By Kevin Bogardus - 11/12/13 06:00 AM EST
The National Football League’s $765 million settlement with retired players “is not the end of the discussion” over concussion-related brain injuries, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told The Hill in an interview.
Trumka, whose federation includes the NFL Players Association, compared football players to coal miners who get black lung disease and said more needs to be done to protect them.
“Aspect one is preventing new stuff from happening, new concussions, so you protect the players that are there from getting the same injuries that the other players did and then you should compensate players that are already injured and that will be a constant battle, a continuous battle,” said Trumka, who played football in high school.
He compared the NFL to other employers who deny involvement in workplace-related injuries.
“They say deny, deny, deny. That’s what every employer does. That’s what coal companies do. That’s what steel companies do. That’s what all of them do,” he said.
“They deny, deny, deny until the science and the facts are so overwhelming, then they will figure out a way to make it work. They should be focusing on how to prevent these diseases so you could not have the problem out into the future, but generally, they don’t.”
Despite his criticism of the NFL, Trumka said he wouldn’t have advised his son, who played college football at Cornell, to take up a different sport.
“I love football. I truly love football,” he said. “I hope we are able to overcome this and I think there’s no reason we can’t.”
The combativeness Trumka brings to the discussion about the NFL is familiar to friends and foes alike.
Since becoming the AFL-CIO’s president in 2009, Trumka has battled the rise of the Tea Party movement, and at times his allies in the Obama White House.
The federation was openly frustrated when the White House offered extensions and adjustments for ObamaCare to businesses and the Catholic church but nothing to its allies in labor who wanted the administration to provide tax subsidies to union health plan holders.
The administration denied the request even after a public scolding from the AFL-CIO at its convention in September, though it later proposed regulations that could ease fees union plans would be required to pay under ObamaCare.
Trumka insisted his relationship with the White House is good and said things have improved under Denis McDonough, who took over as White House chief of staff in February.
He said McDonough took the AFL-CIO’s concerns “very seriously” and “started moving stuff.”
Still, Trumka’s frustration with the White House was easy to spot in the hourlong interview.
He noted that his federation began making complaints about the healthcare law two years ago, but it made little ground with the White House.
When a fight between the White House and religious conservatives flared up over the birth control mandate in the healthcare law, the administration dealt with it. When private employers complained about the requirement that they offer their workers insurance, it was delayed.
“Ours was bubbling up and bubbling up and I kept saying ‘do you want it to end up this way?’ and ‘no, no, no’ [was the response],” Trumka said. “We kept working through it but we weren’t making the progress.”
At its convention, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution that criticized the healthcare law harshly. That led to a meeting at the White House with the president, and new regulations were proposed the next month.
“You had to be honest about it, and we said honestly where we were,” Trumka said. “We have problems with it. We don’t want to bring it down; we want to make it work. Here are some things that will help make it work.”
In a statement to The Hill, McDonough called Trumka, 64, an “unrelenting straight shooter” singularly focused on American workers.
The Nemacolin, Pa., native worked in the coal mines and keeps in his office the safety lantern that belonged to his father, who was also a miner. He was elected as the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer in 1995 and won a second term as president in September.
One of his missions is to add to the AFL-CIO’s ranks by strengthening ties to liberal groups. That could expand the AFL-CIO’s political influence and then boost union organizing.
Union membership has continued to decline during Trumka’s tenure. In 2012, membership dropped to 11.3 percent of total wage and salaried workers, down from 11.8 percent in 2011. At its September convention, the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution that invited non-union members to join the group.
Much of the union leader’s attention in the next year will be on the midterm elections.
Trumka said Democrats have a “70, 75” percent chance of taking the lower chamber due to last month’s drama over the government shutdown and debt ceiling.
“Refusing to do the normal business of the nation is just going to keep digging them in a deeper and deeper hole,” he says of Republicans.
He also said it’s possible the AFL-CIO could get involved in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
Trumka has a campaign sticker pasted behind his desk for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was greeted like a rock star at the AFL-CIO’s convention.
“I don’t think Elizabeth Warren is going to run for president in 2016. But a candidate of her ilk, I could see us supporting a candidate of her ilk real easily,” Trumka said.
In front of other Democrats?
“Yeah, it’s possible,” Trumka said.
Any Democratic presidential candidate will want labor’s support — and the earlier, the better. Asked if he has heard from Hillary Clinton to discuss 2016 plans, Trumka laughed in response.
“If I had gotten that call, I wouldn’t tell you anyway,” Trumka said.