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From militant to Washington insider

On Richard Trumka


Tim Goulet discusses the life and death of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president Richard Trumka died from a heart attack while on vacation with his family August 5. He had recently taken a break from holiday to rally with members of his former union, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), who had been forced into a strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama.

Glowing eulogies from all corners of the liberal universe followed Trumka’s death. Leading Democrat and Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer was barely able to hold himself together on the Senate floor. He quavered that we “lost a fierce warrior when we needed him most” Another leading Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, memorialized Trumka, proclaiming that his leadership “transcended a single movement,” and that he “fought with principle and persistence.” Vermont Senator and budget chair Bernie Sanders said that Trumka “never forgot where he came from.” Even the highest executive in the capitalist world, U.S. President Joe Biden, called Trumka “a great labor leader” and “friend,” and phoned his wife afterward to offer condolences.

The plaudits were not confined to high-ranking Democrats—many on the Left fell over themselves in approbation, too. Jacobin deputy editor Micah Uetricht posted on Twitter that Trumka “did his best” to “revitalize the U.S. labor movement.” The decision was even made at the recent Democratic Socialists of America convention to maintain a moment of silence to honor Trumka.

Harold Myerson wrote in an excessively laudatory American Prospect article that Trumka paid homage to DSA founder Michael Harrington during his acceptance speech as AFL-CIO president. By this time Trumka had spent some years in the AFL-CIO executive as secretary-treasurer, and had been following somewhat in Harrington’s footsteps by orienting toward the Democratic Party.

Fellow members of the labor officialdom were equally effusive. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, declared: “If you have to be in a war, you want to be in the trenches with Richard Trumka.” Top AFL-CIO staffer Damon Silvers went so far as to compare Trumka with Eugene Debs, “in whose company he can hold his head high.” For those who may be unaware, Debs was a revolutionary socialist.

Even conservatives got in on the act. Donald Trump’s former U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, remembered Trumka as a “true giant in the labor movement.” Suzanne Clark, chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that “we enjoyed many years of strong partnership on shared priorities.”

It is certainly a bizarre amalgam when leftists, labor officials, corporate media, and conservatives are all praising a labor leader. One cannot help but wonder: if the leader of the capitalist world is praising Trumka, how well did he lead the class struggle? An honest assessment is far more appropriate to the moment than uncritical, and in some cases, dishonest, hosannas.

Trumka had deep working-class roots. His father and grandfather were mine workers. They both worked in the same Pennsylvania coal mine, and both fell victim to black lung disease. Trumka worked in that same mine himself, but understandably chose a different road, going to law school and becoming a labor official. He put in the required time working in the mine to run for office, and would later rise up the rungs of labor leadership. Trumka was UMWA president from 1982 to 1995, then AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer from 1995 to 2009, and finally, president of the federation from 2009 to his death.

Trumka did plenty of good. He led the Pittston Strike as UMWA president, helped found Jobs with Justice, and at least rhetorically championed more aggressive organizing of non-union workers, including immigrants and those who labor for the lowest wages. But the more Trumka moved up the hierarchical ladder, the further he moved from any semblance of class struggle. In 1985, the then-UMWA president could tell the convention of the Newspaper Guild that:

All of us in the labor movement must consider that we’re not going to establish a government of the people in this country as long as we remain so closely tied to the Democratic Party.

This is quite a juxtaposition when considering the predilection for Beltway politics that would characterize Trumka’s AFL-CIO tenure, and the deep ties to the corporate-dominated Democratic Party he would later cultivate. As AFL-CIO president Trumka would personally reassure U.S. business leaders that unions should not be thought of as a threat to the system, rather, they should be seen as partners.

This brand of top-down unionism and insider-baseball politics has led to union-member cynicism and passivity—and has led others to see unions as nothing more than a special interest group little different than other Washington lobbies. Even worse, it has led many non-union workers to a place where the perceived cost-benefit analysis does not make joining a union seem worth the risk.

This cynical attitude was perhaps best illustrated when, during the massive Black Lives Matter protests last summer, the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C. was set on fire. In essence, anti-racist protesters saw the main structure of the U.S. labor movement as just another symbol of the establishment. This is extraordinarily sad and should have been seen as a warning sign about the state of the U.S. workers movement and its leadership.

Instead of taking labor officials and capitalist politicians at their word, we should base our judgements on their actions and their consequences. It is far more plausible—given the track record and reality of the Democratic Party—that Biden kept people like Trumka close to bolster his working-class support and avoid any possible social strife.

United Mine Workers

Trumka’s life in the labor movement began in 1968 when he went to work in the Pennsylvania coal mines. After receiving a law degree from Villanova, Trumka joined the UMWA legal staff under Arnold Miller, a veteran of the reform group, Miners for Democracy. Miller, who earned his stripes in the battle against black lung and in union democratization efforts, defeated the corrupt Tony Boyle leadership in a government-supervised 1972 election. Boyle had been convicted of the murder of union dissident Jock Yablonski.

The 1970s were a turbulent time to be a union miner. Wildcat strikes spread throughout the industry. This led up to a confrontational strike in 1974, and a 111-day mine shutdown in 1977 and 1978, when miners refused a back-to-work order from Democratic president Jimmy Carter. After Carter invoked the authority of the Taft-Hartley Act, one local union official issued an injunction of his own: “Taft can mine it, Hartley can haul it, and Carter can shove it.”

This rank-and-file militancy would eventually turn Miller and his reform staffers out of office in 1979, including Trumka. However, when miners revolted against a concessionary 1981 contract pushed by leader Sam Church, Trumka took the opportunity to run against him and won the UMWA presidency handily. He would run the union until 1995.

Cracks in the once mighty UMWA were beginning to show in the early 1980s, due to a concerted attack by capital all across the line of the labor movement. Although it is arguable that the UMWA no longer had capacity to conduct traditional strike policy of industry-wide national shutdowns, Trumka abandoned this approach in 1983 and moved UMWA toward “selective strikes” against individual companies. Overall, this policy led to several defeats, and despite some heroic organizing efforts, UMWA membership shrank. Yet, one particular battle showed the fight Trumka once had in him.

Pittston Coal Strike

The nine-month Pittston Coal Strike catapulted Trumka and gave him the type of support in the UMWA that the 1945 and 1946 General Motors Strike once gave Walter Reuther in the United Auto Workers. Like Reuther, Trumka would become a popular leader. Yet, under his leadership, UMWA membership drastically decreased.

Pittston Coal Strike pickets Photo credit: SocialistWorker.Org

135,000 miners were covered under the national contract in 1979. By the end of Trumka’s tenure, that number had dropped to 45,000. However, the union would get a lift in 1989 when it stood up to global conglomerate Pittston to oppose cuts to healthcare and pension benefits. This victory was a rarity in the 1980s.

The strategy employed was to invoke political turmoil throughout the state of Virginia. Under Trumka’s leadership, the mine workers had brought together a powerful solidarity network around a game plan centered on disruption. While the AFL-CIO executive encouraged miners to act legally, civil disobedience and mass mobilization that consciously defied the law was practiced widely. Many of these actions were led and carried out by women who supported the strike, affiliated with groups such as Daughters of Mother Jones and Freedom Fighters. The miners at Pittston even revived an old radical tactic that had long been dormant: the sit-down. With spirits beginning to flag, 99 strikers walked in, sat down, and occupied the Moss 3 preparation plant, which was the primary coal processing plant at that time. Meanwhile, thousands of supporters ringed the plant outside.

While Trumka knew he could not bring multinational giant Pittston into line by attacking only one of its many operations, he thought UMWA had a chance if it initiated militant confrontation at a strategic node. It worked.

AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer

Trumka was elected AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer on the New Voices slate in 1995, in the first ever contested election for national leadership of the federation. New Voices was a reform-oriented campaign with big promises to reverse labor’s flagging fortunes, and Trumka seemed a natural fit with his origins in Miners for Democracy. However, new organizing efforts would be unsuccessful.

New Voices was led by John Sweeney of Service Employees International Union, a progressive figure with an eye toward organizing. Linda Chavez-Thompson, vice-president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was also part of the New Voices slate. She was meant to be a symbol of commitment to breaking with the pale, male, and stale image long projected by top federation leadership.

Sweeney, along with Trumka, and Teamsters president Ron Carey, led a palace-coup against conservative Lane Kirkland, demanding he not run again for AFL-CIO leadership in a closed-door meeting. Kirkland, trained by the conservative George Meany, had little-to-no fight in him, and had done nothing but make concessions to corporate power. He initially refused to move aside, but eventually stepped down when he saw that he lacked the requisite support. Carey’s support for New Voices made the difference, leveraging the weight of the Teamsters convention votes against Kirkland.

Business unionism

Sweeney’s New Voices program aimed at taking a more aggressive stance toward U.S. corporations and instituting new organizing strategies. The latter included training thousands of new professional organizers, and a union summer, which involved bringing in over a thousand college students for summer organizing.

New Voices also aimed to increase organizing activities inside the Democratic Party, and looked to reconstitute the labor-management partnership that had existed in the post-World War II period. This relationship, always lopsided in capital’s favor, had been shredded during an employers’ offensive following the contraction of the economy after the Vietnam War. The problem was that class partnership and the orientation towards the Democratic Party were at practical odds with fighting corporate power. This contradiction of the New Voices leadership was bound up with the logic of business unionism—the philosophy behind labor-management class collaboration that it refused to discard.

Business unionism—with origins in the repudiation of socialism by early AFL leaders such as Samuel Gompers— is rooted in the idea that labor and capital share common interests. If workers are well compensated, so the logic goes, they can spend freely, and the economy stays healthy. As far as rank and file workers are concerned, the extent of their participation should be paying dues, and occasionally casting votes. In return, workers receive wages, benefits, and services. Such a philosophy can only be maintained by moving the locus of labor-management relations out of the workplace, or the point of production, where exploitation takes place. Any idea of class struggle is disregarded.

Business unionism is not merely economic. In the U.S., it also involves organized labor acting inside the Democratic Party as one pressure group in a field of pressure groups. Labor writer Kim Moody synthesized the convergence of business unionism and the Democratic Party nicely:

The alliance with the Democratic Party is the logical extension of business unionism to the political realm. The lack of ultimate or even long-range goals, the embrace of the system with some modifications, the business-like relation to limited goals (lobbying for legislation), the top-down nature of political decisions and tactical choices, the self-importance that comes from associating with those in power, the notion of measured advances through a semi-institutional partnership with those who administer the system; all of these features of business unionism fit well the alliance with the capitalist party most open to compromise.

This has been accepted practice for unions since the end of World War II: dependence on Democrats and the circumscribed parameters of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which suppresses strikes and privileges property owners. Once one becomes committed to administering this arrangement, it is nearly impossible not to succumb to the structural and social forces that lead toward conservatism and caution.

Trumka and Pelosi 2018 Photo credit: Edward Kimmel via Wikimedia Commons

It is impossible to say whether or not Trumka set out to climb a career ladder in organized labor. However, once elected president of the UMWA, he set out on a path that would lead him on a “long march through the institutions.” Trumka went from being a rank and file miner, to a union staffer, to a union officer—and then he began a climb to the top of the AFL-CIO executive. This would bring him deep into the Washington nexus where political and corporate power intersect.

Prominent labor organizer Jane McAlevey shares an amusing anecdote about Trumka in her book, Raising Expectations and Raising Hell: My Decade Fighting in the Labor Movement. She once picked Trumka up at the airport when he was slated to make a speech to workers during an organizing drive. Apparently, Trumka had no idea who McAlevey was, mistaking her for a driver or assistant. All he was concerned with was whether or not she had gotten his food order correct. You get the feeling from the story that Trumka was the boss, and everyone else were his underlings:

‘Where’s the god-damned black pepper for my sandwich?,’ Trumka bellowed. He was really making a scene. He was yelling at me about incompetent staff who couldn’t get his order right and how sick of it he was.

Trumka had apparently come a long way from the coal face.

While secretary treasurer of the New Voices leadership, Trumka was implicated in being involved with an illegal campaign contribution swap to help finance Ron Carey’s reelection bid for Teamsters president in 1996. Carey’s campaign manager testified that Trumka approved a plan wherein the Teamsters would provide AFL-CIO lobbying group Citizen Action with $150,000 in exchange for an equal contribution by union officials to Carey’s campaign.

Trumka never spoke publicly about the scheme, refusing to testify before both a federal grand jury and a congressional subcommittee assembled for that reason. AFL-CIO bylaws stipulate that any official who refuses to testify in court must be disqualified from holding office. However, federation executives maintained that this rule was never enforced and was only reserved for obvious cases of corruption. In this case, it was taken for granted that Trumka had done nothing wrong. While Carey himself was later cleared of any impropriety, this financing scandal would bring him down as Teamsters president even after the victorious 1997 UPS Strike. This would usher in an even worse specimen of business unionism, James P. Hoffa, who is just now retiring as the Teamsters leader. This was obviously a brazen ruling class attack on Carey, or any idea of regenerating labor militancy and reviving the strike. It was also an effective warning shot at New Voices, and Trumka’s actions did not help.

Sweeney would join President Clinton’s corporate-heavy Advisory Committee for Trade Policy, and he signed on to Clinton’s World Trade Organization program only weeks before the outbreak of anti-WTO protests in Seattle.

Many workers had high hopes that solidarity and material support would be forthcoming from the AFL-CIO, particularly since Trumka was secretary-treasurer. Strikers in the Illinois War Zone battles in the mid-nineties looked to Trumka, as did workers locked out at A.E. Staley and strikers at Bridgestone-Firestone and Caterpillar. Yet national support never came. Moreover, it is dumbfounding that during eight years of a virulently anti-labor George W. Bush administration, no coordinated national actions were taken in response. Anyone who lived through those years will remember how uninspired the New Voices response was.

There were some bright spots with New Voices. The AFL-CIO reversed its old protectionist position regarding immigration and came out for amnesty in 2000. An overall assessment, however, would be one of failure. Big promises to organize led to continued decline in membership and resources instead. Where new members were added—which were not nearly enough to keep up with losses through attrition—it typically came through union mergers instead of new organizing.

AFL-CIO president

Trumka succeeded Sweeney as AFL-CIO president in 2009, and the picture differed little. Similar promises, similar disappointments. A big part of this was Trumka’s reliance on the Democratic Party—President Obama, in particular.

Trumka turned toward wielding power through relationships on Capitol Hill. This meant scaling back the federation organizing budget, including de-emphasizing support for workers’ centers for immigrant workers. From the time Trumka joined the AFL-CIO executive in 1995 until today, union density has dropped from 15 to 11 percent. One former AFL-CIO official said at this time, “The idea of growing the labor movement just to build worker power is not something that is in the DNA of the leadership.”

When Trumka took office, he supported passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make union recognition require only a majority of signed cards. When President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress dumped the bill, Trumka engaged in apologetics.

Obama placed Trumka on the White House Economic Recovery Advisory Board, where he would have the president’s ear and rub elbows with corporate leaders from Oracle and General Electric. The board was led by former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, who orchestrated attacks on workers’ during the Reagan administration. After the 2008-2009 economic crash, Trumka uncritically supported Obama’s policies, even bank bailouts and restructuring of the auto industry, which led to mass layoffs and the gutting of work rules. Ostensibly to protect jobs, Trumka championed protectionism in the form of tariffs on steel, rubber, and other goods. Instead of strengthening U.S. workers, this weakened them by pitting them against workers in other countries.

Trumka supported the Keystone XL Pipeline, even in the face of indigenous resistance and climate change. His reason? It would create “good union jobs”— 35 full-time jobs, to be exact. Was this worth torching the planet with fossil fuel combustion? You almost wonder if business unionists would support building their own gallows if it was constructed by union carpenters.

When the Environmental Protection Agency recently launched an insufficient plan to move electricity production away from dirty coal, Trumka, and the leaders of the UMWA and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, were vocally critical. The issue of climate change showcased the contradiction between Trumka’s progressive ideals, and his conservative practice. His view that workers’ living standards are tied to the health of employers, relationship with the corporate-dominated Democratic Party, and loyalty to conservative building trades unions that oppose the climate justice movement are all connected.

At the height of the Black Lives Matter uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, Trumka defended police unions. As Alex Press reported in Jacobin, the recent AFL-CIO report on police reform was “written largely from the perspective of police officers.” This goes a long way in understanding why protesters might have targeted AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington.

In one of his most baffling moves, Trumka privately met with President-elect Trump for an hour-and-a-half at Trump Tower, the details of their conversation were kept secret even to other labor officials. Ironically, Trumka had been intensely critical of Trump during the campaign, even calling him a “bigot.” The meeting happened a week before activists around the country were preparing to mobilize for the massive anti-inauguration protests. Afterward, Trumka tweeted that he had “a very honest and productive conversation with @realDonaldTrump.”

Instructions were given to other labor leaders to criticize policies, but not the policy-maker: ‘Don’t name Trump,” was the edict. This vacillating and conciliatory approach was a deeply disorienting and aggravating message to progressive workers, leading to the moniker “Trumpka.” With this parley, Trumka missed an enormous opportunity to strengthen the protests on January 20 and January 21, 2017. By this point, he was simply following the Democratic Party line expressed by Hillary Clinton: “We owe [Trump] an open mind and chance to lead.”

What now?

Former secretary-treasurer Liz Schuler has been elevated to the interim presidency with Trumka’s death. This makes Schuler the first woman leader of the AFL-CIO. Elections for the top positions will be held in summer 2022. Schuler has made it clear she intends to run.

There is speculation that Flights Attendants leader Sara Nelson might also run. Nelson is a breath of fresh air compared to most U.S. labor bureaucrats. During Trump’s government shutdown over the border wall, Nelson called for a general strike to oppose it, which was followed by a surge of sick-outs by air traffic controllers. These actions by workers in a strategic sector quickly put an end to Trump’s political gamesmanship. Nelson said afterwards that “only direct action—or the threat of it—will move the boss.”

Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson Photo Credit: Federation of Government Employees via Flickr

Nelson has fought against sexual harassment in the airline industry. Her professed militancy and celebration of the strike would be a welcome shift from the men’s club currently occupying union headquarters. However, given the fate of Trumka, there is cause for worry. While all labor officials are not the same, the higher one advances, and the further one moves from rank and file workers, the heavier pressure becomes to prioritize the union organization itself over the movement. This leads labor officials to self-discipline, avoid risky action like strikes, and prioritize stable bargaining relationships with employers, and political relations with representatives in “the capitalist party most open to compromise.”

His path from labor militant to Washington insider, and the disjuncture between the ideals Trumka professed and his actual track record, at once reveal the failures of reform from above; the inadequacies of business unionism; the inefficacy of attempting to wield power and influence through the Democratic Party, rather than harnessing independent class power derived from the workplace; the conservative pressure exerted by the union bureaucracy in its role as mediator between labor and capital, and the secular weakening of the main U.S. labor federation.

The only historical counterbalance to the professionalization and institutionalization of labor-capital conflict are rank and file movements based on workplace power and organization, that are independent from, and in opposition to capital in all forms. Only such movements can keep these leaders accountable.

After Trumka, labor needs the sort of leadership that can put workers in motion. Even the best leaders cannot generate energy like a switch starts and stops the flow of electrical current. However, AFL-CIO leaders—with all the resources of a major labor federation—can certainly create a sense of motion. This is a point Kim Moody makes well in U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition. Creating a sense of motion means organizing non-union workers, and putting the strike weapon at the center of strategy; it means cultivating union democracy from the get-go—most importantly at the workplace level; it means fighting for the most oppressed workers; and it means ultimately building our own political party based on socialist-working-class politics.

It would be a sidestep to simply blame the bosses for union deficiencies. The most logical thing we can do is scrutinize our own ideas and actions, they are the only things that we have some degree of control over.

Today, we need more of the Richard Trumka that led the charge against Pittston, not the one that was led by the nose into an awful class partnership.

Featured Image credit: BALM Agit-Prop.

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Tim Goulet View All

Tim Goulet is a member of the Tempest Collective and Teamsters Local 810 in NYC

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