Sat, May

Unfinished Business ― Richard Trumka’s legacy and his vision for labor in America


RANDOM LENGTHS NEWS - Coal miners are like longshore workers in that they’re tribal in nature. Distinctions are made  based on how many generations your family has been a part of the profession and successive generations of children are raised to live, work and eventually die the way their fathers had — in the mines. Trumka was no different.

Trumka’s father and grandfather worked in the mines. He, the brightest of his generation, wasn’t really supposed to go into the mines. 

He saw his father operate a machine in the mines. Enamored by his father’s deft and graceful manipulation of the machine, Trumka wanted to be like him. Trumka recounted to journalists the summer before he went away to college. He’d taken a job in the mine and his father told him, “The first drop of sweat, the first drop of blood, and you’ll never be able to get it out of your system.” Trumka later found his father’s words to be true. 

“There’s a real satisfaction to the work. When you open up a new section, you’re the first human being who’s ever set foot in that place. When you close a section, you’re the last human being who’ll ever be there.”

Trumka idolized John L. Lewis, the iconic president of United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960, the way oldschool longshore workers revere Harry Bridges. There was never any question that Trumka would use his brains to get ahead. From a very early age, his ambition was to work for the union. Trumka was once quoted: “When I was in the eighth grade, I remember talking to my grandfather and saying that I wanted to help the miners,” he recalls. “I thought maybe I should become a politician but he said no — be a lawyer.”

After graduating from Pennsylvania State with a degree in accounting and going to law school at Villanova University School of Law, Trumka joined the United Mine Workers’ legal staff in 1974.

When Lewis left the UMW’s presidency in 1960, the union was led by ineffectual at best, criminal at worst, leadership (think William Anthony Boyle, who was convicted in 1974 of conspiracy in the murder of opponent Joseph A. Yablonski, his wife and daughter), Trumka who participated in contract negotiations in 1974, was angered by the ineptitude he witnessed. He left the legal department to work as a coal miner to gain the five years mining experience to run for union office and build a political organization. 

Trumka drew to himself a new generation of UMW leaders, many of whom had college educations but were working in the mines, as they paid well. Joe Corcoran was one of those. 

For decades, particularly under Lewis’ reign, the UMW was considered the biggest and most militant labor union, able to throw its weight around in Democratic politics. Trumka returned that reputation with his elevation to the presidency and leading the anti-aparthied fight in the mid 1980s. 

He made broadside attacks on Shell oil, which was a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell group. The company owned many of the South African mines which used indentured and enslaved labor force under the apartheid system.   

At the same time he achieved the best contract that the miners had in 20 years. When Trumka led a successful nine-month strike against the Pittston Coal Company in 1989, the union and the strike became a symbol of resistance against employer cutbacks and retrenchment for the entire labor movement. Pittston’s refusal to pay into the industry-wide health and retirement fund created in 1950 was in line with what was happening across industries and Fortune 500 companies at the time. 

Trumka became the secretary general of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO, and eventually succeeded John Sweeney as its president. Trumka promised to lead a more aggressive advocacy of the working class.

A profile, written by Washington Post staff writer Alec MacGillis, offered a useful metaphor to describe Trumka, as well as the characteristics needed by modern day labor leaders to succeed. Borrowing football terminology while referencing Trumka’s football playing days in high school:

Truthfully, if there is a useful metaphor in Trumka’s gridiron days, it is more nuanced than the evocation of brute force he might prefer. The monster man is defined by versatility, being able to stop the big fullback in the middle or pick up speedy receivers on the flank. Likewise, Rich Trumka is a mix of inside and outside man.

He is a bulldog who, with his burly build and thick shoe-brush mustache, looks every bit the third-generation coal miner he is, one who led one of the few successful high-stakes strikes of the past half-century. But he is also a veteran Washington lawyer who consults with academics and keeps a well-thumbed copy of anti-globalization polemicist Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine close by.

Labor journalists would comment on Trumka’s duality — the old school union hall leader/grassroots organizer and the Washington, D.C. lawyer with left leaning politics. It was because of Trumka’s caliber of leadership, that big labor got Barack Obama into the White House — an achievement punctuated by a YouTube moment in which Trumka took the podium of a large Las Vegas convention hall and told steelworkers not to allow bigotry to be the enemy of what was best for labor and the working class:

There is not a single good reason for any worker, especially a union member, to vote against Barack Obama. There’s only one really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama. And that’s because he’s not white.

Trumka then related an encounter he’d had during the primaries with a woman in his home town of Nemacolin, a Democratic loyalist who said she was voting for Hillary Clinton because there was “no way that I’d ever vote for Obama: “I said, ‘Why’s that?’ “ he told the steelworkers. “And she said, ‘Well, he’s Muslim,’ and I said, ‘Actually he’s Christian just like you and I, but so what if he’s Muslim?’ Then she shook her head and said, ‘Well, he won’t wear that American flag pin on his lapel.’ I looked at my lapel and said, ‘I don’t have one and, by the way, you don’t have one on either.’ …‘Well, I don’t trust him.’ I said, ‘Why’s that?’ She dropped her voice a bit and said, ‘Because he’s Black.’ I said, ‘Look around this town. Nemacolin’s a dying town. There’s no jobs here. Our kids are moving away because there’s no future here. And here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s going to fight for us and you’re telling me you’re not going to vote for him because of the color of his skin?’” A pause before the punch. “‘Are you out of your ever-loving mind, lady?’”

Unfinished business

In the same speech, he articulated the vision of a labor movement “that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies and challenges those who, well, can’t seem to decide which side they’re on.” 

He was indeed talking about the politicians who want to turn out the big labor vote, “but who somehow always seem to forget workers after the votes are counted.”

Indeed, the Obama years were a disappointment, particularly on the game changing Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to unionize and get a first contract. Or even the health insurance “public option,” a government insurance offering that would compete with private insurers in new government-brokered insurance exchanges. Obama advocated for it as a candidate but got amnesia in his fight for Obamacare.

Labor’s disappointment shouldn’t have been a surprise as Democrats lost in 2014 and 2016, forcing the party to return contrite and with a suite of policy initiatives focused on labor and the working class in 2017. 

The biggest of those policy initiatives was the Employee Free Choice Act, version 2.0, now called the PRO Act. 

There are a couple hundred labor related bills stalled in Congress. One has been signed into law, Senate Joint Resolution 13, which rescinds an earlier rule change by the Republican dominated Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which would have required the commission to provide information to employers upon initiating the settlement, or “conciliation,” process, including a summary of the facts of a case, the identities of witnesses and alleged victims, and the legal basis for a finding that discrimination has occurred.

The PRO Act is considered to have a low chance of getting to President Joe Biden’s desk due to a closely divided Senate. 

To use another football terminology: Trumka and his generation has gotten the ball close to the red zone. The next generation of bold and aggressive labor leaders have to get the ball into the end zone. 

Richard Louis Trumka (July 24, 1949-Aug. 5, 2021) was an American attorney and organized labor leader. He served as president of the United Mine Workers from 1982 to 1995, and then was secretary-general of the AFL-CIO from 1995 to 2009. He was elected president of the AFL–CIO on Sept. 16, 2009, at the federation’s convention in Pittsburgh, and served in that position until his death.

(Terelle Jerricks has investigated, reported on, written and assisted with hundreds of stories related to environmental concerns, affordable housing, development that exacerbates wealth inequality and the housing crisis, labor issues and community policing or the lack thereof. Jerricks writes for RandomLengthsNews.com)


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