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Profile of Richard Trumka, Incoming Head of the AFL-CIO

At a 2005 rally in Chicago, Richard Trumka is flanked by AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson and President John Sweeney, whom Trumka will replace.
At a 2005 rally in Chicago, Richard Trumka is flanked by AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson and President John Sweeney, whom Trumka will replace. (By Brian Kersey -- Associated Press)

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 7, 2009

On the high school football fields of southwestern Pennsylvania -- the "cradle of quarterbacks" -- Richard Trumka was the monster man.

Football fans will recognize the old-fashioned term for the defender who swings between the linebacker and safety positions, depending on whether the offense is set up to run or pass. But Trumka, who at 60 tends more to linebacker heft than safety leanness, would not mind if the monster tag were interpreted by the White House, Congress and corporate America as a metaphor for his primary goal as the next president of the country's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO:

Trumka wants to take a far more aggressive stance against anyone who stands in the federation's way, and that includes Democrats who beg for labor's support only to betray it on issues like health-care reform.

Monday, he and the man he is succeeding, John Sweeney, will meet with President Obama at a Labor Day picnic in Cincinnati. In what could be a moment of high tension, they will have a chance to argue that, after being elected in part because the AFL-CIO's persuaded its more skeptical members to vote for him, Obama should not disappoint it by settling for half measures.

"The labor movement is the best vehicle out there to make broad social change that creates an America where everyone gets a chance to win once in a while, not just the people on Wall Street but every American out there," Trumka said in his office overlooking Lafayette Park and the White House. "It's a big, big task, it's a big, big fight, and all the people that are arrayed against us are going to try to prevent us from changing anything. But with every fiber of my body I look forward to that fight."

Truthfully, if there is a useful metaphor in Trumka's gridiron days, it is more nuanced than the evocation of brute force he might prefer. The monster man is defined by versatility, being able to stop the big fullback in the middle or pick up speedy receivers on the flank. Likewise, Rich Trumka is a mix of inside and outside man.

He is a bulldog who, with his burly build and thick shoe-brush mustache, looks every bit the third-generation coal miner he is, one who led one of the few successful high-stakes strikes of the past half-century. But he is also a veteran Washington lawyer who consults with academics and keeps a well-thumbed copy of anti-globalization polemicist Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" close by.

He is, in his own way, no less a theorist about the decline and fall of the house of labor than is the federation's rival, Andy Stern, the ambitious and exceedingly Beltway-minded leader of the Service Employees International Union who led his union and several others to break away from the AFL-CIO four years ago.

"The only thing that is boilerplate about Trumka is what you see on the surface, which is iconic. The coal miner's background, his appearance. Well, that's deceptive," said Bob Bruno, a labor relations professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "He's come to appreciate that the labor movement has to be about values and ideas, and he's grappling with those."

Rose Ann DeMoro, the boisterous head of the California Nurses Association and a longtime Trumka friend, sees him the other way around. He may have operated inside the Beltway for 35 years, she said, but he does not show it.

"He's lived there but he's not one of them," said DeMoro, whose husband often hunts with Trumka. "He won't go to Washington and cut a deal behind [our] backs. And I'm serious about that, because if he does, I'll shoot him."

It was the convergence of the two Trumkas -- union-hall tub-thumper and spiritual ally of the metropolitan Starbucks liberal -- that produced his YouTube moment, surely the first YouTube moment in the history of the perpetually sepia-tinged American labor movement. On July 1, 2008, Trumka took the podium of a large convention hall in Las Vegas and vehemently told steelworkers that they, like other working-class whites, needed to get a grip.


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