AFL-CIO's Rick Bloomingdale: At the intersection of politics, labor

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Rick Bloomingdale, leader of Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, in his office in Harrisburg.

When Richard “Rick” Bloomingdale graduated from college with a political science degree in the mid-1970s, the economy was lackluster, so Bloomingdale, 64, now president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, kept his college job washing trucks for the city of Tucson, becoming a member of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

In life’s funny way, the union turned out to be his ticket to politics and Bloomingdale turned in his truck brushes to join the 1976 presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Morris “Mo” Udall (D., Ariz.), earning $25 a week. “Yeah, it was a struggle,” Bloomingdale said. “Once I came back, I managed a campaign for a sheriff in Tucson. I started doing some political work for AFSCME.”

That’s political organizing. Did you ever organize workers?

When I moved  to D.C. for AFSCME, they said “Look, you’re a good political organizer, but you’ve got to understand why people join unions. So, let’s send you out and do some work organizing.”  So, I organized bus drivers in Winchester, Va., a right-to-work state.  Then I organized workers at Howard University Hospital, [as] a white organizer in a 90 percent African American hospital.

What did you learn?

Organizing is hard, but it’s very rewarding, because people are in such bad situations, and they’re being treated so badly.

Speaking of politics, what about President Trump? Any thoughts on the Charlottesville incident?

To see people marching around forgetting what Hitler stood for and what he did is disgusting. The thought that these people think that our president is somehow condoning their activities — and he seems to condone their activities — is astonishing. I think the vast majority of Americans are horrified and distraught about what is going on.

What about health care?

Trump, he’s all talk and no action. He claims to be a great deal-maker. Yet, when trying to make a deal on health care, he could have easily crossed the aisle and sat down with Democrats and Republicans and figured out a fix for Obamacare and called it Trumpcare or whatever he wanted, and it would have been good, because Obamacare, with a few tweaks, can really be successful.

In Pennsylvania, the Senate passed legislation to stop the state from deducting union dues as part of payroll for unionized state employees, hurting union finances. Proponents call it paycheck protection; you call it paycheck deception. Current status?

We think we have enough votes to block it in the House. They won’t bring it up unless they think they have the votes. Right now, they aren’t whipping that issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court will likely consider the Janus case, similar to one in Pennsylvania, meaning that public employees who don’t want to be in unions, but are represented by them, may no longer have to pay partial dues or agency fees — costs that unions incur for bargaining and grievances.

AFSCME has a whole generation of state employees who have always lived under what’s been called an agency shop, where everybody had to pay. So at AFSCME, in Pennsylvania, [executive director] Dave Fillman has been doing an amazing job of educating people, signing them up, and looking for alternatives, even if they eliminate payroll deductions.

What don’t people understand about unions?

They don’t understand that when they join a union, they are the union. They think it’s an outside thing — you need them, you call them. What’s the union going to do for me? No, you’re going to do things for yourself. You’re going to learn how to do grievances, arbitrations and we’ll be there with professional help. The union is you.

In Philadelphia, Joe Dougherty, former head of the ironworkers’ union, is in prison over a conspiracy involving arson at construction sites. And John Dougherty, no relation to Joe,  and the leader of the city’s most politically powerful union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, is under federal investigation. Any comment?

Look at the executives who just rip people. Look, the labor movement is made up of human beings and human beings aren’t perfect. Out of the thousands of labor leaders in the state, we have one or two that make a mistake and get written up. Joe clearly made a mistake. He was convicted. John, it’s a witch hunt. If his board approves [his expenses], he can do it. I don’t think he did anything wrong. People don’t like him because he has power.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

 

 

 

RICHARD "RICK" BLOOMINGDALE:

Home: Linglestown, near Harrisburg.

Family: Wife, Karen; children, Nick, 30, Lindsey, 21.

Diploma: University of Arizona, political science.

Resume: Came into labor through politics. Rose through the ranks at AFSCME, serving as political and legislative director for the government workers union in Pennsylvania. Worked on the Bill Clinton campaign. Secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO from 1994 until being elected president in 2010.

PENNSYLVANIA AFL-CIO:

What: An association of labor union locals based in Pennsylvania, headquartered in Harrisburg.

Members: 720,000 union members and workers represented by 1,687 locals statewide.

Budget: $4 million, mostly from per capita dues from state members, the national AFL-CIO and grants.

Employees: 8.