Pearl River Rich Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the United States, died suddenly of a likely heart attack on a camping trip with his family at 72 years of age. He had been president of the federation since 2009, when John J. Sweeney retired. He had been Secretary-Treasurer under Sweeney since 1995, and before that head of the fabled, though diminished in modern times, United Mine Workers. Trumka died hardly six months after Sweeney, in some ways closing a chapter of a generation of labor leaders. To the members and delegates sitting in the seats in front of the podium as they gave a speech, John was cool, emphatic, and understated, and Rich was hot, stentorian, and passionate.
I knew Trumka, but not well, and we weren’t close. Of course, as a delegate from the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO to the New York convention that elected the Sweeney-Trumka slate, I met Rich then several times and over the years our paths would cross repeatedly, but in his mind, I was always an SEIU person, a Sweeney person, regardless of the ACORN affiliation and our leaving SEIU in 2010 and becoming independent again.
My favorite memory of Trumka was when he and John were in New Orleans with me to meet with the then Archbishop when I was running the multi-union HOTROC campaign to organize hospitality and hotel workers in the city as part of the program honoring Sweeney’s pledge to reinvigorate organizing in the South. We would put 8000 people on the streets the next day to demand labor peace and advance the organizing, but that day we were trying to win the powerful, but conservative Catholic Church’s support for worker justice. The meeting was what-and-what, polite without commitment, neutralizing the church without getting their support. What I remember most was ferrying the delegation from our meeting in my then old, broken-down Ford Explorer. I think Ken Johnson, the Southern Regional Director, and someone else where with us. John sat shotgun, but three burly boys had to squeeze into the back seat, and one door didn’t work. They made it, but there wasn’t a block we drove without Rich and the crew cracking wise about the hooptie truck and more!
I ran into Rich twice making connections in the Detroit airport to hop onto United commuter flights to Toronto. The first time we were both headed to a Steelworkers convention, he had a car waiting and gave me a ride. The second time, years later, we were all stranded in Detroit, and he was with his old UMW, new AFL-CIO entourage as president, then on his way to speak at the Canadian Labor Congress convention. We talked briefly. When we got to Toronto, I wasn’t offered a lift.
He was at the top for a dozen yeas to Sweeneys fourteen. Praise from the organizing community, particularly those with SEIU roots, was not effusive. The organizing department was decimated. The regional structure was as well. Politics was the be all and end all, no matter the rhetoric. The breaches between unions were not healed, even as more unions returned from Change to Win to the AFL-CIO. Politics and the economy didn’t necessarily favor unions or Trumka’s time, nor should he be held any more responsible for labor’s decline than Sweeney or most of the rest of us, even if he was supposed to be the point of our spear. I’m not saying he wasn’t a fighter, because he was, and the Pittston mining strike was his high-water mark, but he wasn’t an organizer, and I’m not sure he really liked or trusted organizers, maybe with good reason.
Steven Greenhouse, the former labor reporter for the New York Times, in reviewing his time at the top, said the biggest problem he couldn’t solve, and that will now face his predecessor, is how to get the sixty-million workers who say they want to be in a union actually into a union. Indeed, that’s the challenge for labor, but I doubt that Rich Trumka saw that as his problem at the top of the federation, as opposed to the individual unions. I think he saw his job as maintaining and holding the pieces together. Maybe that’s not at the top of everyone’s wish list, but in these days and times, it’s not a trivial matter either.