Todd Koch is regional director of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in the Northern Nevada/Northern California region, headquartered in Sparks.
How would you describe the state of the union movement now?
Well, I think the way the laws and regulations are set up against unions, I think it’s been very difficult at best for us to survive and thrive, and I think that there need to be some changes or you’re going to continue to see the labor movement as a whole not do well. And when the labor movement does not do well, neither does the middle class—neither does training of skilled workers, the case of building trades.
And in Nevada?
I think Nevada does fairly well. As a labor movement, Nevada does fairly well. The building trades have continued to thrive in Nevada. Of course, we found the recent “great recession” to be very hard on us, meaning that it lost us members. People left to go to other states and continue their careers in their chosen trade, but we also had people just leave the trade altogether.
Do you see the national picture changing in the foreseeable future?
Not unless there’s a change to the way that the deck is stacked against labor as far as organizing.
Even before Citizens United, labor was always outspent in political campaigns by business, election after election for decades. Now, with that ruling, how can labor ever hope to compete on a level playing field?
I think the only way we can compete—and the only way we competed before—is with our feet on the streets, by contacting our members. As you know, Citizens United [a U.S. Supreme Court ruling permitting unlimited campaign expenditures by corporations and individuals] also opened it up so that labor unions could contact other people besides its own members. The only way that we’re going to be able to compete is when the voters get so frustrated with this inequality of wealth and the distribution of wealth in our country that they finally decide to rise up against that inequality and do something about it. And overturning Citizens United would have to be one of the first things that would have to happen.
Is this the year?
Well, the Bernie Sanders campaign would have you believe that this is that year. I’m not sure if it’s going to happen this year or not. Obviously, no matter who the president of the United States is, you still have to deal with the party that controls the House and the Senate. … That was part of the checks and balances set up by our forefathers in the United States Constitution. It was set up that way so that change happens more slowly in our country, and so it’s hard for me to understand how there could be a revolution that changes everything, especially how it’s possible we could only take over one of the parts of our government, the executive branch.
When did you first join a union, what was the job, and why did you join?
I first joined the union when I was in high school as a summer apprentice. And then the reason why I did that was because my father worked in the trades. He got me a job working for the same shop he worked for. That was just a summer job. And then after I went to college for about a year I came back and rejoined the union at age 20 as part of my apprenticeship and my trade. And so I’ve been a member of the union every since 1978. I like to say that I came upon joining the union the easy way, and it was because my father opened the door for me. So it wasn’t the way that your typical worker gets in a union these days when they have to fight tooth and nail to have a union in their workplace.