Does anyone care about labor anymore?
Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's longtime secretary-treasurer, was recently elevated to president of America's largest labor federation. He now leads a confederation of 11.5 million workers, a membership bigger than the populations of 44 states.
The country barely noticed. It was a big shrug-fest. Few newspapers offered more than perfunctory coverage.
Working Americans don't see their fortunes tied to the labor movement any longer. Which is really, really too bad. Because they are.
Unions brought America the middle class, and now that the middle class is "being crushed" as Trumka puts it, unions are the only thing that can bring it back from the brink.
Is Trumka the man for the job?
To look at Trumka, a former mine worker who after law school went on to lead the United Mine Workers, is to see the visage of a classic union boss. The football player he was in high school is still evident. But Trumka's appearance belies his ideas, which are energetically progressive, and he's not shy about admonishing his own.
Trumka's YouTube moment came in July 2008 when he bluntly told a convention of steelworkers to get over any discomfort they had voting for a black man as president. Trumka relayed a story of how a woman said she didn't trust Barack Obama because of his color. "Are you out of your ever-loving mind, lady?" came Trumka's reply.
But the foundering labor movement needs more than a leader with a big persona and a liberal streak. It needs resuscitation. Only 7.6 percent of the private sector is unionized, down from about a third of the private sector work force in 1950s, and the patient is still not stabilized.
Trumka has to address the disastrous public relations unions suffer that somehow turn them into the bad guys when Rust Belt companies go bust. The typical storyline reads that Detroit's Big Three automakers wouldn't be facing near collapse were it not for the burden of union demands.
Why do we so easily point the finger at our fellow workers for the demise of the American auto industry? The blame belongs at the feet of the companies' top executives who designed lousy cars and failed to innovate. They are the ones who put at risk the livelihoods and retirements of massive numbers of autoworkers doing tough, physical jobs for 20, 30 or 40 years.
How did it happen that unions became a bane? True, there has been some terrible labor history. Unions were once hotbeds of bigotry and exclusion — a legacy that Trumka readily acknowledges. They clung to old work rules and featherbedding tricks when they should have given way. But weighed against the good unions have done, giving tens of millions of rank and file workers a modicum of power, dignity and security in the workplace, organized labor should be lauded as America's backbone.
What we have instead is a country that remembers fondly Ronald Reagan's breaking of the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981, and feels more solidarity with strangers in online chat rooms than with fellow workers. Are the nation's schoolchildren even taught about the struggles of Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, John L. Lewis and A. Philip Randolph? I doubt it.
All this points to the challenges Trumka faces. He will have to reinvent unions in a way that makes them appealing to a broad range of workers, encourage young people to join and reach out to white-collar professionals and poverty-wage workers alike.
He knows all that, and on top of it, Trumka says, unions must become truly international. "The corporate agenda doesn't end at water's edge, and neither can ours," he intoned at his presidential acceptance speech in Pittsburgh. Trumka's right, of course. Capital has been unleashed to flow wherever workers can be best exploited and the union movement has to follow.
Is all this feasible? Can the union movement be revived? I think so, but only if Americans wake up from our collective passivity and start to care again which side we're on.