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.