AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club Friday, May 20, 2011 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressed a gathering of labor activists in Washington this week and told them that he needed them.
“The future of America is at risk,” he said “because we have a democracy deficit and a solidarity deficit, and nowhere is that truer in our national life than in the workplace.”
The sentiment was less startling than the context, at the second annual conference of the Labor Research and Action Network (LRAN). LRAN attracts organizers largely from community-based workers’ centers and training and research groups who work with low-wage, immigrant and part time, non-union workers. The biggest guy in Big Labor, in other words, a man who came up through the nation’s oldest industrial union (the United Mine Workers), was asking the newest organizers on the scene—the fast-food, retail, restaurant, day labor and domestic workers—for help.
“How do we thicken relationships to both encourage experimentation and knit together a united labor movement?” he asked.
It’s no wonder that he’s asking.
When it comes to solidarity, Trumka knows whereof he speaks. The first time I laid eyes on him, in fact, it was in a place called Camp Solidarity in southwest Virginia. A public park turned union campground, in 1989 supporters flooded into Camp Solidarity from churches, schools and unions around the country in support of coalminers on strike against the Pittston Coal company.
Solidarity sparked the strike, which came in reaction to the company’s cuts to retired miners’ healthcare and pension plans. Solidarity kept it going, through sun and snow over a long eighteen months. Squads of volunteers cooked up burgers and wings for visitors and Appalachian music kept people step-dancing late into the evening. Trumka, a former miner, then president of the UMWA, would come by to thank the camouflage-clad crowd and encourage the striking miners in their campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience in defense of the workers who’d gone before them.
The UMWA occupies a particular place in American trade union history. Founded in 1890 with a (radical for its time) pledge to nondiscrimination based on race, religion or national origin, the union was a leader in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and a driving force behind the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Under legendary president John Lewis, the UMWA didn’t organize just coalminers but the entire industrial supply chain. Lewis sent UMWA organizers out across the nation Trumka recalled this week, because he understood that coal miners’ lives were linked to those of steelworkers and autoworkers.
A quarter of a century on, “We need our historic organizations of the nineteenth century to adapt to the new workforce of the twenty-first,” Trumka told LRAN.