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.