The Latest Blow to American Workers

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S1: Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave a floor speech that was both unexpected and unexpectedly emotional.

S2: I rise today with some sad, some horrible news about the passing of a great friend, Richard Trumka, who left us this morning.

S1: He was paying tribute to Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO,

S2: he had in his veins in every atom of his body, the heart, the thoughts, the needs of the working people of America. He was them.

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S1: Trumka was 72 years old, died on a camping trip, he had risen from mineworker to attorney to confidant to politicians like Chuma Presidents to Trumka was especially close to Joe Biden.

S3: And when crafting policy Richard Trumka is somebody that you have to talk to. You may not always agree with them. You may not do what he wants, but he’s somebody who’s going to be in the room all the time.

S1: Erik Loomis is a labor historian at University of Rhode Island. He followed Trumka for decades

S3: and he had been an institution at this point. Right. He had been now in the AFL-CIO leadership versus secretary treasurer and then as president for twenty six years.

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S2: It’s just horrible news. A lot more to say about it later. But I wanted to inform my colleagues that we have just lost a giant and we need him, so.

S1: I asked Erik to explain the outpouring of emotion around Trumka staff.

S3: I guess the story I would I would tell is about the time I met. Hmm. This was back in two thousand, I think. And I was involved in an organizing campaign at the University of Tennessee. Here’s this guy who is this sort of legend, a big, big deal. And here he is spending his time spending an hour with a bunch of people between the ages of 19. And I guess I was like twenty five at the time. So I was a little older. But but still, you know, he had a lot better things to do.

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S1: What did he say to you?

S3: Well, it’s a long time ago, but I mean, you know, he was just sort of really pushed the the kind of the the need for organizing, the need for the kind of commitment that we were showing as students. But he really understood the brutality of work.

S1: The thing to understand about Richard Trumka Erik says the reason so many people feel strongly about his leadership is that Trumka was constantly pushing to make the union tent bigger, open to more people, different people. Back at the University of Tennessee after that speech, a brand new union was born, the United Campus Workers. It brought together both housekeepers and academic lecturers. Did you ever get a chance to connect with Richard Trumka again, like years later, now that you’re a labor historian and tell him how meaningful it was that he came and spoke to you when you were organizing?

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S3: No, I never had that opportunity. I mean, I. I always kind of wondered if he if he if he were a member of that or if he does so many events that, you know, he wouldn’t remember it.

S1: Today on the show, the death of Richard Trumka means the U.S. labor movement is about to start a new chapter. Trumka story tells you what the future might look like for workers. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. So when Richard Trumka died last week, he was president of the AFL-CIO, which is a coalition of 50 labor unions, 12 million members. More than that. And it had that job since 2009. Can we talk about how he got there, like how did how did he get to be Richard Trumka? Where did he start?

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S3: So Trumka for nineteen forty nine in rural Pennsylvania in a coal mining town. His dad is Polish-American and he works in the mines. And this is an area where the United Mine Workers of America had finally established itself as the union that represented coal miners. And that had been a long, brutal struggle going back into the 90s where not only coal mine were tremendously dangerous, but but the mine owners basically ran these little towns like their own medieval fiefdoms, and they would shoot and kill as they would kick you out if you join the union. There was just a tremendously brutal story. And finally, in the nineteen thirties, under the leadership of John Lewis, the great mine workers president, they’re able to organize the mines more generally. And the life of coal miners improves dramatically by the time that Trumka is born and 40 die. But it’s still a rough job and it’s still dangerous.

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S1: So we sort of understand the importance of a union to keeping his family safe.

S3: Absolutely. I mean, his father is a staunch member of the mine workers. He grows up in that world. Right. Hearing those stories of the bad old days, hearing what John Lewis had done. He’s going to go into the mines himself at the age of 90. He’s putting himself through college. This is a time should be said when working class kids can start going to college in a way that they couldn’t before the GI Bill, for instance, and before the rise of unions creates more something more like the middle class wages within a working class life. And so Trumka is able to go to college where his father had not. Right. And so he’s he’s putting himself through college in part by working in the mines. And then he he goes to college graduates of Penn State. And seventy one, he goes on to law school, where he graduates from Villanova in nineteen seventy four. And then he goes and he takes a job with the United Mine Workers as a staff attorney.

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S1: Why do you go back?

S3: You know, because he always saw himself as a man of working class. Right. He could have taken his skills have gone anywhere, but instead he’s going to go back to Pennsylvania and he’s going to do spend his life dedicating himself to fighting for the kind of people that he grew up around, the people he worked with in the mines, the people his father knew, the people in his small Pennsylvania town. And so for him, it wasn’t even a question.

S1: After joining the United Mine Workers, Trumka quickly ascended the ranks. Erik says at the time, workers were fighting against union leadership that was increasingly dictatorial, increasingly corrupt. When Trumka became president of the Mine Workers Union at the unusually young age of thirty three, he was part of a slate of candidates looking to retake the union for the members themselves. His reputation really seems to have been forged by the 89 90 strike against the Pittston Coal Company. Yeah, can you talk about that and what happened there?

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S3: So the 1980s were a terrible time for American labor. Reagan fires air traffic controllers. This sets off a huge move of union busting in the private sector. So you have all these horrible actions of the 1980s that are just busting unions left the right. The American labor movement is in decline by that point. And in nineteen eighty nine, there is a strike. If that gets the piston coal company, which one of the big coal mining companies in Appalachia, both sides, the Pittston Coal Company and the United Mine Workers, spent more than a year getting ready for this strike, pitched in as private companies were doing at this time, generally just canceled the health benefits of fifteen hundred retirees, disabled miners.

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S1: And of course, this is a brutal industry.

S3: His wife, Davis, lost both her father and a brother to the coal mines.

S1: So you have retirees who desperately need health care.

S3: You know, they have black lung, right? I mean, you know, a lot of them are disabled because of mine accidents. There’s a lot of widows. So you have absolutely. I mean, it’s it’s it’s a union that really requires health benefits to be granted to retirees because they’re simply going to be much higher than other unions.

S1: So how did the union respond

S3: through a strike where they really go all in on nonviolent civil disobedience? I mean, there’s a long tradition of militancy in places like Western Virginia and West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. This is what it built the mine workers back in the days willingness to to take on this tremendous power. It at its huge odds the legal system is already set up against the union. And so they start to strike. And then the judge puts on issues an injunction, which it puts these like huge amounts of fines on the leadership if they’re going to continue to strike, which could bankrupt the union.

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S1: I imagine that if you’re Richard Trumka at that point, that that doesn’t feel great to be the person who’s making your union responsible for a ton of fines.

S3: Well, certainly it’s it’s something that everybody is is freaked out about. Right. You could have been the bankruptcy of the UMW, but people thought that this was something that was worth doing. And finally, in February of 1990, the Pittston Coal Company agreed to pay ten million dollars toward the health care of miners who had retired before nineteen seventy four. The mine workers get the fines from the injunction dropped in exchange for some community service. And it proves to be one of the only real victories of the American labor movement in those that terrible decade of the 1980s. And it makes it makes Richard Trumka a rising star in American labor

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S1: as a rising star. Richard Trumka eventually went from running the mine workers 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 role had to evolve. In some ways, Erik says, Trumka was the most progressive Labor leader the country has ever seen.

S3: Certainly there have been union presidents that have been far to the left and there have been individuals who have been more progressive. But if you look at the head of the AFL and then the AFL-CIO after that, you know, the reality is, is that the actual president of the largest federation in American labor has not really been a particular political progressive for most of the time. What Trumka does in part is, for instance, he stands strong not only against the kind of attacks that that workers face today and the union busting that is part of our of our landscape at the workplace. But he takes the federation and he makes it stand for issues that make people inside the federation uncomfortable.

S1: I was struck looking back at how willing Richard Trumka was to just be bold when that seemed necessary. He also showed this when he talked about race. And people may remember back in 2008 when Barack Obama was running, you know, he was a very loud advocate for talking openly about race.

S4: There’s not a single good reason for any worker, especially any union member, to vote against Barack Obama. And there’s only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama, and that’s because he’s not white. And I want to talk about that issue.

S1: He told the story about one woman in particular, a union member, I believe, who he was talking to her about the election in 2008 and, you know, obviously advocating for Barack Obama. And she just kept saying, I just can’t vote for him. And he kept asking why.

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S4: She said, well, he’s Muslim. And I said, well, actually, he’s Christian, just like you and I. But so what? Then she shook her head and said, well, he won’t wear that American flag pin on his lapel. And I looked at my lapel and I said, I don’t have one. And by the way, you don’t have one on either. But come on, he wears one plenty of times

S1: and eventually her answer as well, because he’s a black man. And it’s just it’s it’s an interesting story because he just keeps interrogating her until she gets there.

S3: Yeah, well, I think that, you know what what he’s seeing there is something that we often see in America, which is that white people don’t want to talk about race. Right. You know, and Trumka point is that, you know, if we allow ourselves to be divided by race as working class, people will never be able to fight the wealthy on the basis of class. And he’s absolutely correct about that. And he remained a strong fighter for talking about race within the labor movement in an era where a lot, especially with the rise of Trumka, where a lot of people don’t want to have that conversation, Trumka was always willing to have that conversation. But to his credit.

S1: It’s interesting because we’ve talked a bit about how Richard Trumka was able to speak with such moral clarity on an issue like race, but it seems to me looking at his legacy. 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, that may be contradictory, but you could see it in how he dealt with, for instance, like the Keystone XL pipeline, or he was pro pipeline and wanted to make protesting pipelines harder. And that’s because there were jobs there. But that sort of encapsulates the problem to me that you have is the head of this union where you’re in charge of all kinds of people and you have to find a way to speak with some kind of clarity to all of them and convince them to go along because you might lose them otherwise.

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S3: You know, the AFL-CIO is not a union. It’s a federation of unions. And in this case, you know, there is a long tradition in the federation where if on issues that concern the jobs of particular unions, other unions kind of stay out of it. And so in a case like climate change, where you have unions such as the Laborers Union, late in the labor issue, union has been the biggest obstacle in many ways to dealing with having a more progressive view on climate change, although they’re not the only union because there are jobs for their members in building pipelines. And so they are adamantly opposed to really taking bold anti pipeline stances because of, you know, the jobs are there for them. Right. And in green energy are the jobs there. And that’s a legitimate question. Right. But the job of the union is in part to look out for the the 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. And so that becomes an open question about whether the interests of the labor movement more broadly is about creating jobs and dirty energy or about protecting the future of of of humanity and the planet.

S1: Ouch. I mean, what a choice.

S3: Well, yeah, but the reality of I mean, I could say it like that, but the reality of it is, is that the laborers and their allies in the building trades, they’re tremendously powerful parts of the organization that pay a lot of Jews and they could leave like there’s nothing forcing them to stay in the AFL-CIO.

S1: Sounds like it’s about as messy as a democracy can get.

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S3: It is absolutely right that if 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. Right, that is the reality is that it’s such a diverse movement, you’re never going to please everybody that has these incredibly different cultures, different demographics, different political leanings. So a lot of what the AFL-CIO head is is sort of negotiating these very difficult situations within the labor movement. And I, too, am critical of Trumka position on Keystone and other pipelines. I think that I think there are a lot of problems there, but we do have to understand what the conditions were that were leading him to place the American labor movement behind the building of dirty energy pipelines.

S1: It seemed to me, and maybe this is just because of who Richard Trumka was, which a labor booster, obviously, but it seems to me that Richard Trumka was more optimistic about the labor movement now. Now that Joe Biden’s in the White House, why do you think that is?

S3: Joe Biden comes out of the labor movement. Joe Biden gets unions in a way that neither Obama, Clinton or Carter really did. And we’re seeing that right, that that Biden and Trumka is critical to this, that in the Amazon campaign in Alabama, which did not succeed, although there may be a revote because of the massive violations of law that Amazon engaged in, that Joe Biden does something that no president has ever done before, which is that he he actually intervenes in a Labor election to give his support for workers having the right to choose a union.

S1: Yeah, he releases a video message.

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S5: So let me be really clear. It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear. It’s not up to an employer to decide that either the choice to join a union is up to the workers.

S3: Full stop for all we talk about FDR and Truman being more pro labor, they never did that. They never intervened in a Labor election to say I support the right of workers to choose a union. And Trumka, based on his close relationship with Iten, is able to make that half a statement for labor unions unprecedented in American history.

S1: When we come back, where the labor movement goes now that a legendary leader is gone. I was looking at this interview that Trumka did in these last few weeks and months where he talked about his relationship with Biden and sort of filled in the details of what he saw as the differences between Joe Biden and a Barack Obama or a Bill Clinton. And he the way he put it was those other Democratic administrations. They weren’t hostile to labor. They worked next to us, but they never looked at us as part of the solution. But Joe Biden understands we’re part of the solution. He understands collective bargaining is part of how this goes. And he’ll call us so that we can be in the room where it happens versus call us when the deal is done to say this is what it is. It just made me wonder, like who who are those leaders going to call now?

S3: Well, I mean, I think it’s going to be whoever takes over as the head of the AFL-CIO, right. That, you know, it’s not. So there are a couple of candidates potentially to take over Trump. This one’s going to be Trumka his last term anyway. And so the temporary president, who is one of the two people most likely to take over is Latest Shuler, who what has been the secretary treasurer of the federation during Trumka presidency.

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S1: What’s her background?

S3: You know, she comes out of a working class background to her father, was a lineman doing electric work in Oregon. She she goes to college. She comes back and becomes an organizer for the Electrical Workers IBEW in the 1990s.

S1: Sounds very similar to Richard Trumka.

S3: Yes. And so she she kind of rises through the IBEW as well, becomes executive assistant to the president in 2004 and then in two thousand and nine Trumka selection there to be his secretary treasurer. And so, you know, and so she spent the last 12 years is Trumka is right hand woman basically. And so she has these relationships as well. It’s not like it’s not like there’s nobody to call. Right. And as the number two in the labor movement, she takes over as interim president, basically until the executive council of the AFL-CIO chooses a permanent president, which will happen later this year.

S1: She’s facing a challenge, though, is my understanding most likely from Sarah Nelson, who folks might remember because she’s the president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

S3: Yeah, that’s right. So there is a there is a battle for the future of the federation. Sara Nelson brings a more a more militant side to the labor movement. What do you

S1: mean when you say that? More militant?

S3: Yeah. So basically, you know, Liz Shuler is somebody who’s a lot like Trumka in the last 15 years and that, you know, it’s very comfortable in the playing the political game, working in Washington, talking to politicians. And that stuff is, of course, extremely important. But she is close to the unions in the AFL-CIO who are a little bit less comfortable with making the labor movement part of a broader progressive coalition. Sara Nelson, who’s the flight attendant’s head again, is somebody who brings the kind of direct action tactics the Trumka himself. Right. Had engaged with back is the central part of the labor movement. And so Stern also becomes prominent with the government shutdown in twenty nineteen. If you were flying, you know, you were dealing with sick TSA agents who were not being paid, there was and yet are still being forced to work and conditions on the airlines are becoming less safe. And so she makes a call. She gives the speech where she calls for a potential of a general strike to end the government shutdown, just to shut down the airlines until the government sits down and deals with this.

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S6: This is about our safety and security and our jobs and our entire country’s economic stability. No one will get out of this unscathed if we do not stop this shutdown.

S3: In fact, just a couple of days later, a few air traffic controllers at major airports, they refuse to go to work. It delays the airlines. A bunch of rich Republicans find their flights canceled. And lo and behold, Trumka comes and makes a deal and the government shutdown ends. And this really vault Sarah Nelson into the real pantheon of American labor leadership. And she basically becomes a progressive hero at this time and has continued over the last two and a half years to really raise her status. As for many people on the left and among sort of left liberals as a potential future for the American labor movement, that would bring things back like a more direct confrontation with employers, with the government, and really fighting for a kind of economic democracy that a lot of people on the left think that the AFL-CIO is a little too tepid to deal with, to really fight for immigration reform, to fight for green energy and a green new deal in the fight against climate change, which is very controversial with the labor movement.

S1: Yeah, you’ve said that Trumka is the most progressive labor leader, but you also talked about how it’s been kind of an evolution. It seems to me that if Sarah Nelson takes charge, which is a big if, but if she does, it’s like a further evolution to one more step beyond even Trumka.

S3: No question. No question about that. Yeah, she would really she would really bring new energy into the labor movement. I mean, you know, we don’t know if an intensive organizing campaign and the return of super militant tactics would set the labor movement in a new direction. Right. There’s a lot of structural issues getting in the way, but we do know that without that, with things kind of going just the way they’ve been, that nothing is going to change that, that we know that as good as Trumka was, in many ways, the labor movement was still unable to move in a direction where it began to really organize large number of the workers. Again, like the percentage of people in the in unions in America, continues to slowly decline, even though Trumka was good.

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S1: Yeah, I was going to say there’s this thing I just 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. And like, how do you reconcile those things? That he was a tremendous advocate, but at the same time, it might not have been enough?

S3: Yeah, there’s two things here. I mean, one is that, again, the power of employers is so great to stop a union from winning that until that is dealt with, it’s just going to be very difficult to organize anywhere.

S1: And some people say this is exactly what happened with Bessemer, Alabama, with Amazon. Amazon came in. They had mandatory sessions for their workers. You have to sit down. You have to listen to anti-union propaganda. They had signs in the bathroom. They had people posted out front to, you know, check your name and, you know, ask you what how you’re feeling. And that sort of stuff is intimidating.

S3: It absolutely is. I mean, it’s actually a really brave act to vote for a union in this atmosphere. Right. So that’s one that’s one reason. But the other part of it is the head of the AFL-CIO. If you have to negotiate these very tricky politics within the labor movement itself and you’re not a dictator in this role and you know, and so you can go in and be AFL-CIO head and say, I’m going to do A, B and C, but certain unions, if they just say no, like there’s not that much you could do about it. And so the power is actually somewhat limited. You have to be able to convince these unions that are still existing and fat and happy mode like nothing could ever change that unless they put tons of resources into organizing. They’re going to continue to decline. You may not be able to. Some of that.

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S1: Talking to you about Trumka legacy, I kind of see it as proof that while he was an incredibly charismatic leader and so important, the labor unions need so much more than a charismatic leader because it will only get you so far.

S3: Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. I couldn’t have done that better myself that that we want to focus on. If we only have the right leader, things will get better. But that’s not really how it works, right. That the issues are structural. And, you know, there are problems with the American labor movement mean 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. And Trumka was flawed himself. But like like like anybody, really. However, the best leader in the world cannot necessarily overcome a united front of business and the political world determined to crush unions, no matter how radical the leadership, no matter how democratic the union, no matter how much you might agree or disagree with the with the political aims of a given campaign. But one thing that’s most battered in 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.

S1: But I wonder if you see a couple little reasons for hope here, like just over the last couple of weeks, there’s been this decision from the NLRB that maybe there needs to be a new vote in Bessemer, Alabama, because Amazon went too far in trying to stop unionization from happening. And 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, OK, maybe there is some kind of turning point and Trumka as a part of that?

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S3: Absolutely right. If you continue to elect pro labor Democrats, then, yes, the conditions would move toward change. I think that you see a lot of examples right now of the ways in which the kind of grassroots organizing over the last decade has begun to move the Democratic Party in a more pro labor direction again. But it’s also even outside of the Democratic Party, really creating a situation where everyday people are making demands on the ground for real structural change in American life. And and and Richard Trumka was absolutely central of that because he was always favorable to the labor movement that was fighting for economic justice. And as those conditions began to change and as that became a more acceptable part of the political world, the AFL-CIO was right there, right pushing forward.

S1: Erik, thank you so much for joining me.

S3: Thanks for having me.

S1: Erik Loomis is an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. He’s also the author of a book, A History of America in 10 Strikes. All right. That is the show. What Next is produced by Davis Land, Carmel Delshad, Danielle, Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Delana Schwartz. We are led by Allison Benedictine, Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.