The American labor movement loses one of the best leaders it has ever seen
Richard Trumka, long-time president of the AFL-CIO, has died of a heart attack at the age of 72. There is much to admire about Trumka's career. He will be remembered in part for his failure to turn around the downward trajectory of the American labor movement, but that's in part because people often don't understand either how the labor movement works or the structural issues in the way of rebuilding labor.
Born in 1949 in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, Trumka grew up in a true working-class family. His father was a Polish-American coal miner at the height of the United Mine Workers of America's (UMWA) power. John L. Lewis, its long-time president, had built that union into a force, creating the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize the nation's industrial workforce, and developing a fearless union that would even strike during World War II. Trumka grew up in this milieu. He also grew up in a transitional time. Many blue-collar kids would follow their fathers to the mines and mills of America. Trumka did this for awhile, going to work in the mines in 1968. But this was a time when many working-class kids had the chance to go to college and live a different life from their parents. Trumka did this, too. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1971 and Villanova University Law in 1974.
Trumka could easily have taken his education and lived an easy life in a white-collar job. He could have represented corporations with that law degree. He did not. He would never turn his back on blue-collar America. He used his education to become a fierce fighter for the rights of working Americans. In 1974, on graduation from law school, the UMWA hired him as a staff attorney. He worked as a union lawyer for the next five years. He rose quickly. In 1981, he won election to District 4 of the UMWA and then, in 1982, replaced Sam Church as union president. He was only 33 years old at the time, a mere child compared to the ancient ages of most union presidents.
Trumka was a breath of fresh air as president of the UMWA. That union had gone through a tumultuous 15 years before Trumka took the helm. On the retirement of John Lewis, the union had a culture best described as a dictatorship with leadership more interested in protecting their privileges than representing workers. Lewis created that dictatorship, but he always fought for his workers. By the time the corrupt Tony Boyle took over, it was just a dictatorship indifferent to workers and hostile to any kind of union democracy. Boyle had his challenger Jock Yablonski brutally murdered in his home in 1970, leading the president into prison. Miners for Democracy, a rank-and-file movement to change the culture of the UMWA, broke the dictatorship, but then its leader Arnold Miller also tried to rule as an autocrat. Church later took over for Miller. He was a weak president, noted for once punching someone who leaked union business to the press, but also one without that much support. When Trumka ran against him, Church red-baited him, saying he was supported by communists, a ridiculous allegation. But Trumka whipped Church by a 2 to 1 margin.
What Trumka brought to the UMWA was a renewed militancy and a culture of solidarity. The 1980s were a terrible time for American labor. Reagan had fired the air traffic controllers in 1981, setting off a round of union-busting that decimated organized labor for the rest of that decade and beyond. Trumka led the biggest exception to this dark era. The 1989 Pittston Coal strike was epic. The strike began when the Pittston Coal Company canceled the health benefits of 1,500 retirees, disabled miners and widows. They focused heavily on nonviolent civil disobedience. They opened a sort of women's auxiliary to the strike. The Daughters of Mother Jones as they were known, named after the legendary mineworkers' organizer, conducted a sit-in at the Pittston headquarters in Virginia. Mineworkers began blockading roads into plants, leading to their arrests. This was illegal, but all nonviolent.
The illegality cost the union big time. The courts served the UMWA with millions in fines for its actions while ignoring the company thugs that were provoking the union and committing crimes that it then blamed on the union. Again, when the law is entirely on the side of companies, at what point do workers have the right to disobey the law? Finally, 98 miners and one minister conducted a sit-in at a Pittston mill.
Wildcat strikes also began spreading with up to 37,000 workers who were not UMWA members going on unauthorized strikes to not only put pressure on Pittston, but to protest terrible working conditions and poor-health care in the non-union mines.
The Pittston strike finally ended on February 20, 1990. It was nearly a total success. Miners again received their benefits. Pittston had to pay $10 million toward the health care of the miners who had retired before 1974. The mines could stay open with extended shifts, but the amount miners had to work was limited by the agreement. The UMWA got the fines against them dropped (which had included $13,000 a day against individual union officials and a total of $64 million against the union) in exchange for 10,000 hours of community service, which spread among the members, wasn't too bad.
Trumka's leadership was decisive in the UMWA during the Pittston strike. He became one of the big hopes for a revitalized American labor movement and he rode this into the leadership of the AFL-CIO. In 1995, John Sweeney, from the Service Employee International Union, ran a dark horse campaign to replace the retiring AFL-CIO head Lane Sweeney. Trumka was the Secretary-Treasurer nominee on Sweeney's New Voice campaign that won, ushering in a new day for the labor movement. The Cold War fighting past was replaced by a new emphasis on organizing and building for a new era. As Secretary-Treasurer, Trumka was seen as Sweeney's heir apparent.
It was during this period that I met Trumka. I was involved in campaigns at the University of Tennessee between 1997 and 2000 to focus on labor rights. In 1999, my co-organizers and I held a labor teach-in at the university. This event spurred the organizing of UT's workers into the United Campus Workers, today an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America. Even though Tennessee is a right-to-work state, the UCW became a model of how to organize even in a place where you will never win a contract. Anyway, Trumka was gracious enough to attend and speak at our teach-in. He even took time to meet with myself and the other student organizers personally, giving us an inspirational speech about the work we were doing. It was great.
Sweeney's reforms were incomplete when he chose to retire and Trumka took over as AFL-CIO president in 2009. Now, to understand Trumka's work here, we need to take step back and look at what the AFL-CIO actually does. First, it is not a union. It is a federation of unions. Even major newspapers will confuse this point. It really matters. Trumka may have been the head of the American labor movement for the last 12 years, but it is more of an honorary head than a dictator. Made up of dozens of different unions, the federation is rife with infighting. This shouldn't surprise us. Organized labor is a diverse movement. There are unions dominated by left-liberals and there are unions with a lot of conservative members. The building trades don't often have a lot in common with the public sector. The service-based unions, made up of people of color and immigrants, may be openly hostile to the police unions, who share that contempt right back. Trumka had to manage the big egos of union heads. Everything he would say was going to anger someone else in the labor movement.
This doesn't mean we can't criticize Trumka's leadership. His first term as president was quite progressive, but things slowed down after about 2015. He placed less emphasis on organizing over time. Connections with worker centers, spaces where low-wage and often undocumented workers can fight for their rights outside the labor movement, frayed. I often disagreed with Trumka on his approach to one of the trickiest issues in organized labor—climate change and green energy. The Laborers Union has led the way inside the labor tent in fighting green energy with its president, Terry O'Sullivan, often denigrating alternative energy sources and antagonizing other unions that tried to ally the labor movement with environmentalists. O'Sullivan fights for his members' jobs and we all need to understand that. But the future of life on this planet is at stake. Trumka could have done a lot more to push back against the building trades on this. On the other hand, those trades could also just leave the AFL-CIO. Lots of unions do not belong to the federation. He could not push that hard.
But even had Trumka remained a great forward-thinking leader into his later years, there wasn't too much he could do to turn around the struggles of labor in America. He had close relationships with Barack Obama and especially Joe Biden, but organized labor has become a junior partner in the Democratic Party, with moderates often indifferent or even opposed to its demands. You can put all the money into organizing you want. It doesn't mean it will win in the face of a labor law regime captured by corporate America with its ability to run intensive anti-union campaigns that scare people into voting no in union elections. How much union resources should go to campaigns that are not going to bring new members into the labor movement? These are not always easy questions to answer. It's a lot easier to scream "ORGANIZE" than it is to be in Trumka's position trying to navigate the rickety ship called the SS Labor.
Trumka nearly retired in 2017, but did not. He likely would have retired in the meantime, but with his heir apparent Liz Shuler, the present Secretary-Treasurer of the federation and now acting president facing a real challenge from Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson, one not dissimilar to the one he and Sweeney had that won in 1995, he chose to stay on for the time being. His close relationship with Biden has paid off. Democratic presidents have largely ignored unions for decades—Carter and Clinton were terrible on organized labor's issues and Obama wasn't much better, especially in his first term. On the other hand, Joe Biden made a statement directly supporting the attempt to organize Amazon in Alabama, an unprecedented positive intervention into an organizing campaign by a sitting president. It may not have worked—workers still lost the union vote through a brutal anti-union campaign from Amazon. But Trumka convinced Biden to tell the nation how much he supported unions. Moreover, Trumka helped bridge the gap between the Biden administration's support of green energy projects and the building trades' hostility toward them, creating space for real discussion between the president and the labor movement. This was Trumka at his best and most useful.
Trumka also helped steer labor away from its traditional anti-immigrant platform to become of the biggest progressive allies of the immigrant rights movement. He stood strong against racism, including giving a speech in 2008 rejecting the racism pointed at Barack Obama, that got a tremendous amount of attention. Targeting union members who expressed reservations about a Black candidate, Trumka's speech was a statement that racism was no longer welcome in the labor movement.
In the end, Trumka wasn't a saint. But he was one of the best leaders the American labor movement has ever seen. Whether you think that's a low bar or not depends on your perspective. But he worked hard to move the labor movement in a direction that pointed the way toward justice, which the movement had largely abandoned from the 1950s to the 1990s. That he wasn't able to organize the masses of Americans is hardly his fault. He had his weaknesses and maybe hung around a little too long, maybe got a bit out of touch with the workers he represented. But in the pantheon of American union federation leaders, we should remember Trumka as one of the very best.
Erik Loomis, an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, is most recently the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press). He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Follow him @ErikLoomis.
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