The Wall Street Journal interviewed me for this story about the ascension of Richard Trumka to the Presidency of the AFL-CIO.
I explained to them that the labor movement faces an internal governance crisis, an external change in the macroeconomic environment and an important shift in the political culture. These are all interrelated, of course, but they add up to what I once called a near “perfect storm” for organized labor.
Trumka is a far more articulate and flexible person than outgoing AFL-CIO President John Sweeney who, frankly, had less personality than a funeral home director – in light of the downward slide of labor during his fourteen years in office it’s a wonder anyone knew the difference. Sweeney emerged as a compromise candidate when the AFL faced the first wave of crisis to hit it – the end of the cold war and thus the end of American labor’s privileged position inside the world’s most powerful capitalist society.
Now, globalization and technological change have made clear how serious the shift away from the old Cold War era is for trade unions. Andy Stern led SEIU and several other affiliates into the wilderness a few years ago in a vain (double entendre intended) attempt to set up a competing union group known as Change to Win. They have failed. But life at the AFL has been no picnic, with declining revenues, staff layoffs and growing political hostility to their lead agenda items, health care and the mis-named Employee Free Choice Act (did they really think they could get away with card check?).
To revive labor must lead and to lead requires an independent political and social program that appeals to broad numbers of workers. But how many workers know what the AFL-CIO or any of its affiliates stand for other than pouring dues money down the drain of feckless politicians?
Twenty five years ago Trumka, the young lawyer who spent seven years in the mines that his father, father-in-law and grandfather worked, took over the United Mine Workers, when that union meant something in the US economy, after a a rank and file revolt against corrupt and violent leaders. He then led a valiant strike against the Pittston Coal Company.
But can he recall that experience and translate it into a viable program to pump life into the entire AFL structure?
Unfortunately, his opening speech to the AFL-CIO Convention offered little sign of his plans, lacking specifics other than a retreat to the “public option” from labor’s longstanding support for the “Medicare For All” single payer proposal.
Given how long the plan for his new role was underway, the 2000 assembled delegates would be justified in feeling some disappointment.