A Bigger Tent: Can Richard Trumka Save the Labor Movement?
Date: December 2, 2016
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In 1994 I visited the AFL-CIO’s national headquarters at Sixteenth and I Streets in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of its president, Lane Kirkland. I had just been elected to lead the regional labor federation for Silicon Valley, which entitled me to a seat at Kirkland’s table. Sharply dressed union lobbyists strode past as I stepped into the elevator. In the eighth-floor executive suite, leaders of the country’s biggest unions amassed around an impressive meeting table. At each place was a chair and an ashtray.

When I returned in 1996, the ashtrays were gone. The new president, John Sweeney, had transformed the spacious lobby into a command center for Union Summer—the federation’s signature program to recruit college activists, teach them how to knock on doors, and get them involved in organizing. Energetic young voices echoed through the grand entranceway, and a broad hope for reviving the labor movement seemed to reverberate throughout the building.

Last summer I visited again to interview Richard Trumka, the federation’s president since 2009. The excitement of the Sweeney years was gone, but this time it felt like the grownups were in charge. The calm allowed for some unexpected conversations. Within moments of my arrival, I spoke with longtime activists and former critics of big labor, people who had been marginalized and treated as outsiders in the Kirkland days. They were now high-level staffers.

Something else was different: in the entryway to the executive suite there now hung two framed documents. The first was the signed charter of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the progressive rabble-rousing arm of the labor movement. The second was a photo of an early CIO executive board, including John L. Lewis, the group’s first president. Lewis had come from the mineworkers, and he sought to expand labor’s power by reaching the unorganized core of the country’s workforce and consolidating the multiple unions that had taken up in individual workplaces.

Lewis was largely successful: by the mid-1950s, around one-third of the U.S. workforce was unionized. But the story is different today. Labor laws, such as so-called right to work laws that weaken unions’ bargaining power, are hostile to workers’ rights. Since President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, which re-legitimized the use of scabs, there has been no effective legal recourse for striking workers. Total union membership has dropped by some 3.2 million since 1983.

So now it is Trumka’s task, as it had been Lewis’s, to invigorate labor. To that end, Trumka has brought to the AFL-CIO an unorthodox vision: he wants to connect unions to a wider progressive movement. This means going beyond traditional workplace concerns and speaking out on issues such as deepening inequality, mass incarceration, and a system of immigration that keeps 11 million undocumented workers vulnerable to abuse. Moreover, Trumka has embraced a distinctive brand of leadership. Instead of futilely barking orders to the AFL-CIO’s fifty-seven unions and allied organizations, he tells workers’ stories to the broader American public, brings workers who can’t legally join unions into discussions about the future of labor, and encourages traditional unions to do more to address their inefficiencies and flaws.

His agenda is ambitious, even inspirational. But can he convince union members to follow his lead, to dramatically alter the profile of organized labor from narrow special interest to big tent full of big dreamers?

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Trumka sits behind a large hardwood desk covered in paperweights, knickknacks decked in union logos, and small piles of books and papers. The shelves flanking him display reminders of the job he was sent to do: three dust-covered miners’ helmets and their broken headlamps. He is a broad man, plainly dressed in a button-down shirt with no tie. Trumka smiles easily behind his thick mustache and speaks quietly of his family and earliest influences. It is a far cry from his forceful public style, full of gesticulation and, occasionally, high dudgeon.

Trumka is a third-generation coal miner from Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, a hamlet of 937 people nestled on the western bank of the Monongahela River and seated atop the Pittsburgh coal seam. Nemacolin originated as a company town, built by Youngstown Sheet & Tube, and the miners and their families were expected to fall in line, enduring low pay and brutal working conditions. Trumka says his maternal grandfather encouraged him to go to law school because he understood that the only way for the miners to break their indenture was for their children to get educated and use the law to conquer the coal bosses.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wants to connect unions to a wider progressive movement.

“He had a third-grade education,” Trumka says of his grandfather. “He always read, loved to read.” Trumka took more than advice from his grandfather. “While he really liked ideas and was tolerant, when it came to his values, he was pretty rigid,” Trumka says. “I think I got a lot of that.”

Early on, Trumka developed an unusual schedule—overnight shift at the mine, days at the community college getting an economics degree. Then the union paid for law school. He represented miners in black lung and workers’ compensation cases. He saw firsthand how the support of a union, with its safety and legal teams, could determine whether a miner comes home for dinner with his family.

Trumka’s rise to power in the United Mine Workers of America began during some of its most tumultuous years. By the early 1980s, the union had ousted a corrupt leader named Tony Boyle, who had dominated local chapters. With Boyle gone, Trumka says, the local chapters were left autonomous but also rudderless. They would stage illegal strikes and fight each other for control. “Nobody knew what autonomy meant,” Trumka explains. “They confused autonomy in many instances for chaos.” Trumka wasn’t spared the infighting. He received a death threat on the eve of his own wedding in November 1982.

Earlier that year he had become president of the UMWA with the goal of focusing the chapters on fighting the coal companies, not each other. He poured resources into organizing and coordinating strikes, even in the de-industrializing 1980s when coal companies used the threat of closure to force mineworkers to split from the union. And he used the electoral process to gain advantage over the mine operators: he helped rank-and-file miners run for local office and made sure the devastation caused by black lung disease stayed in the headlines.

The Pittston coal strike of 1989–90 became Trumka’s signature battle. At issue was the Pittston Coal Company’s decision to withhold health benefits from some 1,500 retired coal miners, widows, and disabled miners. Trumka, who had watched miners slowly die off one at a time, decided to fight for a whole group of them at once. He launched an aggressive public relations and grassroots organizing campaign to expose and counter Pittston’s abandonment of its own workers. By putting the heroic image of miners succumbing to black lung disease in front of the cameras, Trumka and his staff won over wider opinion. With the backing of the public, union members in Southwest Virginia stood firm against the company and cut Pittston’s coal production by two-thirds.

When I ask him about that drive, Trumka leans forward, narrows his eyes. The quiet, reflective tone is now gone. “We started doing peaceful civil disobedience,” he recalls. “On a picket line, when people’s lives are at stake and you try to bring in scabs that are going to take their jobs, the chance of that erupting into violent conflict is high.” By channeling anger into civil disobedience, such as sit-down strikes on public roads and convoys to delay coal trucks, the mineworkers were able to escalate the confrontation nonviolently.

At the coal companies’ request, the court issued the union up to fifteen injunctions per day, Trumka recalls. Sometimes the judge would order that only two people at a time could walk the picket line; if the miners violated such an order, the judge would fine the union. “If I played by all those rules, I couldn’t win,” Trumka says. “That’s why they were written that way.”

With fines mounting, Trumka called his executive board together. “I said to the union’s legal team, ‘Get out of here.’ So all the lawyers leave and I say, look here, this is what I intend to do. I’m not going to listen to all of these injunctions. I’m going to do what we have to do to protect the health care of all of these widows, all of these citizens, all of our retirees, all of our pensions, all of the people in that community.” Trumka recognized that local towns depended on the money flowing in from the union members’ pensions and health care funds, and he expected civic leaders to join the effort.

He knew the judge might try to take the union’s treasury as punishment. He recalls telling the board, “I’m going to put that on the line, and if you don’t want to be a part of that, now is the time you should leave so you have total deniability. You’ll have a defense when anybody asks you.” He pauses. “Not a soul left. At that point, we were locked in, we were a unit. Any semblance of dissent or animosity or division that had flowed from the old days was gone.”

The union incurred $64 million in fines and nearly exhausted its $90 million strike fund cutting $225 weekly checks to each of the miners who had walked off the job. But Trumka held fast. His passionate speeches became a central feature of his public image. Tom Juravich, a labor scholar and sociologist, recalls how Trumka inspired the miners with his defiance and willingness to risk the union’s treasury. “Constantly, throughout Pittston, he was pushing very hard in terms of what tactics they were using,” Juravich said. Eventually, the coal companies backed down, and the miners went back to work with their retirees’ health care restored and a pension fund for some former miners who had not previously been covered.

Around the time of the Pittston strike, Trumka recognized an opportunity to expand labor’s reach: building ties across international borders. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was gaining more attention in the United States, and it became clear to Americans that the apartheid state was underwritten financially by global energy corporations, including coal, oil, and natural gas companies such as Royal Dutch Shell. With a common enemy, Trumka saw a chance to connect the mostly white UMWA’s fight for economic justice with the South African trade unionists’ struggle. Trumka calls the mine workers “a very, very conservative base,” but he “got them to do things that they probably never dreamed about doing.” One of these was a UMWA-led boycott of Shell oil in the United States, which helped to create international pressure that ultimately ended the company’s support for the apartheid regime.

Civil disobedience and international solidarity paid dividends for Trumka during his UMWA presidency, and his successes would influence his approach to the challenges facing the labor movement as a whole—especially when the traditional political channels for labor closed down.

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When Republicans swept Congress in 1994, Trumka and other labor leaders lost any hope of access to policymaking. They also felt that the AFL-CIO’s leadership had grown disconnected from the urgency of labor’s challenges. Kirkland, then the federation’s president, was a longtime supporter of Cold War policies, such as the nuclear arms race, and the insurgents felt his entire worldview was out of touch. “We were getting our tails kicked here, domestically,” Trumka says. Along with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerry McEntee, Steelworkers’ President George Becker, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President John Sweeney, Trumka formed a working group to develop better union-building strategies.

In a notable 2008 speech, Trumka called out white union members on their lingering prejudices.

In its four decades, the AFL-CIO had never seen a contested election for its top offices, but, having failed to convince Kirkland to shift his focus, the working group decided to stage an open challenge. The insurgent candidates reflected new demographics. Services had replaced heavy industry as the major source of union membership, making the SEIU’s Sweeney an obvious choice for the top spot. And with women and Latinos changing the face of labor, the group picked Linda Chavez-Thompson for executive vice president.

Trumka would stand for secretary-treasurer, though not without some reluctance. “Get the hell out of here!” he initially told his fellow insurgents. “I’m happy where I am.” Then he went home and telephoned his father, a retired coal miner. “Well, you started the goddamn thing,” Trumka recalls his father saying. “You may as well finish it.”

The dissident slate, known as the New Voice ticket, won the 1995 election with the support of thirty-four unions representing 57 percent of the AFL-CIO’s membership. The victory marked a dramatic populist shift from the insular, top-heavy Kirkland era. Shortly after the election, Sweeney told the Chicago Tribune the federation would seek “to train a thousand organizers as soon as we can.”

But optimism withered quickly. Under Sweeney’s presidency, the AFL-CIO made progress politically but was less successful in organizing new members, which the New Voice slate viewed as labor’s most pressing need. Unified electoral strategy and tightly run field campaigns were all well and good, but few AFL-CIO affiliates got the message about investing in new membership.

“The AFL-CIO tried to promote organizing from 1995 until 2005,” labor scholar Richard Hurd told me, “but it was very clear that the member unions resisted . . . any effort to coordinate any organizing.” Hurd argued that, in the political realm, the affiliates “accept the leadership and guidance and coordination of the federation,” but “the AFL-CIO has proven that it cannot play a role in organizing.”

Trumka also experienced a personal setback when a 1996 scandal forced him to retreat from the national stage just as he was arriving. Federal investigators were looking into an alleged kickback scheme benefiting donors who supported the election of Teamsters President Ron Carey, and the findings threatened to implicate Trumka. Ultimately he was not charged, but the scandal pushed him out of the spotlight. “It’s like the guy vanished,” said Bill Fletcher, Jr. a close observer of the labor movement and author, with Fernando Gapasin, of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice (2009).

“He had initially been out there raising the rabble after he and Sweeney and [Chavez-Thompson] got elected,” Fletcher said. But after the Teamsters scandal, Trumka was relegated to carrying out the more traditional role of a secretary-treasurer—an internal, administrative functionary.

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What brought Trumka back to the fore were the intertwined commitments to racial and economic justice he had developed during the UMWA’s anti-apartheid work.

When Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, Fletcher visited Trumka. “I was outraged that organized labor was not seizing upon the situation in order to really press a case around race and class,” Fletcher explained. “I go to see him and I sit in his office, and virtually before I could say anything he lays out an analysis of the connection between neoliberalism and the Katrina disaster aftermath. It was brilliant.”

Three years later, when an African American senator from Illinois decided to run for president, Trumka got the chance to air his analysis of class warfare and racial injustice on the public stage. To anyone who hadn’t been paying attention to Trumka’s career, his frank and impassioned speech at the 2008 United Steelworkers’ convention might have come as a shock. Trumka called out white union members on their lingering prejudices. “We can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there”—many from union households, he said—who “just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man.”

The speech went viral and was considered “incredibly controversial,” according to Juravich. In a climate where many public figures, politicians, and labor leaders normally won’t touch the subject of racism, Trumka was willing.

“I think [Trumka is] entirely sincere,” Fletcher told me. “I think that he absolutely gets this issue, that he understands race like few other white labor leaders.” Trumka’s challenge would be to translate his understanding into the work of labor’s largest and, arguably, most sluggish federation by spreading a social justice message that matters to all working people, even those not in unions.

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Since taking over the AFL-CIO presidency in 2009, Trumka has broadened big labor’s policy agenda, connecting workers’ rights and collective organization to the challenges of mass incarceration, immigration, and inequality—issues that have traditionally been outside unions’ purview.

This has created some grumbling among union leaders who might prefer to use the AFL-CIO’s resources to bolster the membership rolls. But as Trumka argued in a 2013 speech in Chicago, “We have to explain to people who genuinely fear for their future that their insecurity is not caused by the firefighter who still has a pension; by the union auto worker who still has job security or by government spending. . . . We have to explain that the insecurity is caused by an economy and a political system that have been thrown out of balance and that a voice for workers is the solution, not the problem.”

The addition of ‘alt-labor’ to the AFL-CIO’s portfolio has some grumbling about the downfall of traditional unions.

Trumka’s ambition to create connections between union members and non-union workers is still far from completely realized. Some say those links barely exist, even in blueprint form. Yet, his analysis points to an economy that is hurting all working people.

For Trumka, being a voice for workers means supporting immigration reform and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented migrants in the country. This change has been brewing in the previously nativist AFL-CIO for two decades. Where the federation once sought to keep immigrants out in order to protect union members’ wages from competition, Trumka and his recent predecessors came to understand that employers exploit undocumented status to cut wages for all workers. “As long as you have 11 million [undocumented] people out there that can be denied their rights, that can be cheated out of their wages, they’re used by unscrupulous employers to drive the wages down of everybody,” Trumka said. “Every worker out there, whether you came on the Mayflower, or you came last week, they’re driving your wages down.”

Indeed, a 2009 study by the National Employment Law Project finds that low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City lose more than $56.4 million per week as a result of employment and labor law violations such as paying less than the federal minimum wage, forcing workers to work off the clock, and illegally classifying workers as independent contractors. “If you had two people that are semi-equally qualified,” Trumka said, “and one can enforce their rights and one you can steal from, which do you think some of those employers are going to go for?” Bringing immigrants into the legitimate economy, the theory goes, would reduce wage theft.

Trumka is also using his position to protest the mass incarceration of African American men. “I saw friends that got caught up in [prison] and couldn’t get out,” he told me. “We don’t rehabilitate them when they get incarcerated. Generally we make them worse. . . . So they come out, they’re totally isolated and alienated from society; they don’t even get a voice to change the rules that affected them, because they don’t get the right to vote.” Reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow(2010) further brought home the significance of the issue and reinforced Trumka’s conviction to act.

As with undocumented immigrants, Trumka argues that there is an economic incentive to stop disenfranchising prisoners and treating them like second-class citizens. “They’re out there dragging down wages for everybody else, because they’ll take jobs for cash, under the table at a lower rate because they’ve got no way to enforce their rights,” he said. “If you’re going to build an economy that really works for everybody, and shared prosperity, then it really has to work for everybody. They’re part of everybody as far as I can see.”

Mass incarceration and the relegation of immigrants to the shadows bolster a third trend: inequality. “Every place I go, that’s all people talk about,” Trumka recently told the Financial Times. “They really don’t talk about the deficit or the Federal Reserve. They talk about wages, and how they’re stretched, and how they’re losing ground all the time, and how their kids’ college loans are eating them alive.” The AFL-CIO maintains a quasi-watchdog role over Wall Street, publishing reports and buying ads to show the vast inequity between CEO pay and worker pay and alerting the public about corporate tax avoidance schemes.

“There aren’t any bumper-sticker answers” to immigration reform, incarceration and inequality, Trumka admits, but he believes that talking about and drawing connections among them will help to unite the working class around a social justice agenda. And the effort appears to be doing good things for labor’s image. A 2013 Pew poll shows the public’s approval of unions rose from 41 percent in 2011 to 51 percent in 2013, even as union membership declined. The uptick is important, as Trumka hopes to unite the wider public—what Occupy activists called the 99 percent—around common understandings of the forces driving inequality and to draw together a broad coalition to address it.

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To lay out an agenda is one thing. To move it forward in the civic domain is another.

Recent years have made painfully clear just how little power labor has in politics. Even under unified Democratic control in Washington, labor leaders have been unable to hold members of Congress—whose campaigns union members support with door knocking, phone banking, and donations in the millions—accountable to a working people’s agenda. This was illustrated by the 2009 failure of the labor movement’s main policy priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have eased the way for more union organizing. But President Obama never championed the bill, and it lost key supporters in the Senate. Today, with D.C. gridlocked and the Senate moving to Republican control, the prospects for labor-friendly policy change seem dimmer than ever.

Internal strife has further weakened labor’s hand. In 2005 several unions—including the SEIU, the Teamsters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW)—split from the AFL-CIO to form a separate federation called Change to Win. This new federation siphoned several million members from the AFL-CIO’s rolls. Subsequently, Change to Win succumbed to infighting of its own, and the UFCW, the Laborers’ Union, and the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, UNITE HERE, returned to the AFL-CIO. The SEIU, the Teamsters, and the United Farm Workers stayed with Change to Win.

But all this doesn’t mean labor has given up on influencing policy. Trumka hopes that by convening more progressive allies under labor’s tent, he can build a working-class movement that politicians will be unable to ignore. “There’s still a large reliance on the party system,” Trumka said, “and people still look at the [Democratic] party being able to deliver—instead of us being able to build an independent source of power that could then push both parties to deliver for working people.”

“I think he’s seen the power of reaching out,” Juravich said. “The thing that Richard has realized is that given the gridlock in Washington, he is not playing the same role that . . . Lane Kirkland did before him.”

The need for unity is a constant challenge for leadership. In part because he heads a federation rather than an individual union, there are things Trumka cannot do. He cannot tell union leaders where and how to organize and grow membership, force individual unions to speak with one voice on policy issues, or order all the lawyers out of the room to lead the members in civil disobedience. Shedding command-and-control notions of exercising power, Trumka has learned to lead in other ways.

“A lot of his role really needs to be the role of the storyteller,” Fletcher said. Trumka “needs to be the person that is helping to weave together the alliances to build the kind of majoritarian movement that we need in order to win.” The focus on immigration reform, mass incarceration, and inequality might be at odds with labor’s traditional role, but it might also be the foundation of a new movement, that “independent source of power.” “Trumka’s speeches, as militant as they are,” Fletcher added, “cannot substitute for strategy. They can’t substitute for tactical and strategic audacity.”

In his five years as AFL-CIO president, Trumka has learned to use the infrastructure of the labor movement—its state and regional governing bodies—to lay the groundwork for changes within the federation. By holding the state and local bodies accountable to annual organizing targets, he hopes to stabilize the embattled AFL-CIO and prepare it for new growth.

And under Trumka, the AFL-CIO has been opened to organizations beyond conventional unions. These include “alt-labor” groups organizing low-wage and immigrant-workers outside of standard union structures and allies in the broader progressive movement, such as the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women. In 2011, Trumka persuaded the federation’s executive council to allow the Taxi Workers’ Alliance, the national network of taxi drivers who organize collectively but are not covered by a collective bargaining contract, to affiliate directly with the AFL-CIO. This was the first such allowance for an organization representing independent contractors. Similarly the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network and the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance represent the interests of workers who are legally prohibited from joining traditional unions, but the AFL-CIO now has a wing for them, too.

Some conservatives have suggested that these new organizations, because they don’t do collective bargaining, could pave the way for a watered-down version of traditional unions. But Trumka is treating alt-labor groups as members of the family, recalling John L. Lewis’s legacy of inclusiveness. Accordingly, the AFL-CIO is backing minimum wage increases around the country, even though such initiatives compete with union campaigns for higher pay. At the 2013 AFL-CIO convention, Trumka made the unprecedented move of inviting low-wage worker advocacy groups, along with other progressive allies, to join planning committees to help set the direction of the labor movement.

“It’s multiple models. It’s not just one model. I think that’s where we screwed up over the years,” Trumka said. “We tried to pigeonhole everybody into the one model that we have, even when it stopped being effective for workers and was irrelevant to some workers.”

This openness has impressed labor leaders such as Joe Hansen, president of the UFCW. Hansen understands the need to expand the borders of the AFL-CIO better than anyone: his union sponsors the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, a campaign of Wal-Mart employees risking their jobs and livelihoods to organize for a change. He thinks the emphasis on building the grassroots base has been genuine under Trumka and his team. “They are not just saying it but actually getting out and doing it,” Hansen said. “I see more of a concentration on young workers, which is sorely needed.”

Amid globalization, congressional gridlock, and growing inequality, Trumka is reviving labor’s hallowed commitment to solidarity but also stretching that commitment to new lengths. “I talk to them more often. They talk to me,” he said of labor’s new allies. “The arrogance is breaking down, and we’re becoming collegial again. The movements are starting to actually meld together, where we understand that we’re much more powerful together than we are separately.”

Against the insularity of labor past—all for the union—Trumka is tying labor’s future to that of the wider class of working Americans. The question is, if his strategy doesn’t bring more members into unions, will progressives be pining for the day when labor was more self-interested?

Amy

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