July 7, 2009 / 10:36 PM / 11 years ago

Next leader of large U.S. union may be more militant

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Labor unions are poised for a return to prominence, according to the likely next leader of the largest U.S. labor federation who promises to employ an aggressive and innovative strategy to promote workers’ agenda.

Richard Trumka, the secretary-treasurer of the 11 million-member AFL-CIO, would not divulge in an interview with Reuters what specific tactics he may use, saying he did not want to lose the element of surprise.

“Here’s the deal,” the 59-year-old Trumka said. “For employers who want to work with us and want to work with workers, we’ll be the best friend they ever had. For those that want to abuse people, take benefits away, jettison retirees, then we are going to do everything in our power to stop that from happening.

“And we will use innovative techniques.”

Hints may be visible in how the third-generation Pennsylvania coal miner harnessed civil disobedience and other tactics of the 1960s-era civil rights movement in leading successful strikes against the mining companies in the 1980s — sit-ins, blockades of roads, mine occupations, picketing of corporate headquarters, and ensuring media coverage of police dragging away protesting miners.

“I think he understands social movement unionism and that’s been missing,” Robert Bruno, a labor expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of Trumka.

“I think he will be more energetic. I think he will be more confrontational, more strategic and, where necessary, he will be given more to rank-and-file activism than collaboration.”

In announcing later this week his bid to succeed long-time mentor John Sweeney as head of the AFL-CIO, Trumka may tread more delicately than when he was elected the youngest president of the United Mine Workers in 1982.

But he will come armed with a potent weapon: leverage from unions’ heavy investment of money and manpower widely credited with helping lift President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress to victory in the November 2008 U.S. elections.

Trumka said he is ready to push on two key issues — healthcare reform and a “card check” law that makes it easier for unions to organize workers. The Employee Free Choice Act is bogged down in the U.S. Senate, opposed by a vigorous lobbying effort, and compromises may be in the offing.

“The president, the vice president, totally support the Employee Free Choice Act and they’ll be there when the time is right to get it over the goal line,” Trumka said, predicting it will come up for a vote this month.


Unions in the United States have endured many losing battles. Only in the past few years has union membership stabilized at around one-eighth of the work force — and only 8 percent of private sector workers — following steep declines in the 1970s and after.

“Workers understand that for the last 30 years they’ve been left behind. They know there’s a better way to do things and they’re looking to us in greater numbers,” Trumka said.

Critics argue unions’ traditional role as protectors of worker rights and safety is archaic and portray Trumka as yet another in a long line of tough-minded leaders lacking in vision for an outmoded, divided and doomed union movement.

“In years past, people could name union leaders like Walter Reuther and Samuel Gompers. Sweeney and Trumka have followed the unions in their gradual descent,” said Justin Wilson of Unionfacts.org, a lobbying group.

Trumka countered, “I think this is a tremendous time for unions.”

He and other union leaders argue collective bargaining is needed more than ever to counter corporate greed, to shrink the expanding gap between the pay for rich executives and workers, and to lobby for tax and trade law changes that “level the playing field” so multinational companies stop gravitating to low-wage countries.

“We’ll fight on the political front, we’ll fight on the legislative front, we’ll fight on the collective bargaining front, we’ll fight them so that workers get a fair deal. That is what I’m going to do,” Trumka said.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham

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