Richard Trumka’s great strength as a leader of the AFL-CIO has always been his willingness to challenge this country labor movement to be better not just than its past but also its present.
Long before he assumed the presidency of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations on Thursday, the former head of the United Mineworkers positioned himself as the “old labor” warrior who was determined to push union members to embrace new realities and new opportunities.
Trumka did that last year, in the thick of the 2008 presidential race, when he boldly confronted the reality of racism within the ranks of the movement to which he has devoted his life.
“Brothers and sisters, we can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of folks out there (who do not want to vote for Barack Obama because of the color of his skin),” Trumka told the United Steelworkers union convention in July, 2008.
“A lot of them are good union people; they just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man,” he continued. “Well, those of us who know better can’t afford to look the other way.”
Then, in one of the most meaningful statements of the 2008 campaign, Trumka, declared:
I’m not one for quoting dead philosophers, but back in the 1700s, Edmund Burke said: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”
Well, there’s no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism — and it’s something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge.
It’s our special responsibility because we know, better than anyone else, how racism is used to divide working people.
We’ve seen how companies set worker against worker — how they throw whites a few extra crumbs off the table – and how we all end up losing.
But we’ve seen something else, too.
We’ve seen that when we cross that color line and stand together no one can keep us down.
That’s why the CIO was created.
That’s why industrial unions were the first to stand up against lynching and segregation.
People need to know that it was the Steel Workers Organizing Committee — this union — that was founded on the principal of organizing all workers without regard to race.
That’s why the labor movement — imperfect as we are — is the most integrated institution in American life.
I don’t think we should be out there pointing fingers in peoples’ faces and calling them racist; instead we need to educate them that if they care about holding on to their jobs, their health care, their pensions, and their homes
— if they care about creating good jobs with clean energy, child care, pay equity for women workers —
there’s only going to be one candidate on the ballot this fall who’s on their side…
only one candidate who’s going to stand up for their families…
only one candidate who’s earned their votes…
and his name is Barack Obama!
And come November we are going to elect him President.
Trumka was proven right. And Obama’s victories in swing states such as Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — where Republican strategists had hoped to stir tensions sufficiently to peel off a significant number of union votes — owned much to this particular labor leader’s courageous campaigning.
Now that Trumka has taken over as AFL-CIO president (along with new secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler and new executive vice president Arlene Holt Baker), he continues to prod the labor movement to make real the promise of of the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever.”
In his acceptance speech at the federation’s convention in Pittsburgh, Trumka promised to forge “a new kind of labor movement – one shaped to meet the needs of Americans in a changing economy.”
He spoke the language of international solidarity:
A labor movement that understands that, in a global economy, we have no alternative but to build truly global unions.
Unions with the ability to confront corporate power wherever it rears its head.
Whether it’s a call center in Bangalore.
A shoe factory in Vietnam.
Or a coal mine in Colombia.
Brothers and sisters, the corporate agenda doesn’t end at the water’s edge – and neither can ours!
Perhaps even more significantly, he spoke the language of domestic solidarity:
(The) question we face isn’t just where we organize; it’s who.
And I want to talk about that for a moment.
We need to finally come to terms with the fact that union halls that should have been meeting grounds for understanding have often been breeding grounds for bigotry.
And millions of people of color – and millions of women – have paid a staggering price.
We have a moral responsibility to take the benefits of union representation to those who the labor movement turned its back on in the past.
That means organizing poverty-wage African-American, Latino and Asian workers.
It means reaching out to women: women are 50 percent of the workforce … they earn only 77 percent of what men do … and it’s time we made a 100 percent commitment to organizing them!
And it means something else, too: organizing immigrants.
I know there are always going to be some people who are going to buy the line that immigrants are coming over here and stealing everyone’s jobs.
But you know something?
When a company looks at its balance sheets, they don’t distinguish between workers who are born here and those who aren’t.
All they see are numbers.
Well, sisters and brothers, let me ask you a question: if employers are able to look at us and only see workers, shouldn’t we be able to do the same?
It’s time to build a labor movement that leaves no worker behind!
Rich Trumka is a union man of the old school. He got his hands dirty as a miner before he ever gripped a podium and addressed a crowd.
He respects the best values and traditions of the labor movement.
But he also understands that the movement’s current hard times are not merely the result of corporate machinations and political compromises.
Unions made mistakes. They failed to educate members. They failed to reach out to new communities. They allowed divisions to develop — divisions that would be exploited by those who do not want American to have a muscular trade unionism.
Trumka recognizes that in order “to build a newer, stronger labor movement,” the AFL-CIO must heal those divisions and build a deeper, truer solidarity than it has ever evidenced. And, particularly with his clear and passionate embrace of immigrants, he has done just that.
Rarely, if ever, has an AFL-CIO presidency begun on so a positive note.