Trumka Ascension Could Activate Labor Movement

Posted September 11, 2009 at 6:08pm

The AFL-CIO will coronate Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka as its new president this week in Pittsburgh, where the labor federation is holding its 26th constitutional convention.

Trumka, the organization’s No. 2, is running unopposed to replace outgoing President John Sweeney.

The longtime union official is expected to be a more recognizable face for the federation than his predecessor. The incoming president, who has become a regular on cable news stations in recent weeks, will also likely log more hours on Capitol Hill than Sweeney, particularly to lobby on behalf of the Employee Free Choice Act, health care reform and other big-ticket legislative items.

“He’s the most qualified person to succeed John,— said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate. “You’ll find someone who’ll be spending lots of time getting candidates elected and then making sure they fulfill the promises they make to labor.—

“Rich is a much more aggressive person in dealing with the issues,— he added.

But Trumka, who declined to be interviewed, also inherits the reins of one of the largest players in the fractured organized labor community, whose membership has struggled in recent decades.

Even more, scars still linger from the 2005 split of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Service Employees International Union and other unions that left to form the rival coalition Change to Win.

Led by former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), talks allegedly are ongoing to re-unify the groups, although they have yielded few tangible results to date.

Trumka told reporters less than two weeks ago that his ascendency increases the chances that the wayward unions will return to the fold soon.

On Friday, Change to Win Executive Director Chris Chafe suggested in an interview that his member unions continue to work with the AFL-CIO unions but the wayward affiliates are not exactly champing at the bit to rejoin the federation.

“That remains an open question,— Chafe said of a possible reunification of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. “There’s been solid good-faith initiatives for many months to try and arrive at a framework for how affiliates can work together.—

“What we have to do now following Rich’s expected election is to come to those tables and explore how we can continue to do issue-related work together and see if anything develops beyond that,— he continued.

A labor official with a Change to Win member union was more blunt: “I don’t think anybody’s really talking about reunification.—

Alex Colvin, a labor historian at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said Trumka’s successful nomination hinged in part on his ability to satisfy concerns that the breakaway unions would rejoin the AFL-CIO with Sweeney’s longtime No. 2 in charge.

“Trumka was strongly associated with the AFL-CIO split,— Colvin said. “The fact Trumka is succeeding Sweeney means that those fears didn’t play out.—

What perhaps sealed his fate as the group’s new president, Colvin said, was a now-famous speech Trumka delivered to the United Steelworkers in the summer of 2008. In the speech, Trumka dealt head-on with the issue of race, which was expected to hamper then-nominee Barack Obama with working-class voters.

“There’s not a single good reason for any worker — especially any union member — to vote against Barack Obama,— Trumka said in the July 1 speech. “And there’s only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama: that’s because he’s not white.—

Colvin said the speech likely “increased his stock— with union leaders and Democratic political leaders.

“It showed him to be a more passionate, dynamic leader,— he said. “One of the limitations with Sweeney? He’s not the most dynamic, inspirational type of leader.—

Paul Booth, a staffer with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called Trumka a “straight-shooting spokesman— and said his apparent willingness to have a high public profile could increase the federation’s public image.

“It’s certainly a big piece of the job that he needs to do,— Booth said.

Other labor officials agreed that Trumka’s ascension is a conscious attempt by federation leaders to increase the profile of the once-dominant group.

One union official said Sweeney’s departure “will be very noticeable to the public— and that Trumka’s presidency may alter the perception that unions are behind the times.

“The labor movement is over 100 years old. Labor laws haven’t changed and many of our unions haven’t changed much,— the official said. “We’re always struggling with the attitude that we’re somehow stuck in the past.—