Politics & Policy

Why Richard Trumka Failed

Richard Trumka speaks during the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations 2013 Convention in Los Angeles, Calif., September 10, 2013. (Kevork Djansezian/Reuters)
At best, Trumka was a friend of a friend of the working man.

The legacy of the late Richard Trumka, longtime leader of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, is of a union movement firmly tied to the Democratic Party and to the broader progressive movement. Trumka did this in the hopes that it could restore the movement to the same level of power and prestige it had enjoyed in the mid-20th century. It hasn’t worked out.

When Trumka took over as AFL-CIO president in 2009, unions represented 12.3 percent of the combined U.S. workforce, down from about 14 percent in 1999 and about third of the entire workforce in its 1950s heyday. He vowed to rebuild the movement. “The labor movement cannot ask the next generation of workers to change how they earn their living to fit our model of trade unionism. No, we have to change our approach to organizing and representation to better meet their needs,” Trumka said in his election acceptance speech at the federation’s 2009 convention. “And I promise you, that we will.”

The union movement had shrunk to 10.8 percent of the workforce by the time he died Thursday of a heart attack at the age of 72.

If only Trumka had taken his own advice and fundamentally re-thought how the movement approached the changes in the economy and the workforce. Instead, he remained what he was: the son of Pennsylvania mine workers who grew up in a culture when it was just understood that if you worked, you belonged to a union. He couldn’t conceive of workers not wanting to be in one. His solution to labor unions’ gradual decline was to find allies in Congress who would simply rewrite the law to require more people to be in the unions. It was for the workers’ own good, you see.

It wasn’t always this way. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the labor movement was a more centrist institution. The union vote was often up for grabs. During the social upheaval of the 1960s, it was the unionized “blue-collar joes” who pushed back against the hippie counterculture and stood for law and order. The AFL-CIO refused to back Democratic candidate George McGovern in 1972, making no endorsement that year. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon won support of unions such as the Teamsters. TV’s Archie Bunker was a proud union man.

The shift leftwards began in 1980s, but it really accelerated in the twelve years since Trumka took over the AFL-CIO. Labor has given away about $1 billion of its members’ dues in political contributions over the last several election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. About $380 million of that has gone directly to Democratic candidates. Republicans got $46 million. (The numbers are somewhat inflated because not all unions belong to the AFL-CIO.)

During the Obama years, Trumka hoped White House support would enable passage of the deceptively named Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a.k.a. “card check” legislation. Trumka portrayed this as a means to ensure that workers who wanted unions could get them. In reality, it would have been a license to game the system. Workplace organizing typically involves the union claiming to management that it has the support of a majority of the workers, usually done in the form of signed cards. Management can accept the claim or request a federally monitored secret-ballot election. If the union’s claim is legit, then the election is a mere formality. Card check would have rewritten the National Labor Relations Act to strip management of the ability to request the election. The union could simply claim it had the support, and neither management nor the workers themselves would be able to contest this.

EFCA never passed even during the period of 2009–2010 when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. Though they were loath to say it out loud, many rank-and-file Democrats were rightly worried about the impact of passing such radical legislation, and it quietly died.

With “Blue Collar Joe” Biden in office, Trumka pushed for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, legislation that makes EFCA look like a mere warm-up act. It would, among other things, repeal right-to-work laws in all 27 states that have them. Those are laws that make it the individual worker’s choice to belong to or otherwise support a union. The PRO Act would also force business owners to turn over all contact information for their workers to unions without giving the worker the right to object. It would also make it effectively illegal for workers to have “side hustles.” The PRO Act would limit short-term contract jobs to workers who were “customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation [or] profession.” In other words, workers who were full-time freelancers. Why rob people of their side hustles? Because it is much easier to organize people who work at full-time jobs. The PRO Act represents an audacious feat: supposedly “pro-worker” legislation that rolls back existing workers’ rights. It remains stuck in the Senate, largely for the same reason as EFCA: Enough sane Democrats are afraid of the consequences of passing it.

“It’s time for the Senate to pass the PRO Act so that the 60 million workers who want to join a union right now can do so freely and fairly,” Trumka said during the AFL-CIO’s Virtual Constitutional Convention in July. He was fond of making that 60-million claim. If that were true, then there wouldn’t be a need for a PRO Act to strip people of their right-to-work protections or a card-check bill to strip them of the ability to vote in a union election.

Trumka’s all-purpose response to why the movement was losing members was that corporations had mastered the art of union-busting. Like another political figure whose last name begins with the same four letters, Trumka saw every election defeat as proof that the game was rigged, not that the voters had other ideas. “Amazon’s outrageous behavior is only the latest reminder that our rights have been steadily eroded by a handful of powerful elites,” he tweeted after the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union failed a high-profile bid to organize the online retailer’s Bessemer, Ala., facility in April. Only about 13 percent of the Amazon workers voted to unionize. Workers told reporters that they just weren’t buying what the union was selling.

Trumka was fond of presenting himself as a champion of the working man. Yet he lived in fear that if those workers had complete freedom to decide to be in a union, they would make the “wrong” choice. At best, he was a friend of a friend of the working man.

Sean Higgins is a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, specializing in labor policy.

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