Politics

American Workers Just Lost Their Biggest Champion

Where does the labor movement go from here?

Richard Trumka speaks into a mic and gesticulates in front of a building that reads "AFL-CIO."
Richard Trumka speaks during a news conference outside the AFL-CIO headquarters in D.C. on July 15. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, recently died at 72 years old. He spent much of his life in unions, rising from mineworker to labor attorney to confidant for politicians like President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who gave a tearful tribute to Trumka on the floor last week. Trumka was such an icon that, when crafting policy, officials like these had to confer with him; after all, Trumka had worked at AFL-CIO for 26 years and was a beloved leader who constantly pushed to expand the union tent and include all kinds of workers. (For example: Slate’s editorial union, which I’m a member of, is represented by the Writers Guild of America, East, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.) Trumka’s death means the U.S. labor movement is about to start a new chapter, in the wake of a long era of union decline. Still, Trumka’s story could pave the way for the future. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island, about Trumka’s influence, his death, and what’s now left for American workers. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: When Richard Trumka died last week, he was president of the AFL-CIO, which is a coalition of more than 50 labor representing about 12 million members. He’d had that job since 2009. Can we talk about how he got there?

Erik Loomis: Trumka was born in 1949 in a rural Pennsylvania coal-mining town. His dad is a Polish American who works in the mines, in an era when the United Mine Workers of America had finally established itself as the union that represented coal miners. That had been a long, brutal struggle going back into the 1890s, when mine owners basically ran their little regions like their own medieval fiefdoms, and they would shoot and kill organizers. They would kick you out if you join a union. Finally, in the 1930s, under the leadership of the great mineworkers president John L. Lewis, that union is able to organize the mines more generally. So, the life of coal miners improved dramatically by the time that Trumka was born in 1949, but it was still a rough, dangerous job.

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Trumka grows up in the mineworkers’ world. He heard those stories of the bad old days, of what John Lewis had done, and he went into the mines himself at the age of 19 to put himself through college. This is a time, it should be said, when working-class kids could start going to college in a way that they couldn’t before the GI Bill, and before the rise of unions created something more of middle-class wages within a working-class life. After college, he goes on to law school, and after that he takes a job with the United Mine Workers as a staff attorney.

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Why’d he go back?

He always saw himself as a man of working class. He could have taken his skills and gone anywhere, but instead, he went back to Pennsylvania to dedicate his life to fighting for the kind of people he grew up around, the people he worked with in the mines, the people his father knew, the people in his small Pennsylvania town. For Trumka, it wasn’t even a question.

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After joining the United Mine Workers, Trumka quickly ascended the ranks. At that time, workers were fighting against union leadership that was increasingly dictatorial and corrupt. When Trumka became president of the union at the unusually young age of 33, he’d ran as part of a slate of candidates looking to retake the union for the members themselves. But his reputation really seems to have been forged by the 1989–90 strike against the Pittston Coal Company. Can you talk about what happened there?

The 1980s were a terrible time for American labor. President Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers, which set off a huge wave of union-busting in the private sector. The American labor movement is in decline by that point. In 1989, the Pittston Coal Company, one of the big coal-mining companies in Appalachia, just canceled the health benefits of 1,500 retirees and disabled miners.

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And this is in a brutal industry. You have retirees who desperately need health care.

Some have black lung, and a lot of them are disabled because of mine accidents. There are a lot of widows. So, this is a union that really requires health benefits to be granted to retirees.

How did the union respond to Pittston?

Through a strike where they really went all-in on nonviolent civil disobedience? There’s a long tradition of militancy in places like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky—this is what had built the mineworkers’ union back in the days, the willingness to take on this tremendous power even as the legal system was already against the union.

The mineworkers start to strike. A judge then puts issues an injunction that puts huge fines on the leadership if they’re going to continue to strike. This could have been the bankruptcy of the UMW, but people thought this was something that was worth doing. Finally, in February of 1990. the Pittston Coal Company agreed to pay $10 million toward the health care of miners who had retired before 1974. The mineworkers get the fines from the injunction dropped in exchange for some community service. It proves to be one of the only real victories of the American labor movement in those terrible decades,aAnd it makes it makes Richard Trumka a rising star in American labor.

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Trumka eventually went from running the mineworkers’ union to heading up a coalition of unions, the AFL-CIO. This coalition is diverse, including Actors’Equity, the Airline Pilots’ Association, the International Union of Bricklayers. As a result, Trumka’s role evolved. In some ways, you’ve said, Trumka was the most progressive labor leader the country’s ever seen.

Certainly, there have been union presidents that have been further to the left and individuals who were more progressive. But, the reality is that the actual presidents of the largest federation in American labor had not really been political progressives most of the time. But Trumka stands strong not only against the kind of attacks that workers face today and the union busting, but he takes the federation and makes it stand for issues that make people inside it uncomfortable.

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I was struck, looking back, at how willing Richard Trumka was to just bold when that seemed necessary. He also showed this when he talked about race. People may remember that back in 2008, when Barack Obama was running, Trumka was a very loud advocate for talking openly about race.

Trumka said, in a widely noted speech, that if we allow the working class to be divided by race, people will never be able to fight the wealthy. He was absolutely correct about that, and he remained a strong fighter for talking about race within the labor movement in an era when a lot of people don’t want to have that conversation.

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It seems to me that he struggled to find that same moral clarity with an issue like climate change, which of course touches his members in a lot of different ways. He was for the Keystone XL Pipeline and wanted to make protesting pipelines harder, because there were jobs there. That encapsulates the problem to me: that the head of this union is in charge of all kinds of people and he has to find a way to speak to all of them and convince them to go along because you might lose them otherwise.

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There is a long tradition in labor federations like AFL-CIO on issues that concern the jobs of particular unions: Other unions stay out of it. So in a case like climate change, where the UMW has been the biggest obstacle in many ways to a more progressive framework on climate change. It’s not the only union in this situation, but it is there, because there are jobs for their members in building pipelines. But in green energy, are the jobs? That’s a legitimate question, and the job of the union is in part to look out for the needs of your members. Now, the job of the head of the AFL-CIO is to look out for the interests of the labor movement more broadly. So that becomes an open question about whether the interests of the labor movement more broadly are about creating jobs and dirty energy, or about protecting the future of humanity and the planet.

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If you’re AFL-CIO head, no matter what it is you say, you’re going to make some unions and your federation angry with you. That is the reality: It’s such a diverse movement— different cultures, different demographics, different political leanings—that you’re never going to please everybody. A lot of what the AFL-CIO head does is negotiate very difficult situations within the labor movement. I too am critical of Trumka’s position on Keystone and other pipelines. I think there are a lot of problems there, but we do have to understand what the conditions were that led him to place the American labor movement behind the building of dirty energy pipelines.

It seemed to me that Trumka was more optimistic about the labor movement with Joe Biden in the White House. Why do you think that is?

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Biden comes out of the labor movement, and he gets unions in a way that Obama, Clinton, and Carter never really did. We saw that—and Trumpka was critical to this—in the Amazon union campaign in Alabama, when Joe Biden did something no president has ever done before: actually intervene to give his support for workers having the right to choose union memerbship.

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We talk about FDR and Truman being more pro-labor. They never weighed in on a union election to say, “I support the right of workers to choose a union.” Trumka, based on his close relationship with Biden, is able to make that statement for labor unions, an unprecedented one in American history.

There’s this thing I can’t reconcile in my head, which is that Trumka was seen as a lion among labor leaders, but union leadership declined under his watch. Like, he was a tremendous advocate, but it might not have been enough.

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There’s two things here. One is that the power of employers to stop a union from winning is so great that until that issue is dealt with, it’s going to be very difficult to organize anywhere. The other part of it is that, as head of the AFL-CIO, you have to negotiate these very tricky politics within the labor movement itself. You can go in and be president and say, “I’m going to do A, B and C,” but if certain unions just say no, there’s not much you could do about it. The power is actually somewhat limited: You have to be able to convince these unions that are still existing and fat and happy that unless they put tons of resources into organizing, they’re going to continue to decline.

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Talking to you about Trumka’s legacy, I see it as proof that while he was an incredibly charismatic leader and so important, the labor movement needs so much more than that.

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That’s absolutely correct. The issues are structural. There are problems with the American labor movement—there’s no question about that. It’s filled with flawed individuals, and some unions do some things that I would argue are quite flawed. Trumka was flawed himself, like anybody. And even the best leader in the world cannot necessarily overcome a united front of the business and the political worlds that’s determined to crush unions. One thing that matters for whether unions win or not is if the labor movement can neutralize the government to being a fair player, an arbiter between business and unions. But for most of American history, the government has been actively allied with business.

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But I wonder if you see a couple reasons for hope here. Just over the past couple of weeks, the National Labor Relations Board decided that there needs to be a new vote in Bessemer because Amazon went too far in trying to stop unionization from happening. That is an arm of the government working in concert with unions and taking it beyond just one charismatic leader. Do you look at that and think that maybe there is some kind of turning point?

Absolutely. If you continue to elect pro-labor Democrats, conditions can move toward change. I think you see a lot of examples right now of the ways in which grassroots organizing over the past decade has begun to move the Democratic Party in a more pro-labor direction again. But it’s also outside of the Democratic Party, creating a situation where everyday people are making demands on the ground for real structural change in American life. Richard Trumka was absolutely central to that, and as conditions began to change and unions again start to become a more acceptable part of the political world, the AFL-CIO is right there, pushing forward.

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