Richard Trumka Should Take a Page from MLK on Jobs Crisis

Mike Elk

Martin Luther King Jr. leads a street march. One of the signs reads "We March for Jobs for All Now."

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This week in Washington, talk was focused on the economy in Washington as Chinese President Hu Jianto visited the White House. President Obama facilitated a meeting on Wednesday between President Hu and the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, General Electric (GE) and Boeing about how they could further their business interests in China.

Earlier in the week, GE announced a deal to start producing jet engines in China. After Boeing signed a $19-billion dollar deal to produce planes for China on Wednesday, it announced the company was laying off 1,000 workers in California on Thursday. Many industry observers see these developments as the beginning of the end of one of the last manufacturing industries remaining in the United States: the aerospace industry.

AFL CIO President Richard Trumka was not invited to the White House China-CEO summit. Instead, the same morning Trumka gave a bold speech at the National Press Club in which he said the nation’s future begins and ends with jobs.” Trumka awkwardly attempted to denounce the austerity/​deregulatory agenda of President Obama without denouncing Obama or the Democratic Party by name. 

Trumka failed to forcefully criticize the president in his prepared remarks, although during the Q & A period he did say that Obama is as pro-business as any President” and acknowledged there were times when labor was frustrated with the president.

After the speech, I asked Trumka if he was upset with the president for meeting with some of the leading job exporters in the United States, rather than himself. Trumka responded: We aren’t going to denounce the president in public for meeting with the CEOs. The president doesn’t communicate well with me in the press. I talk in private with the president about these matters.”

Trumka’s refusal to denounce President Obama for meeting with CEOs hurting the workers he represents stood in sharp contrast to the militant style that led to Trumka’s rise as a union leader. In 1989, Richard Trumka launched his rise as labor leader by leading the UMWA in the successful nine-month strike against Pittston Coal Group for cutting off medical benefits to pensioners and the disabled. A full 37,000 miners went out on wildcat strikes in solidarity with the Pittston strikers. The long strike led the UMWA to the brink of bankruptcy, and it was fined nearly $64 million during the strike. But the workers stood firm, and the Pittston Strike became a rallying cry against the tide of unionbusting that had swept the nation during the Reagan era.

Now, Trumka finds himself using far less militant tactics in his calls for the president to focus on saving jobs — tactics far less militant than those employed by Martin Luther King (whose legacy we celebrated this past Monday) and the larger Civil Rights Movement.

The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement did not achieve change by giving speeches at the National Press Club refusing to denounce by name those that were hurting the lives of African Americans. When President John F. Kennedy asked Martin Luther King to stop the March on Washington, Martin Luther King refused to do it. The Civil Rights Movement achieved its victories through direct denouncements and campaigns of civil disobedience.

This type of nonviolent action, King wrote in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, creates the conditions necessary for social change. King wrote: Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

The labor movement has yet to dramatize the issue of the jobs crisis in a way that cannot be ignored.

But an event just up the street from the National Press Club that occurred shortly after Trumka’s speech did dramatize the jobs crisis. About 200 unionists, members of the Sheet Metal Workers, the Painters Union and Laborers’ International Union of North America, invaded a conference of bankers to protest a speech given by the Vice Chairwoman of Pulte Home construction. (Full disclosure: Credentialed as a Huffington Post blogger, I helped the workers get into the conference room.) Pulte received $917 million dollars in stimulus funds from the United States government, but failed to produce a single job as the funds were intended to be used.

The invasion of this banker’s conference leds to major stories on CNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post. It embarrassed the company immensely. The workers scared the assembled bankers in the room, who will (I hope) remember the faces of those workers when they debate lay-offs. They won’t remember Trumka’s speech if they even heard of it in the first place.

Now, I should note that Trumka took time in the middle of his rather dry speech to encourage people to attend the action after the meeting.

But the protest would have had even more impact if someone as highly-regarded as Richard Trumka been there. Trumka has the moral authority and intellectual capacity that no previous AFL-CIO president has ever possessed.

If Trumka were willing to chain himself to the fence of the White House the way LGBT activists have while pushing for gay rights (specifically, the repeal of Don’t, Ask Don’t Tell), it’s quite possible that President Obama would not be able to handle the heat of a man with his moral authority.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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