What I Do
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Richard L. Trumka
Richard Trumka is president of the 12.5 million-member American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest organization of labor unions in the country. An outspoken advocate for social and economic justice, Trumka is the nation’s clearest voice on the critical need to raise workers’ wages in this slow and painful economic recovery. He heads the labor movement’s efforts to create an economy based on broadly shared prosperity and to hold government and employers accountable to working families.
Elected president of the federation in 2009, Trumka shapes the economy in two primary ways—by leading the mobilization of masses of working people through a nationwide network of state and local labor federations, and by working one on one with government executives, legislators and business leaders. The goal is adopting progressive, pro-worker laws and policies at every level to improve life for working families.
Trumka, who served as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer from 1995 to 2009, has devoted his career to improving workers’ lives through a strong collective voice on the job. His leadership is focused on union organizing and collective bargaining, as well as the federation’s advocacy for labor law reform in Congress. Trumka also spearheads initiatives to help workers’ organizations partner or affiliate with the AFL-CIO, modeled after a 2006 partnership agreement with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). In 2011 the federation affiliated the National Taxi Workers Alliance and entered partnerships with the National Guestworker Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate Working America continues to expand, growing to more than 3.2 million members. Since 2003, Working America has organized in neighborhoods across the country, reaching people who do not belong to unions but who share union values.
While joining a union is the best way for workers to raise their wages and improve their lives, Trumka knows it is not an answer currently available to all. His approach to raising wages after 40 years of stagnating paychecks is comprehensive, including a range of government and private-sector actions, from increasing the minimum wage and achieving equal pay for women to enacting earned sick leave and fair scheduling laws at every level. The effort also includes the Common Sense Economics education program for union members and community allies, which explains why America’s economy stopped working for workers and how to reverse recent trends.
Trumka’s economic advocacy extends from the kitchen table and spans the world. He has rallied international labor support for workers struggling for justice and pressed to end unfair trade practices and to restore U.S. manufacturing strength. As secretary-treasurer, he carved out an innovative leadership role that continues today, working with programs that invest the collectively bargained pension and benefit funds of the labor movement to ensure they serve the long-term interests of workers. In mid-2014, two years ahead of schedule, the union movement fulfilled a $10 billion pledge to the Clinton Global Initiative to invest in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure while boosting the sagging job market.
As part of his challenge to excessive corporate power, the AFL-CIO publishes the Executive PayWatch website, which tracks the astonishing pay packages of America’s CEOs and compares them with workers’ pay.
Trumka’s corporate accountability work, including his determination to see Wall Street reformed, has never prevented him from building strategic alliances with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests where priorities intersect, such as infrastructure investment.
Under Trumka’s leadership, the AFL-CIO also has revamped its political program. As corporate and billionaire campaign contributions alter the political climate and culture, Trumka has demanded more commitment, more unity and more accountability of all participants in the movement-wide grassroots education and get-out-the-vote program. The federation has moved toward greater independence by investing more in the labor movement than in any political party. It also has expanded its political outreach beyond union members and their families and created new capacity for year-round mobilization.
The AFL-CIO was key to President Obama’s 2008 election and 2012 re-election, as well as the election of such progressive champions as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. But working people lost ground in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014. In 2014, voters’ overwhelming support of progressive economic policies was ignored by too many candidates, trumped by the unprecedented flood of corporate campaign contributions and savage television ads for anti-worker candidates. “In these very difficult times,” Trumka said, working family voters “did not a get a genuine economic alternative to their unhappiness and very real fear of the future.”
Trumka’s commitment to improving life for working people began early. He grew up in the small coal-mining town of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania. Nearly all of the men in his family, including his father and grandfather, were coal miners. Trumka followed them into the mines, working there as he attended Penn State and then Villanova University law school.
Down in the mines and in the company town, solidarity could be a matter of survival.
“Solidarity in a mine is as real as the ability to stop production if the coal dust gets too thick or the roof supports too shaky,” Trumka said. “Solidarity can mean the difference between life and death.”
With that lesson came another: “You learn about employers,” Trumka said later. “You learn that some of them care more about a lump of coal than an individual’s life.”
His path through the mines and to the presidency of the AFL-CIO was paved in the 1960s, when he was a 12-year-old sitting on the porch of his grandfather’s home. They discussed how miserably striking miners were being treated. His grandfather asked, “What do you plan to do about it?” Trumka said he would become a lawyer and help miners. He did—and in 1982, at age 33, he ran on a reform ticket and was elected the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
There, in addition to reforming the UMWA’s fractious bureaucracy, he led one of the most successful strikes in recent American history against the Pittston Coal Company, which tried to avoid paying into an industry-wide health and pension fund.
Solidarity and his determination to improve life for all working families have driven Trumka’s life as a labor leader. Comprehensive immigration reform is a central part of that goal. Trumka has driven the labor movement and allies to fight tirelessly for a path to citizenship and worker protections. When comprehensive reform legislation was blocked on Capitol Hill, Trumka was influential in pressuring the Obama administration to take executive action. President Obama’s November 2014 executive order was an important initial step toward fixing our broken immigration system, which Trumka called “an invitation for employer manipulation and abuse” of workers, for which “U.S.-born workers as well as immigrant workers are paying the price.”
Trumka’s work on behalf of immigrants was just one signal of his deep commitment to securing economic and social justice for all working people. In September 2014, Trumka traveled to St. Louis to confront the issues surrounding the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri, by a police officer. It was an especially sensitive topic for the labor movement. Brown’s mother is a union member, as is Darren Wilson, the police officer. But Trumka took it on directly.
“Sisters and brothers, just as was true a hundred years ago, when we try to move forward there will be some people who will want to foment racism, to divide us for their own benefit. Those are the same people who always want to set workers against each other….And about that, I can only say this: If we let that happen, we lose. Every time.”
Weeks later, Trumka again addressed race, this time in America’s criminal justice system, delivering a major speech on the mass incarceration of young men of color that is tearing apart lives, families and whole communities.
Exploring why mass incarceration is a labor issue, Trumka said, “because labor rights and social justice and civil rights are intertwined. In America, 99% of us have to work for a living. We work together. We live side by side. We share the same communities. We share so much, and so we know that when we find injustice…we must call it out for what it is, and fight to make it right.”
Trumka had challenged racism directly during the 2008 presidential campaign as well. Known for his opposition to apartheid, Trumka was convinced that prejudice also needed to be faced here at home. Trumka delivered a speech to the United Steelworkers convention attacking the latent racism that threatened Barack Obama’s candidacy. “There’s no evil,” he declared, “that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism. And it’s something that we in the labor movement have a very, very special responsibility to challenge. Because we know better than anybody how racism is used to divide working people.”
As Trumka looks forward, he envisions an economy of shared prosperity that works for all working families—an economy of rising wages, equal pay, respect at work, safe jobs, secure retirement, and the freedom to form or join unions and bargain collectively. He knows what it will take to get there: solidarity and commitment.
That is the truth Rich Trumka has carried from the mines of southwestern Pennsylvania. With solidarity and commitment, we all have a chance to work in dignity and live well.