course -- cranks down the window and announces that, if you don't mind, he won't be turning the air-conditioning on. It's a waste of energy, especially on such a mild, late-summer day as this. And, perhaps more important, Trump says, it's good to sweat. "A little perspiration makes a person feel alive," he says.

Trump is president of United Auto Workers Local 239, a true believer in the spirit of unionism and a salty critic of the forces that have undercut the working class over the last two decades. These days, most days, he has his hands full.

Trump represents 2,800 workers at GM's Broening Highway minivan plant at a time when the nation is in prolonged recession. His union represents thousands of employees of a corporation that plans a massive reduction in work force and 21 plant closings over the next two years. His national union has just come out of a strike -- in Lordstown, Ohio -- that was a precursor of next year's industrywide negotiations.

The next two years will be critical to the UAW, and to organized labor in general. But, for Trump and most union leaders, the next presidential election offers an even grander challenge because it is a test of public attitudes about the American economy. Trump thinks we'll get some questions answered:

Have blue-collar workers and middle-class wage-earners had enough of Reaganomics? Have the so-called Reagan-Bush Democrats seen the light? Are they ready to assert, with a vote for George Bush's re-election, that the economic policies of the last decade should continue? Are average, non-union workers -- the men and women who make up the new "service economy" -- ready to reclaim some of the gains made by organized labor for all workers?

For Trump, it's a test of whether American workers have been paying attention to all that has happened around them during the Reagan era -- in particular, the loss of good-paying jobs to foreign countries.

"It's a consumer economy," Trump says. "This recession is about the decline of the spending power of the American people, the loss of high-paying jobs and benefits. People can't afford to buy our own products. They can't afford the prices on our stickers. . . . If we are not well-paid, how do we buy products? . . . Today, prices are up, and wages are down."

Too many companies have found it too advantageous to ship too many jobs overseas, Trump says. "The telephone was our invention, our development," he says. "Try to buy a telephone made in America."

Two presidents and a leaderless, Democrat-dominated Congress stood by and watched it happen.

I tell Trump that the decline of unionism, welcomed by the Reagan revolutionaries, didn't seem to bother a whole lot of working people. A lot of them believe they can get by without paying dues.

"They think companies have fallen in love with the worker," Trump says. "They had better wake up. Who's going to provide the checks and balance on companies if not the unions?"

Who, he wonders, is going to fight for benefits? Who is going to wage war for a better minimum wage? Who is going to argue for health insurance for workers? Who will stand vigil for workplace safety?

He sounds like an old militant liberal when he invokes the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Rodney Trump needs to make that reach to make a point: There's only one political party for working people, and that's the Democratic Party. The trickle-down Republicans, he says, have nothing to offer but more status quo economic policy. And Trump is not apologetic about raising the ghost of FDR.

"No business which depends for its existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country," Roosevelt declared in 1933. "By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level -- I mean the wages of decent living."

It's been more than a half-century since FDR's brand of $l liberalism defined a generation and provided a rallying point for organized labor. And the New Deal meant progress for working people.

Trump argues that much of that progress has been repealed during the Reagan-Bush era. For a long time, the administration refused to raise the minimum wage. The National Labor Relations Board is so anti-labor most workers don't bother to appeal to it. The number of working poor Americans continued to grow throughout the 1980s and into last year. Unionized workers were frequently blamed for the failure of American industries.

"They led by division," Trump says of Reagan and Bush. "Why do you think they didn't want to raise the minimum wage? So that people would resent unions. . . . They tried to scapegoat us, when it was corporate raiders who destroyed companies and shipped jobs overseas and closed factories and threatened pensions and the security of workers.

"I heard something Reagan said in 1981 that a lot of other people didn't hear. He said he wanted to expand things, bring the world together. A lot of people thought he meant to bring the rest of the world up to our standard. What he meant was to bring us down to the rest of the world's standard, with a ruling class and peasants. . . .

"People are fed up with what was and what is. Whatever comes along -- and I'm not saying Bill Clinton is the cure-all -- it's got to be different. No one can do worse than what we've had."

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