On Wednesday, John Sweeney, who has led the AFL-CIO since 1995, stepped down and was succeeded by his long-time lieutenant, Richard Trumka, who ran unopposed and was elected by delegates at the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh.
Trumka’s made a lot of noise heading into his election. This article takes a look at his history. Will he be the militant he seems to sound like? The article suggests otherwise.
Trumka’s résumé makes him eminently qualified to continue where Sweeney left off. Throughout his career he has suppressed opposition from rank-and-file workers, collaborated with the employers in imposing concessions on union members, and promoted the nationalism and anti-communism which have been hallmarks of the AFL-CIO since its formation more than 50 years ago.
Perhaps the best place to look at Trumka is from the time he was head of the United Mine Workers. How did he shepherd that union? Did the union grow or shrink during his administration?
Trumka began his career in the United Mine Workers (UMW) bureaucracy as a member of the legal staff of Arnold Miller, who was elected president in a Labor Department-supervised election in 1972. That election came as a result of an upsurge of miners against the corrupt and gangster-ridden leadership of Tony Boyle, who had been convicted of the murder of UMW dissident Jock Yablonski.
A wave of wildcat strikes throughout the coalfields culminated in a bitter strike in 1974, and then the 111-day walkout in 1977-78, in which miners clashed with Miller and defied a back-to-work order by the Carter administration. Miller was forced to resign in 1979.
According to an account of the memoir of Thomas Geoghegan, another member of Miller’s legal staff, “the young turks, including Trumka and [Geoghegan], who’d taken over the Washington, DC headquarters of the UMW, couldn’t control the rank and file and they were turned out in disgrace.”
Hmmm….he then went back to work in the mines so that he could run for office. He was elected in 1982. What happened?
Over the next 13 years however, Trumka worked to break down the traditions of working class solidarity and militant struggle in the UMW and transform the union into an adjunct of the coal industry. In 1983, the UMW abandoned its traditional policy of “no contract, no work” and industry-wide strike action in favor of the policy of so-called “selective strikes” against individual companies.
And the effect was:
This paved the way for the isolation and defeat of the 1984-85 AT Massey strike and the 1989-90 struggle at Pittston coal, which opened the way for a wave of violence by the coal companies and the state that culminated in the frame-up and murder of militant miners.
This doesn’t sound good.
Rather than organizing mass picketing to defend the 1,500 Pittston strikers and spreading the struggle across the coalfields, Trumka ordered miners to carry out civil disobedience stunts, such as sitting in front of the mine entrances until state troopers hauled them off to jail and appealing to Pittston shareholders at corporate meetings.
Picketers probably would have worked better.
In June 1989, rank-and-file miners in southern West Virginia launched a wildcat strike to break the isolation of the Pittston workers. Roving pickets, many wearing ski masks, fanned out to shut down union and non-union mines. At its height, 50,000 miners paralyzed coal production east of the Mississippi.
In response, Trumka issued a desperate plea to the coal bosses and the government, telling the Charleston Gazette that Pittston’s intransigence threatened to destroy the stability and competitiveness the UMW had brought to the coal industry.
If the company succeeded in breaking the UMW, he warned, “When it comes back, I think the form of union probably will be different. Its tolerance for injustice will be far less and its willingness to alibi for a system that we know doesn’t work will be nonexistent.”
Appeal for the union’s ability to help competitiveness rather than supporting the strikers, who, after all, the union exists to support (as the workers pay their dues). This does not sound like a militant to me. Does it for you?
I’ll let you read the rest. Perhaps Mr. Trumka has learned from his past experiences and will turn out to be the leader the AFL-CIO needs. White does point out one disturbing result of Trumka’s time at UMW:
Trumka would leave the UMW in 1995 to take a higher position in the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. He left having overseen the destruction of what was once the most powerful and militant union in the US. When he was elected UMW president in 1982, the union had 120,000 active members. Today it has around 16,000. Former UMW strongholds in the coal states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania are plagued with poverty, chronic unemployment and ill health.