Richard Trumka–once a coal miner-lawyer from tiny Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, but for the past fourteen years secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO–will officially announce his candidacy for presidency of the labor federation on Thursday. But with no other candidates even rumored and, by Trumka’s account, a majority of votes already in the bag, the transfer of power from President John Sweeney next September seems almost certain.
The future of American unions and the AFL-CIO is not.
The shrunken labor movement is battered and divided at the end of the Sweeney era, which opened with high expectations for change and soldiered on against bad political and economic odds. But with Democrats in power in Washington, and an economic crisis vindicating much of labor’s long-ignored critique of American capitalism to both officials and the public, Trumka sees a moment of great opportunity.
Yet the big question the 59-year-old Trumka faces is whether someone so identified with the status quo can lead organized labor toward the changes that are necessary to forge strategic unity and to win power in the workplace and the political realm.
In response to criticisms that the AFL-CIO bureaucracy has tried to dominate member unions too much, Trumka is promising to change the AFL-CIO to "make it more transparent, more focused, more responsive, with more participation and ownership by the affiliates. And you’ll find us very, very aggressive on the economic and political playing field, and more focused on the grassroots."
Trumka thinks his experience as president of the tiny, feisty Mine Workers–where he ran as an insurgent advocate of rank-and-file democracy and led the heroic
1989 Pittston coal strike–and then as the number-two AFL-CIO official gives him the knowledge and ability that the labor movement needs. Though he often worked in Sweeney’s shadow, last year he won praise for openly challenging racial prejudice against presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"I’m really proud of the time I served with John Sweeney," Trumka says. "He’s a good man with an outstanding record of service to America’s working families. We probably have over the years lost a little bit of energy. A lot of that is due to the political realities, the eight years of George Bush that was certainly a political setback, and then the unions that left the federation [to form Change to Win] despite our efforts. But I think we have a new opportunity right now."
Trumka looks back admiringly to organized labor in the 1930s as having the right balance of social movement and institution-building. "I think the balance in the labor movement has shifted" too much toward the institution part of the equation, he says. To counter that, he wants to focus more on the grassroots, including the AFL-CIO’s state and local organizations.
"We need to get back in touch with young workers," he says. "I plan to do a listening tour right after we announce." Both college-educated and blue-collar young workers, who show strong union sympathies in some polls, are among the hardest hit in the current crisis, he says. But he also plans to give special attention to the unemployed, low-wage workers and temporary workers of all types.
Trumka, who was seen by some union leaders as too militant when Sweeney picked him, has long had an affinity for the industrial unions, but he also has some strong supporters among service unions, such as the California Nurses Association and AFSCME (public employees). As secretary-treasurer he worked with union pension funds and educated himself on economic issues.
He wants the AFL-CIO in the future to devote more attention to research and economic policy and to seek more advice from labor-friendly academics.
In Trumka’s view, the unionism of the 1930s forged a social compact that made possible the middle class prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s. But since the early 1970s, Wall Street and financial interests have dominated American politics, dismantling the compact and increasing inequality, debt and insecurity as workers struggled to keep up. These interests created the current crisis through their recklessness and deregulation, won through political money power–such as $5 billion in campaign contributions and lobbying by the financial industries over the past decade. "Though Republicans deserve the lion’s share of the blame," he says, "it’s been a bipartisan failure, and it’s been driven by Wall Street domination of politics."
The deregulatory, antiworker, bubble model of capitalism failed. Now labor’s long-held goals are regarded as more legitimate. "What we’ve been saying over the last couple of decades has proven true," Trumka says. "In the ’90s we were talking about excessive CEO pay. We were saying deregulation and paper machinations no one understood would cause problems. When they did away with the distinction of commercial and investment banks, we said there would be consequences, and we were right. Now we’re at a crossroads and the American people don’t want the old model, and we’ve got the credibility. The key is, build more allies at the grassroots, educate them and mobilize them so the pushback is from politics at the grassroots, not just Wall Street."
"We have to get back to a social-compact model, but it will be different because the world is different," Trumka says. "We have to come up with a new model.
Debt-financed consumer spending doesn’t work. So when they say they want to stimulate the economy, we ask the question, To what end? If you want to stimulate it back to where it was, that won’t work for America. So we’re looking for a new compact, and collective bargaining is part of the solution because it gives workers more money to spend."
So how would Trumka create this new compact?
"I think it’s extremely important that we reunify [the labor movement], not reunification in name but reunification of purpose," he says. "To some extent we’ve already done this. The split was more at the top than the bottom. Second, look at the Employee Free Choice Act: we’re unified. We’ll be unified around healthcare. There are issues where you won’t see any difference even if [the Change to Win] unions don’t come back, but I think several of the unions will unify."
Trumka thinks a strong labor center, or federation, is essential, but he says union leaders in recent years became "more interested in protecting turf than building a movement."
Trumka wants to refine labor’s political operation, pushing it down into state and local politics and using it to hold politicians accountable between elections.
And he wants labor to more bluntly make its positions known. "I think we need to step out and say something is good or bad for workers; I don’t care who offers it," he says.
The federation would mainly help unions to develop strategic plans for organizing new members and to train organizers, much as it has done recently. But Trumka has one ambitious new proposal: asking unions to provide a reserve army of 1,000 or more organizers who could be sent to help other unions in strategic campaigns or to fight inter-union raiding.
"The raiding stuff is a zero-sum game," he says, singling out the Service Employees actions against UNITE HERE as a "particularly outrageous example."
But raiding is just one manifestation of the perpetually thorny problem of deciding which union has the primary right to organize a particular workplace or industry. Trumka thinks unions will be able to resolve those jurisdictional disputes as the Employee Free Choice Act opens up organizing, especially if rank-and- file workers play a bigger role. "Those [jurisdictional] problems don’t bubble up but come from top down," he argues.
Although the Employee Free Choice Act seems bogged down in Congress and at best in danger of serious dilution, Trumka says he thinks "we’ll get an act that will give us everything we need. I think it will have dispute resolution in it. It will allow us to have a union without being threatened, intimidated or fired." But even if that happens, he says, unions will need a strategic plan and much training of organizers to take advantage of it.
Much of Trumka’s plan echoes initiatives the Sweeney team has long promoted, but unlike the 1995 contested election, this year there is not likely to be the open debate over labor’s future. But restive union leaders, inside and outside the AFL-CIO, are debating what they want out of a labor federation, and Trumka will have to respond to that dialogue, as he did a few months ago by opening up the AFL-CIO’s books to affiliate leaders.
At a time when many of them want a leaner federation, Trumka wants a more ambitious labor center, but he thinks the two goals can be reconciled if the AFL-CIO becomes more efficient and focuses on priorities, paring what is "nice but not necessary."
Many details of what Trumka might do are still missing, but in one sense, they depend not just on him but on the entire labor movement and how it responds to the opportunity–which Trumka hopes is before us–for dramatic growth in unions and a profound shift in the fortunes of American workers.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, writes frequently for The Nation on labor issues.