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.
"There is not a single good reason for any worker, especially a union member, to vote against Barack Obama," Trumka told them, wagging his finger and glowering beneath his dark brows. "There's only one really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama. And that's because he's not white."
He then related an encounter he'd had during the primaries with a woman in his home town of Nemacolin, a Democratic loyalist who said she was voting for Hillary Clinton because there was "no way that I'd ever vote for Obama."
"I said, 'Why's that?' " he told the steelworkers. "And she said, 'Well, he's Muslim,' and I said, 'Actually he's Christian just like you and I, but so what if he's Muslim?' Then she shook her head and said, 'Well, he won't wear that American flag pin on his lapel.' I looked at my lapel and said, 'I don't have one and, by the way, you don't have one on either.' . . . 'Well, I don't trust him.' I said, 'Why's that?' She dropped her voice a bit and said, 'Because he's black.' I said, 'Look around this town. Nemacolin's a dying town. There's no jobs here. Our kids are moving away because there's no future here. And here's a man, Barack Obama, who's going to fight for us and you're telling me you're not going to vote for him because of the color of his skin?' " A pause before the punch. " 'Are you out of your ever-loving mind, lady?' "
By summer's end, the speech had gone viral. And by Election Day, the worries about how Obama would fare with working-class whites had been largely laid to rest, thanks in part to his strong showing among union families.
Obama and the Democrats' triumph, then, was organized labor's and Trumka's as well. For eight years, labor had been frozen out -- Sweeney had been invited to the White House only once by George W. Bush, when the pope asked that Sweeney be added to the list for his visit last year. Now, the federation had helped elect a Democratic majority and was poised to reap the rewards, and Trumka had solidified his standing within the AFL-CIO.
But it has not worked out as hoped for the union, just as the first year has been tougher for Obama than many had imagined. The federation's top priority, a bill to make it easier for workers to unionize, bogged down amid a distinct lack of enthusiasm from Obama, and Democrats may drop its most controversial provision, which would let workers form unions by getting their colleagues to check cards instead of in secret-ballot elections. Organized labor hopes that the bill will stem its decline, from representing a third of private-sector workers in the 1950s to 7.5 percent today.
The federation is watching as Obama and congressional Democrats edge toward health-care concessions over the protests of organized labor, most notably on the question of whether to include a government-run insurance plan. On Tuesday, Trumka said the federation would not support a bill if the public option were dropped; a day later, the White House and Hill leaders gave out more signs they were doing just that.
Into this fraught moment steps Trumka, who sees resistance to labor's agenda as just a sign of how entrenched the opposition is. "It's Wall Street. We're trying to change the status quo, and they liked the status quo. They've been benefiting from it by getting rich by it," he said. "Take health care. They have three lobbyists to every senator down there, that's what they've hired. The Capitol's awash in money. We're fighting that, and we'll continue to fight that, and ultimately we'll prevail."
Trumka went into the mines at 19, following his grandfather, uncles and father. His father died of black lung disease in 1999, after he'd retired, and after the mine had been shut down by Jones & Laughlin Co., which like many other mine owners later tried to relieve itself of the health-care obligations of its retirees. "The new CEO said at the time that it allowed them to rid their company of the 'warts' that had grown on it," Trumka says. "When he talked about the warts, he was referring to my mom and dad and thousands of other people that were there."
The mine's decline and the company's behavior were enough to send Trumka to college at Penn State and law school at Villanova in preparation for a career of union activism. After five years as a lawyer for the United Mine Workers, he became its president in 1982. Under him, the union took a leading role in the anti-apartheid movement and the boycott of Shell Oil.
But his crowning moment was in 1989, when the union challenged the Pittston Co.'s refusal to contribute to a joint health-care and pension fund. Trumka sustained a nine-month strike in West Virginia that became a rallying cry for a beleaguered labor movement -- 4,000 workers submitted to arrest, hundreds came in solidarity from around the country, and all manner of civil disobedience was employed, including spreading bent-nail devices on roads to keep replacement workers from getting in.
"It was one of the best-run strikes in the history of the country," says Cecil Roberts, the Mine Workers' current president.
In 1995, Trumka was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, Sweeney's No. 2. A year later, he landed in hot water when he threw his weight behind Ron Carey in his bitter fight against James Hoffa Jr. for the Teamsters presidency. Federal investigators raised questions about whether Trumka improperly directed $150,000 in AFL-CIO funds to Carey's campaign; Trumka took the Fifth and was not charged.
Since then, he has bided his time, lining up the chits as he prepared for when Sweeney, now 75, would retire. At the federation convention next week, Trumka will take the helm.
Trumka's ascent represents a true changing of the guard, ushering in a tone of leadership that will be far more muscular than that of the avuncular Sweeney. Even Sweeney says the time has come for a more assertive approach.
"It's true that he's more aggressive than Sweeney was," he said in his gentle Irish-via-New York lilt, referring to himself in the third person, "but I think that there is a time when you have to be aggressive and only can take so much, when you're getting it from people who are not looking for a way to resolve a problem but are looking for a way to kill the labor movement."
Trumka laid out the strategy last week in a speech to the Center for American Progress: The federation would do more to reach out to struggling younger workers, and would view its mission more in terms of speaking up for working-class Americans as a whole than merely for its 11 million members.
What got everyone's attention, though, was his threat to Democratic congressmen and others who take labor's support for granted -- including those willing to compromise away key elements of health-care reform for the sake of token bipartisanship.
"More than ever, we need to be a labor movement that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies and challenges those who, well, can't seem to decide which side they're on," he said. "I'm talking about the politicians who always want us to turn out our members to vote for them, but who somehow always seem to forget workers after the votes are counted."
But are such threats just empty bluster, considering that the federation has been trying for years to keep Democrats in line with middling success, and given that so many of the Democrats who are giving organized labor fits come from relatively conservative states with low union membership?
"We'll see," he says. "We'll see."
The convention where Trumka will be anointed next week is in Pittsburgh, just up the Monongahela River from Nemacolin. He gets back there now and then to see his mother. Were people in town upset about the way it came across in the famous speech by its most famous son? Not really, he says.
"I talked to some of my friends, and they were happy I gave the speech," he says. "It was the 500-pound gorilla no one wanted to talk about. I'd never seen any form of racism there, but there was this hesitancy I encountered [toward Obama], and I thought, if other people have that hesitancy and it doesn't go confronted, it could have some lasting effect.
"It was just the natural thing to do."