Erik Loomis

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

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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.

History's worst secretary of defense: Rumsfeld's death leaves behind a legacy of arrogance and violence

Rumsfeld's upbringing isn't really very interesting; upper-middle class German-American family from Illinois, Boy Scouts, Princeton, ROTC, marriage at 22, kids, bit of time in the Navy. He started in politics in a pretty normal way, as a congressional aide to David Dennison of Ohio and then Robert Griffin of Michigan.

He then worked at a banking firm for a couple of years in the early 1960s, but then ran for Congress in 1962. He won that race and served four terms. He was a generally moderate Republican at this time and supported civil-rights legislation. He also co-sponsored the Freedom of Information Act, an ironic move given his later career.

But during these years, he was exposed to a vile force that has done tremendous damage to the world—the Economics Department at the University of Chicago. This transformed his views, as these ideas placed the seeds of evil in so many people over the decades and all the way to the present. How much did Milton Friedman come to love Don Rumsfeld? He later bemoaned Reagan selecting George Bush as his vice president as the greatest mistake of his presidency (how dare he use the term "voodoo economics!") and claimed that if Reagan had listened and selected Rumsfeld instead, "I believe he would have succeeded Reagan as president and the sorry Bush-Clinton period would never have occurred." Hoo boy. What a world that would have been.

In 1969, Rumsfeld resigned from Congress to go work for a nice man named Richard Nixon. The new president wanted to reform the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which administered most of the War on Poverty. Rumsfeld, who had voted against its creation and who still believed it should be eliminated, did not want to take the job of director. After all, by this time he was pretty committed to his Randian economics. But Nixon, who believed that it should exist in some way but under conservative leadership, convinced him to take the job. But hey, at least he got to hire some really lovely people like Frank Carlucci and Dick Cheney to work under him.

Pleased with Rummy's administration, Nixon named him Counselor to the President in 1970 and allowed him to retain the Cabinet rank he had gotten at OEO. Rumsfeld became one of Richard Nixon's top White House advisors, with his own office in the West Wing. Why did Nixon like him so much? One quote demonstrates his Nixonian values: "He's a ruthless little bastard. You can be sure of that." The Iraqis are sure of that anyway. Finally, in 1973, Nixon named Rumsfeld the NATO ambassador.

When Nixon resigned, Rumsfeld returned to Washington to head up Gerald Ford's transition team. Ford and Rumsfeld were close from their time in the House together. Then, Rumsfeld became Ford's Secretary of Defense. Here he was a pretty open bureaucratic enemy of Henry Kissinger, as Rumsfeld was committed to building up America's traditional military forces, unlike the secretary of the state.

Rumsfeld argued the classic old strategy of the Cold War: that a reduction in military armaments and forces would open a gap with the Soviets. So he pushed for significantly expanded missile systems and a big shipbuilding program. Overall, his first run as Secretary of Defense was ultimately relatively uncontroversial compared to others during the Cold War. Kissinger was the more powerful player on foreign policy, even if Rumsfeld was very good at playing the inside Washington game.

Like any rich Republican with connections throughout the defense industry and every other government-related business, Rumsfeld found his talents in high demand after the Ford administration. He became president and CEO of the pharmaceutical company GD Searle. He won a bunch of big awards for being such a great CEO, which I have little doubt was about currying favor from this powerful Washington insider. He was CEO of General Instrument, a semiconductor company, from 1990 to 1993 and then chairman of Gilead Sciences, another Big Pharma firm, from 1997 to 2001.

At the same time, Rumsfeld was a useful guy for Republican presidents to have around. In 1983, for instance, Reagan named him his Special Envoy for the Middle East, which allowed him to meet with a good buddy: Saddam Hussein. They had lots in common actually, such as opposing Syria and Iran. Of course, Iraq was in the middle of its war with Iran, which the US supported with significant investment on the Iraqi side. Sure, Rumsfeld expressed some mild disapproval of Saddam's frequent use of chemical weapons, but that wasn't going to get in the way of the alliance and doing some business. This was just the most prominent of Rumsfeld's many forays into representing Reagan and then George Bush internationally and on domestic issues.

That included everything from Reagan's Special Envoy on the Law of the Sea Treaty and a member of the Joint Committee on US-Japan Relations to his time on the National Economic Commission and being a member of the FCC's High Definition Television Advisory Committee. Maybe he just got to watch a lot of cool new TVs in that last one, I don't know. Anyway, more significant was Bill Clinton naming him to the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States in 1998, which produced a report claiming Iraq, Iran and North Korea would have intercontinental ballistic missile systems that could strike the US in five to 10 years. I wonder if we will run into those three supposed threats later in this obituary?

Rumsfeld was also an active member of the Project for a New American Century, that vile group of neoconservatives who saw the fall of the Soviet Union as an unvarnished victory that opened the door for the US to dominate the world through an aggressive free-market capitalism backed with robust military force. Just what the world was asking for. Rumsfeld, working with Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney and other lovely people, basically believed the US should not be restrained by international law and they did the intellectual work to create the American response to 9/11 before it even occurred, ready to go with turning Iraq into the personal experiment in American awesomeness and badassery. Their 2000 document "Rebuilding America's Defenses," was such an aggressive statement of American power that it received both national and international condemnation for seeking to overthrow world order, especially after all the people involved with it ended up working for President George W. Bush.

It is, of course, due to Rumsfeld's return to the position of Secretary of Defense under Bush that this obituary exists. He holds more responsibility than arguably any single person for the disaster of US foreign policy after 9/11 and the huge numbers of dead, American and Iraqi. Unlike when he served under Ford, there was no great rival to Rumsfeld implementing policy. The entire administration was staffed with Rumsfeld allies, most notably Dick Cheney, the most powerful vice-president in US history. Rumsfeld and his cronies sought to apply PNAC ideals into the administration. This first came through their plans to modernize the military by significantly reducing its size. While earlier in his career Rumsfeld had argued for a larger military, now he saw a fast and effective fighting force as the way to go. This would soon be a major area of controversy when his ideas proved less than effective in his preferred war.

When the attacks of September 11, 2001 took place, Rumsfeld had little real interest in exploring the real roots of the problem of terrorism, especially in regards to Saudi Arabia. Rather, he applied the event to his preconceived notion of the world's problems. Bush's Axis of Evil speech simply reflected Rumsfeld's and PNAC's obsessions that Bush was happy to share. Rumsfeld was already obsessed with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, as we saw in the Clinton years. In particular, Rumsfeld wanted to use 9/11 as an excuse to take out Saddam Hussein. In his memoir, Known and Unknown, he later dissembled about all this: "Commentators have suggested that it was strange or obsessive for the President and his advisers to have raised questions about whether Saddam Hussein was somehow behind the attack. I have never understood the controversy. I had no idea if Iraq was or was not involved, but it would have been irresponsible for any administration not to have asked the question." This is bullshit.

There's a huge difference between an administration asking a question and telling lies to start a war with a nation that had nothing at all to do with the attacks, pushing uncorroborated or false claims about weapons of mass destruction and engaging in a year-long full-frontal assault to justify an invasion, followed by not having a clue about what to do after the war ended except to apply PNAC's vision of fundamentalist free-market capitalism and assume everyone would see that America was awesome. Rumsfeld has prevaricated throughout this history. Another known known.

Even so, as the nation planned his war against Iraq, Rumsfeld kept complaining that the US was going to use too many troops! You don't need a big military to take out and rebuild Iraq! Not surprisingly, thanks in no small part to his ideology, the war and its aftermath was a disaster. It was easy enough to overthrow Saddam. No one loved him. His military had been seriously hamstrung by the decade of sanctions after 1991.

But who or what would replace him? Rumsfeld and his cronies seemingly never really considered this, placing faith in ex-pat hucksters such as Ahmed Chalabi instead of engaging in real studies of Iraqi culture. Hell, Rumsfeld and his people didn't even have a functional knowledge of the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Islam, simply the most important point in the history of the religion and the societies build upon it, an issue that it so happens defines much about Iraqi politics and those of the nations around it. Chalabi told Rumseld what he wanted to hear, was rewarded with plum posts in the new Iraqi government, and, welp. When Germany and France questioned the morality of this invasion, Rumsfeld dismissed them as "Old Europe," by which he meant effeminate weak nations, as opposed to Bush's Coalition of the Willing, which was super manly and buff and well-oiled with flaunting muscles. Poland will not be forgotten! Meanwhile, there was this slight war going on in Afghanistan all through this period. Given that's where Al Qaeda actually was and where Osama Bin Laden was hiding, you'd think Rumsfeld would have cared about this, but he didn't. He thought of it is as a sideshow to the real show. Given that he didn't care about nation-building one bit, even as he was embracing wars that required it, his disinterest in Afghanistan undoubtedly made the situation there even worse than it had to be.

The disaster began in Iraq almost immediately. Cultural institutions and Iraq's amazing cultural patrimony were looted to sell on the black market. Rumsfeld's reply: "Stuff happens … and it's untidy and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that's what's going to happen here." Freedom baby!

He also responded, "The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, 'My goodness, were there that many vases?'" In conclusion, Donald Rumsfeld was a monster of a human being.

It's not as if this was unknown. George H.W. Bush wrote (or ghost-wrote, no doubt), "I've never been that close to him anyway. There's a lack of humility, a lack of seeing what the other guy thinks. He's more kick ass and take names, take numbers. I think he paid a price for that. Rumsfeld was an arrogant fellow." Well, Bush can go to hell himself for hiring him and letting him do whatever he wanted, but he was correct.

Rumsfeld's war was pure ideology. It couldn't just be fought to eliminate Saddam or fight terrorism. It had to be fought his way, with his military, his preferred weapons, his idealized free-market capitalism replacing Hussein. Of course, there were no weapons of mass destruction, no support of Al-Qaeda, no nothing. The entire war was based upon the lies of Donald Rumsfeld and his friends. Rumsfeld was sure they were there. In March 2003, he said on ABC's This Week, "We know where they [Iraq's WMD] are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat … I would also add, we saw from the air that there were dozens of trucks that went into that facility after the existence of it became public in the press and they moved things out. They dispersed them and took them away. So there may be nothing left. I don't know that. But it's way too soon to know. The exploitation is just starting." The exploitation was indeed just starting, but Donald Rumsfeld was the exploiter.

Rumsfeld was central in the torture and "extraordinary rendition" that marked the treatment of Iraqis and Afghanis during these wars. As Rumsfeld supported the use of black site detention, the American use of Abu Ghraib prison and the endless (and still continuing) detaining of supposed terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, itself a colonial possession stolen from Cuba, he was responsible for the abuses at all of these places.

He accepted this responsibility, in no small part because he didn't care about such minor things as torturing possibly guilty but quite possibly not guilty prisoners. In one memo about forcing prisoners to stand in one position for four hours to break them, Rumsfeld smarmily responded, "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing [by prisoners] limited to 4 hours?" Human rights organizations such as the ACLU attempted to sue him for his responsibility in these atrocities, but there was no way the US "justice" system was going to hold him accountable for torturing Muslims.

Rumsfeld consistently believed that the right messaging would salvage the popularity of the war for Americans. Talking about "sacrifice" was big for Rummy, but he could never articulate what we were sacrificing for, except to play 9/11 footage over and over again, which had squat to do with Iraq and everyone knew it by 2004, even if they should have known it before. But Rumsfeld could not be moved off this messaging obsession, developing then-secret Pentagon PR plans. He couldn't even be bothered to sign letters of condolences for dead American soldiers, using a signing machine instead. He had more important things to deal with, like killing brown people.

And of course, there was the greatest bit of messaging in American history: "Now what is the message there? The message is that there are no 'knowns.' There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say, 'well, that's basically what we see as the situation,' that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns." It's a wonder Rumsfeld couldn't sell this war to the parents whose children were dying for no good reason.

For all of this, Rumsfeld received the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in 2003. That award is supposed to go to "those who have made monumental and lasting contributions to the cause of freedom worldwide." And if you consider "freedom" to mean breaking the law to sell arms to Iran and sending the money to commit human rights violations in Nicaragua, then giving it to Rumsfeld makes perfect sense. Moreover, in 2011, CPAC gave Rummy their "Defender of the Constitution Award." Only the best people.

Finally, Rumsfeld was forced out, the worst secretary of defense in American history. Eight retired generals and admirals publicly called for his resignation for his utter lack of competence. Although George W. Bush continued to back him, Rumsfeld retired on election day in 2006. Some Republicans claimed his delay in resigning cost them at the ballot box, but his work was done and it wouldn't have made any difference.

Rumsfeld retired to the life of a slightly disgraced public official whose standing in official circles never really suffered. He wrote a memoir, for which he at least had the minor grace to give all the profits to veterans' organizations. He sat on many foundations and corporate boards. He also started his own foundation, The Rumsfeld Foundation, which brings people in from central Asia to school them in Rumsfeld's preferred free-market fundamentalism. He also complained about paying his taxes.

Because the world likes to remind us of link between human rights crimes of the past and present, Rumsfeld purchased the plantation where Frederick Douglass was taken as a young slave to be broken by a slavebreaker. In Douglass' first Autobiography, the physical beating he placed on the slavebreaker and the inability of the man to tell anyone lest it destroy his business is the moment where his manhood is formed. This land was owned, until today, by Donald Rumsfeld. Evil is attracted to evil.

In a just world, Rumsfeld would have been tried for war crimes, or at least became Washington's latest persona non grata. Instead, he got a huge advance for his memoirs, established The Rumsfeld Foundation to push his ridiculous ideas and was honored by the 2011 CPAC conference. Finally, the beast is dead, a man who represented the very worst of American arrogance and violence toward the rest of the world.

Alas, there are so many beasts to replace him.

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