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Elected president of the AFL-CIO this summer, President Richard Trumka will build on the labor movement’s recent victories and fight for a new generation of working Americans.

By Gonzalo Baeza
Ready to Lead
From left, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler. (Photo credit: Bill Burke / Page One Photography)

A Conversation with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

Elected president of the AFL-CIO this summer, he will build on the labor movement’s recent victories and fight for a new generation of working Americans.

By Gonzalo Baeza

From his upbringing in a western Pennsylvania union family to his current position at the helm of the American labor movement, Richard Trumka’s trajectory has been one of leadership. Elected president by delegates to last summer’s AFL-CIO convention, Trumka began working as a coal miner at the age of 19 and rose through the ranks of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He was UMWA president for 13 years and was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 1995.

Trumka has vowed to reenergize labor through increased organizing and by making sure Congress stands for working families on issues like health care and the right to join a union. He could not have a better team to help him out. Along with backing Trumka, delegates reelected Arlene Holt Baker as executive vice president. Holt Baker, a former AFSCME International union area director in California, is the first African American to serve as one of the top three executive officers of the federation. Delegates also elected Elizabeth Shuler as the federation’s new secretary-treasurer. At 39, Shuler, former executive assistant to International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Pres. Edwin Hill, is the youngest person ever to become an officer of the AFL-CIO.

AFSCME WORKS spoke with Trumka about his vision for a revitalized labor movement and what must be done to turn the economy around.

How did your upbringing prepare you for the presidency of the AFL-CIO? Specifically, how did the rigors of mine work shape you for the challenges you face today?

I am a third generation coal miner. Both of my grandfathers, my dad, his brothers, and many of my uncles and cousins were mineworkers. As a result, I was always exposed to the United Mine Workers of America.

Working in a mine did a couple of things for me: One, it really teaches you the importance of solidarity and people depending on oneanother, because your health and safety, and in fact your life, depend on the person next to you doing his or her job. It also illustrates the importance of hard work and how insignificant you can be when it comes to pitting yourself against nature.

Why is health care reform so important for union members?

Everyone knows that the health care system is broken. Union members know that every time they go to the bargaining table, they give up wage increases in order not to lose their health care benefits. Premiums are increasing faster than wages, and many times union members are forced to pay higher premiums and co-pays. We can’t fix the economy without fixing health care first. The AFL-CIO and AFSCME have laid out proposals and principles on how health care reform will work, and that’s what we’re fighting for.

During the 2008 Presidential election, you delivered a passionate speech on racism. You said that nothing had “inflicted more pain and more suffering,” and you called on labor to challenge it. How best can we meet that goal?

One of the surest ways is to have all of our members start to confront racism and prejudice wherever they encounter it. When you see people being discriminated against because of the color of their skin, sex, gender, national origin or sexual orien-tation you’re allowing it to go on. We have to continue to educate our members about how racism divides us. It allows the employer to be stronger and all of us weaker.

You recently said that “we need to be a labor movement that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies and challenges those who can’t seem to decide which side they’re on.” How do you plan to make politicians more accountable and responsive to America’s working families?

One of the things we’re doing right now is developing a progressive agenda for America. We’re going around the country listening to our members and once we finalize it we’re going to educate and organize around that agenda. We’re going to show that agenda to people who seek our support. If they don’t support our agenda, then obviously our members will have to make a decision based on that. I believe that in the future we’ll withdraw support for those who don’t stand up for the working class.

The Employee Free Choice Act would make it possible for workers to form unions free from intimidation and harassment from their employers. What will you do to help Congress pass this critical legislation and retain key provisions such as majority sign-up and binding arbitration?

We need to keep telling our story to everybody and go to politicians, senators and Congress people and demand that they stand up for working families. We need to call, write, leaflet the worksite and talk to anybody who’s not quite decided on where they are and tell them that this is a time when you really have the chance to stand up for working people in this country. Everybody agrees that the American system is broken, that it doesn’t work for working people. Now is the time to fix it. Politicians have a chance to stand with workers or stand against them. It’s their decision which way they go, just as it’s our decision whether to support them or not.

You have indicated that you will make the labor movement more relevant to younger workers. What will be your first steps toward meeting that goal?

We already took our first step when we elected our secretary-treasurer, Elizabeth Shuler, the youngest officer ever in the AFL-CIO. We’re already starting to look like the labor movement that we want to represent. The next thing we’re doing is systematically reaching out to these young people and bringing them in to talk to them, to learn about their wants, their needs and to let them learn more about us. We need to become more relevant and more meaningful to our youth.

As former UMWA president you have a track record of promoting unity within that organization and eventually bringing it under the AFL-CIO umbrella. What steps will you take to reunite the labor movement and build a stronger federation?

We’ve already started that process. UniteHere! has already come back into the labor movement. We’ll systematically reach out to the rest of the unions so that they come back into the federation and we’re all stronger. Having said that, there are two types of unity: There’s unity in name and there’s unity of purpose. To us, unity of purpose is the most important thing. We’ve had some important success with the latter. We’re all together supporting the Employee Free Choice Act and we’re all together on health care. Unity is a continuous process.

Public sector employees help our com-munities not only by fighting for justice in the workplace but by providing the vital services that keep them strong. How can public service workers contribute to creating a stronger labor movement?

One of the strong points of the labor movement is public sector employees. They are one of the sectors that have been growing. Some of our elected officers, including AFSCME’s Gerald McEntee and William Lucy, are among the best leaders we have.

Right now, many states are having a hard time. The public sector can help create a stronger labor movement by doing two things: One, bring bargaining to every public sector worker because there are still too many out there who don’t have the ability to do collective bargaining. Two, keep strong budgets so that the people who make the country work don’t pay the price for the inefficiencies and the bad economy that was created by Wall Street.