Is Richard Trumka Returning Labor to Its Social Movement Roots?

Roger Bybee

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka takes questions after his August 31 speech in Washington, D.C. about a new push by the organization to attract young workers.

Let’s hope so

Representing just under 12 percent of America’s workforce, unions must inspire others to fight for moral principles — instead of just 5 cents more an hour — or face irrelevance. Labor can rebuild its critical mass only by motivating people with a compelling moral analysis of what’s going wrong for the vast majority of Americans, and outlining a vision of a different and better America.

Last Friday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered a thunderous speech to the National Press Club that captured wide attention for its forceful assertion of labor’s political independence, widely seen as a warning to President Obama and Democratic members of Congress, and especially aimed at Democratic governors.

But it was also, in my view, an extraordinary step forward in the AFL-CIO’s transformation under Trumka’s leadership toward a social movement with a strong appeal to America’s insecure middle class and struggling poor people.

Trumka insisted that the budget deficit fixating politicians of both parties should not be the focus of American politics. Not only is repairing the budget deficit within our reach if we restore a measure of tax fairness and begin demanding that the richest 1 percent and corporations contribute their fair share, but it is not our nation’s most urgent and glaring deficit:

America’s real deficit is a moral deficit — where political choices come down to forcing foster children to wear hand-me-downs while cutting taxes for profitable corporations.

Powerful political forces are seeking to silence working people — to drive us out of the national conversation. I can think of no greater proof of the moral decay in our public life than that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would dare give a Martin Luther King Day speech hailing Dr. King at the same time that he drafted a bill to take away collective bargaining rights from sanitation workers in Wisconsin. 


The same contempt for the basic democratic rights for workers on display in Wisconsin is being extended to the most fundamental human rights of marginalized and politically powerless groups in budget proposals being unfurled across the nation. 

Together, these proposals outline not just a transfer of resources away from those most desperately in need, but reveal the kind of social cruelty in Charles Dickens’ novels about 19th century life.

These proposals reflect not only a sadistic willingness to intensify the suffering of those already struggling, but also an abandonment of investment in our future. This parallels precisely the way that Corporate America has been dis-investing in America’s future success, offshoring U.S. jobs in and hollowing out our productive base. As Trumka continues:

And not just meanness. Destructiveness. A willful desire to block the road to the future. How else can you explain governors of states with mass unemployment refusing to allow high-speed rail lines to be built in their states? 

How else can you explain these same governors’ plans to defund higher education, close schools and fire teachers, when we know that without an educated America, we have no future?

The political-independence dimension of Trumka’s message has been examined by David Moberg and Mike Elk here at Working In These Times, and my old friend John Nichols at The Nation. Moberg praises the speech but wonders how it will concretely be put into practice, while Elk reminds us that even conservative AFL-CIO presidents like George Meany issued occasional statements about labor’s political independence.

Meanwhile, John Nichols outlines some of the ways that labor can continue on the independent path it started to carve out in Wisconsin by devoting money and resources to local battles rather than merely doling out campaign contributions and lining up volunteers to work for any candidate bearing the Democratic label.


But Trumka’s speech was much more than a declaration of a new strategic direction. Most fundamentally, it was a reinvigoration of labor’s appeal to the public in profoundly moral terms. 

The labor movement desperately needs this kind of morally-grounded fervor to re-fashion itself as a social movement that speaks not just for its own members but also for the poor and the middle class, and fights on the basis of social and economic justice for all.

While president of the United Mineworkers, Trumka applied this fiery, inspirational approach during the Pittston strike of 1989-90. But until recently, he has not been able to stir the AFL-CIO. But more and more unions, as evidenced by the Fire Fighters union’s withdrawal of contributions to Democrats, are now recognizing that they can no longer win by placing all their eggs in the Dems’ basket. 

As Trumka was clearly reminded during his visit to Wisconsin at the height of the struggle over bargaining rights, the future of labor depends on spreading a vision of fighting for the vast majority and struggling for a new, more equal and more democratic America.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
In These Times August 2022 Cover
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue