Trumka Takes Over AFL-CIO

Twelve years ago, the last time delegates to the AFL-CIO’s National Convention mustered in Pittsburgh, the rhetoric was lofty with invocations to organizing and expanded horizons, Union Cities and Street Heat, but in retrospect the most striking feature was money. Money represented by the legions of smarty-pants staffers and the repeated vows to spend $20 million a year on organizing and whatever it took on politics; money as expressed in the ubiquitous media “outreach,” the glossy brochures and overproduced sets whose only functional purpose was to justify the retainers of the formidable crew of hired pr experts; money as an AFL side business in the form of its Union Plus credit card program, then being vigorously promoted.

Those were heady days, not quite the party being enjoyed by business in the 1990s, but more than enough to signal that the team that had begun its ascent as the Committee for Change to challenge Lane Kirkland’s leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1994 and that then morphed into the New Voices Campaign the next year to take control of the federation in the first contested election in 100 years was well-financed, in the saddle and swinging with confidence. At a boat ride soiree on Pittsburgh’s rivers one night during that 1997 convention Andy Stern, then relatively new as John Sweeney’s successor as SEIU president, was breezily chatty about labor’s fighting side, the potential for blue-green alliances and subjects far afield union matters. He had been instrumental in organizing Sweeney’s victory as president of the federation in 1995, and as the union president most identified with the style and scaffolding of the New AFL, it seemed he could not have been happier.

Now Stern is gone and the money’s gone, from the AFL-CIO at least, and when delegates again converge on Pittsburgh for another National Convention from September 13 through 17 they will bid a final adieu to Sweeney too. What will remain most prominently of that season of change will be Rich Trumka, elected secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO fourteen years ago and now barreling forward to an uncontested election as the head of the federation, promising again to be an agent of change.

“Unions don’t live or die on their budgets,” my old friend Jerry Tucker, a longtime labor strategist and onetime high-up in the United Auto Workers, remarked the other day, and he’s right. All the money the UAW once had did not make it a tough, smart fighting machine in the long years of concession bargaining and shutdowns leading up to the recent implosion of most of the auto industry, just as all the money spread around by the AFL-CIO across the years could not buy it political power, internal unity, rising membership or a winning hand against the most vicious employer class in the developed world. Still, it’s worth talking a little bit about money if only because it’s a subject that a lot of people would rather not talk about, especially since, as secretary treasurer, Trumka had the job of keeping an eye on the AFL’s balance sheet.

That sheet is steeped in red now. The numbers aren’t fully known, but the federation’s debt is said by one union leader to be in the neighborhood of $24 million. The money gained from royalties on the Union Plus card, which once accounted for something like 30 per cent of the federation’s revenue, has been blown, as have most of the operating reserves. What had been a $66 million surplus in 2000 has vanished, to the point where the Machinists’ Tom Buffenbarger warned earlier in the year that “insolvency might be right around the corner.”

In part labor’s financial crash can be laid to the disaffiliation of SEIU and six other unions that formed their own federation, Change to Win, in 2005; in part to the decline in per capita contributions from affiliated unions that have seen their own numbers tumble. Five years ago the UAW, for one, had 800,000 members; now it’s down to about 300,000, a disaster in human terms and a major headache for an institution that depends financially on a portion of their dues. None of this, however, impeded the federation’s spending on politics: $40 million on the 2006 elections, $7.5 million lobbying in 2007 and 2008 combined, $54 million on the 2008 elections. That in turn is dwarfed by the $250 million spent in the last election by all the AFL’s affiliated unions. Tens of millions were spent on blind canvassing to boost the numbers of Working America, the federation’s non-dues-paying, individual-membership appendage. Now the federation is joining most of the country’s employers in laying off staff.

Trumka was no more the ultimate decision-maker on those expenditures than he was on the estimated $50 million renovation of the Labor College or the estimated $30 million renovation of AFL HQ on 16th Street. But nor was he the financial gatekeeper that his title implied, and in fact for some time now it has seemed that Trumka was merely warming a seat all those years as the AFL’s second man, making the occasional fiery speech and waiting, for John Sweeney to retire and himself to inherit the president’s platform.
“Bully pulpit” is the term being used, and it fits. Beloved by some in organized labor — for his heroics at the helm of the 1989-90 Pittston strike when he headed the United Mine Workers, for his fist-thumping rhetoric and brusque manner — Trumka is the bane of others for his performance as part of a team that turned out to be less inspiring than many had hoped.

“Narcissistic, lazy, self-indulgent,” one longtime union organizer quickly ticked off when I asked for an assessment of Trumka. “With Richard, everything will always be about Richard.” He will claim center stage. He will disburse rewards and punishments based on who makes him feel comfortable or not. He will take credit for victories and deflect blame for failures. He will bristle at even polite criticism. More than anything, perhaps, he will enjoy the sound of his own voice.

And yet, another longtime organizer said, with some restraint, maybe that last bit is what’s necessary. It was always a mistake to believe that AFL officials could do much to change the way the affiliated unions behave. Sweeney could exhort union leaders to organize (though ‘exhort’ overanimates Sweeney’s rather mealy public deliveries); he could create new structures directed from central HQ and staff them up to try to drive his program. But he couldn’t control the affiliates. And it wasn’t Sweeney’s nature or talent to use the megaphone of his office to take on capital, amplify local struggles and argue not just for unions but for the class in a vigorous, visible way to a larger audience. With John, nothing was ever about John; it was about the staff and the press release. In other words, in the culture of the loudmouth, maybe labor needs a loudmouth.

That assumes that the latter has an ideological framework, and there is action on the ground to wrap it around; also that there is something behind the loudmouth besides ego. Or, as Jerry Tucker put it, “What the Republic workers did [sitting in at their door and window plant in Chicago in January] a labor federation could not instigate. But a federation could adopt it, popularize it, do its version of the old call-out to solidarity: ‘A fireman in trouble! All firemen assemble.’ Workers and their unions have to wage struggle at the point of production. A federation ideally lifts those struggles up to the level of a movement, offers significant strategic assistance, builds the coalition in labor and beyond and takes up the fight at the point of consumption, making it part of a broader social struggle.”

In Pittsburgh, Trumka is expected to talk a lot about organized labor in the context of the larger, unorganized and increasingly unemployed or underemployed working class, to focus on the hard times for younger workers and the general crises of economic insecurity, labor rights and health care. Taking a page from the old New Voices playbook, he told the Las Vegas Sun recently that he aimed to make the AFL “an ‘agitating, mobilizing, organizing’ machine,” to have a “reserve army” of 1,000 organizers for use in strategic campaigns and to “grow the movement from the grass roots,” which helps get around the question of how that reserve army will be paid. He also will likely attack the corporate-driven structure of the system and vow to punish Democrats who cross labor on health care and labor law reform.

The tough and tender talk will no doubt get roars of approval from the convention, which traditionally enjoys the pageant of put-upon workers and the rhetoric of resistance and retribution. With less bombast, Sweeney and even his predecessors promised to punish Democrats for supporting NAFTA and other sell-outs on trade, though never made good on their threats at election time. It’s hard to imagine a Trumka-led AFL being different, but Trumka has additional objectives for his self-presentation.

Not only does he need to differentiate himself as the un-Sweeney—to say, as one union leader put it, “I’ve been there for fourteen years but everything’s new”—he wants to project himself as the un-Stern. The gritty worker (at least in memory) rather than the technocrat. The guy who trusts the people (“the grassroots”) rather than the union staff or the corporate chiefs at Wal-Mart, whom Andy Stern has been courting, to the dismay of his confreres in the increasingly frayed Change to Win. If public perception is one piece of Trumka’s agenda, the politics of unifying organized labor is another. Whether he has any serious plan of action were unity to be achieved is an open question, but efforts to bring all 16 million of the country’s unionized workers into some kind of functional alliance have been going on since January. The AFL and Change to Win have been working together to push legislative priorities. But other, structural shifts are underway. UNITE HERE, which broke with the AFL in 2005 and more recently split internally, with half going into SEIU, is in talks over reaffiliation with the AFL. The National Education Association, which has always been independent and, with 3.2 million members, is the biggest union in America, is poised to confederate with other unions for the first time in some way, but what shape that might take is not yet clear.

The multiple crises for labor and the working class, together with self-interest and what should be an opportune political moment, are driving unity efforts at the top. Meanwhile, a unity effort of another kind has been building among unions joined in Central Labor Councils, State Federations and community/labor alliances. It might reflect one of the most positive legacies of the Sweeney era, because until Sweeney activated these local labor bodies in order to lock up their votes in 1995, they were relative backwaters in organized labor. The Sweeney team’s claims of spectacular rejuvenation at the state and local level afterward were always exaggerated, but in some places real changes occurred, as evidenced by the fact that in Pittsburgh the gathered delegates will be enjoined to consider the case put forward by about seventy labor councils and states feds who spearheaded the Labor Campaign for Single Payer. They have put forth a resolution to make single payer the health care policy of the AFL-CIO and commit the federation to work for it regardless of what happens with the legislation being mooted in Washington. Given that there are a few labor/community campaigns to win single payer at the state level, most notably in Vermont, following the model of Saskatchewan whose localized experiment eventually led to Canada’s national system, the Labor Campaign’s work could be the start of something big. Its resolution will be considered by the convention on the same day that President Obama comes to speak. If nothing else, it will confront the stage-managed proceedings in Pittsburgh with one real debate.

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI writes for CounterPunch, particularly on labor issues. She will be filing regular reports over the next year from around the country.  She can be reached at



JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.