Richard Trumka and the Search for Political Independence

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka died suddenly last month at age 72. At this moment of transition — marked by the election of Liz Shuler, the first woman to serve as the head of the AFL-CIO — it is important to keep in mind how Trumka’s legacy can inform efforts underway to continue labor’s revival. Below are some reflections on the connection he made to building worker’s political strength while fighting for democratic rights that is relevant to work of DSA.


In 1986, I was working for the National Association of Letter Carriers, covering the NALC’s Convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul as part of the union’s publications department. Amongst the invited speakers was Richard Trumka, elected president of the United Mine Workers only four years prior. Trumka’s election was the culmination of the work of Miners for Democracy, a rank-and-file movement formed in 1970 in response to the assassination of coal mine reformer Jock Yablonski, who was murdered along with his wife and daughter. Trumka’s invitation reflected a kinship borne from the fact that NALC’s leadership also emerged from a rank-and-file movement, growing out of the postal workers 1970 illegal wildcat strike. Vince Sombrotto — who had been a working letter carrier for over 20 years — was elected NALC President in the union’s first all-membership direct vote in 1978. Perhaps acknowledgement of that shared background was behind the enthusiastic applause for Trumka as he spoke, especially when he made explicit his call for labor to organize its own political party, independent of Democrats and Republicans, to represent working people, not the bosses.

Representative Bill Gray, a Democratic Congressman from Philadelphia, also spoke at the Convention. Gray had been elected Chair of the House Budget Committee in 1985, the first African American to hold that position. His speech focused on the importance for letter carriers specifically, and for federal workers overall, to have Congressional allies in leadership roles as then President Ronald Reagan used attacks on government employees as the nexus for attacks on unionism and social insurance programs. Following the 1970 strike, postal workers had gained, for the first time, collective bargaining rights through the creation of the United States Postal Service as a hybrid public service/private corporation. In consequence, the role of Congress in regulating, rate setting and budgets had grown. Gray stressed that this made Democratic control of Congress even more important, arguing that even a weak Democrat was better than a good Republican if it meant maintaining that majority. The NALC had developed a powerful political action program involving rank-and-file members and locals across the country. Convention delegates rightly saw Gray’s speech as vindication of their hard work and they gave him applause every bit as rousing, every bit as sincere, as the applause given to Trumka.

At the time, I viewed the contradiction between the two audience responses as reflecting the difference between workers’ aspirations and workers’ need for a practical approach to real-world problems. But that was a superficial way of thinking; aspirations and hopes for what could be are part and parcel of practical decisions we make every day of our lives — union politics neither can nor should divide the two. Trumka’s leadership of the then ongoing Pittston strike in western Pennsylvania demonstrated a grasp of the needs of the moment that never lost sight of the larger issues at stake. So while he and Gray each spoke to Convention delegates’ desire for a degree of real power over forces impacting on their lives, Trumka’s perspective was deeper, pointing to the need for labor to push beyond the limits imposed by our political system.

Although fairly soon thereafter Trumka stepped back from advocating a new labor party, he never retreated from a notion of workers using politics rather than being used by politicians. During his years as president of the AFL-CIO he developed an approach toward defining what independent working-class politics can be, leaving a legacy from which we all can learn and build.

I. Working with Enemies Without Forgetting They’re Enemies

For many years most unions have supported Democrats. Although in the past some labor leaders demonstrated “independence” by supporting Republicans, the room to do so has virtually vanished as the extreme right-wing of Republican politics becomes more pronounced. The 2016 election brought this to a head — the danger Trump posed to working people, to labor rights and to civil liberties was so great that every layer of union leadership (other than a few police unions) pulled out all stops in an effort to elect Hillary Clinton, notwithstanding hesitations or questions about her stance on trade and other policies. As we know, that opposition was not successful — Trump was elected president, not least because many union members (not a majority, but indeed, a very large minority) disregarded their respective leaders’ admonitions and voted for him.

It is now well understood that an underlying or explicit racism lay behind that, as did a more general sense of dislocation which led many to embrace or disregard Trump’s similarly contemptuous attitude towards women, immigrants, Muslims, the disabled and society’s “losers.” The vain hope was that somehow a strong authoritative voice could crack through elite power and set the United States on a course of stability and improved living standards that have not been seen for decades. Into the general mix of incoherent and contradictory ideas Trump put forth, he signaled willingness to act on two particular issues of concern to trade unionists: pushing through infrastructure spending to create good paying jobs; and pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA, initiated by the Bush Sr. administration and completed by the Clinton administration, stood as a prime example of politician’s indifference to popular need. The so-called free trade pact between the US, Mexico and Canada contributed to loss of jobs, loss of wages and environmental destruction, providing working people no favors in any of the three countries.

So Trumka, without retracting any of his anti-Trump statements, without any promise of political or electoral support, committed to supporting any infrastructure bill that the Trump administration proposed if it included genuine job guarantees and labor protections. Rather than relying on denunciation without content, Trumka recognized divisions amongst working people and focused on those areas where a shared agenda could be advanced. A shared agenda not with Trump but with fellow workers. In taking this position, Trumka helped to expose the administration’s lies; as, with so many of Trump’s promises, nothing materialized.

For unionists the point was made: Labor’s program must address worker needs, no matter who is in office. Working-class interests, however, would not be sacrificed in the name of “access” to the powerful; there would be no pretense that something was gained when the table was, in fact, bare.

Following that logic, Trumka supported the Trump administration’s renegotiation of NAFTA. The AFL-CIO took part in those talks, rejecting an initial draft, while supporting the subsequent United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) Agreement only when greater labor rights were included within it. Trumka called for a “yes” vote when it was brought before the Senate; though he made clear that while it was a step forward, the agreement was not a final solution to run-away jobs, environmental destruction and inequality. Labor seized an opening created by the Trump administration, but there was never a pretense of a shared agenda, and there were no words of praise for the administration. Instead, Trumka’s praise was for “working people [who] are responsible for a deal that is a vast improvement over both the original NAFTA and the flawed proposal brought forward in 2017.”

II. Disagreements Among Friends That Don’t Create Enemies

Meanwhile in New York, for self-defined pragmatic reasons, many union leaders supported former Governor Andrew Cuomo against more progressive Democratic challengers during primaries in 2014 and 2018. The abject loss of independence by those union leaders lay not so much in the calculated decision to support him — but in demanding that others do so as well, attacking organizations they had worked with in the past rather than respect disagreement. Numerous other union leaders have taken a similar parochial view of political activity – demanding that supporters march in lockstep over a candidate endorsement or a legislative campaign.  The implication of doing so is that debate is a weakness because members are incapable of understanding nuance or complexity.

However, Trumka pointed to a different way of engaging in politics that treated working people and broader social movement advocates with the respect democracy demands.

By way of example, many people active in progressive and union circles believed that the flaws in the USMCA outweighed any of its virtues and therefore opposed the agreement. Prominent among them was Bernie Sanders, who voted against the USMCA in the Senate despite the AFL-CIO’s call for support. But opposition to the positioning of the fFederation did not lead Trumka to accuse a longtime allies as being anti-labor. Independent working-class politics means nothing if it doesn’t allow space for friends, allies and members to differ, even sharply.

Perhaps the clearest expressions of that approach was evident in one of Trumka’s last public statements. He had developed a close, positive working relation with Joe Biden and publicly declared that Biden had a deeper appreciation for working people and respect and understanding of unions than any of his Democratic predecessors. But that support was not unconditional. When Representative Cori Bush criticized Biden for his failure to extend anti-eviction protections in place for renters because of the impact of Covid-19, Trumka didn’t react with fear that this might damage labor’s relationship with a friend in the White House — that it might jeopardize “access”. Rather, he stated in the AFL-CIO's Daily Brief: “I especially want to recognize the leadership of Rep. Cori Bush, who organized lawmakers and activists for five days on the steps of the Capitol. She pushed Congress and the nation to see the struggle of people who are currently unhoused or facing eviction. In her words, Today, our movement moved mountains.”

Cori Bush had experienced homelessness, a reality many working people have faced one time or another — including many from Trumka’s western Pennsylvania hometown. To allow a relation with an elected official to outweigh solidarity with those who are or may be forced to experience living without a roof over their head would mean sacrificing workers’ trust for a momentary gain.

III. Drawing a Line

Trumka’s sudden death just at the moment when Rep. Bush and other progressive House members are showing real power in crafting budget and infrastructure bills is a significant loss. Yet his legacy points a way forward. To the end, Trumka’s focus remained on the realities of the lives working people face and their need for answers that have direct and immediate impact. It is a way of maintaining a substantive political independence that works within the reality of our electoral system but is not trapped by it.

Of necessity, that political independence must work within our trade union movement as it is presently structured. The AFL-CIO is an organization composed of affiliates (rather than of individual members), each equal and independent, each with its particular strengths and weaknesses, histories and internal culture, all confronting an ever-changing workplace, social and political environment. The Federation itself is only one part (albeit the largest part) of the trade union movements, while union members remain a minority within the working class.

The challenge for Trumka was to find a path that would acknowledge the result of diversity — multiple competing understandings — in order to forge a degree of unity through which working-class power can be expressed. Although some critics of union leadership imagine that there can be shortcuts —  that challenging existing corporate power can be proclaimed absent meaningful support and engagement built through patient organizing — the reality is that no such short cut has ever been found. Working-class political independence will only be made a reality when a common bond is built that recognizes and respects the various conclusions union members come to as to how best to defend their immediate interests and create a more secure life built upon respect as the basis of a genuine freedom.

Noting this, however, is not to say that all points of view are equally acceptable. A scab may be a worker, but a scab’s opinion is due no respect, unlike the opinion of unionists arguing over a more-or-less confrontational course of action, arguing over the merits or demerits of a particular contract or endorsement. By definition, a scab is a force for working-class disunity and subservience. And, as Trumka repeatedly made clear, the same can be said of those who wear their racism on their sleeve. The logic that led him to support the USMCA or to support a sit-in to preserve a moratorium on evictions, the same logic he expressed in the strikes he led as Mine Workers president and those he supported at home and abroad led by other unionists, led him to unequivocally oppose anyone or any idea that denigrated or attacked the humanity of a fellow worker, of a fellow human being.

That translated into a clear, stated, uncompromising opposition to racism, not as an abstraction, but in the concrete meaning of opposition to police brutality and mass incarceration. He called out those whose fear and hatred of people with a different skin color led them to cut off their nose to spite their face – those who voted for Bush, Trump or any of the state and local candidates who similarly rise to office by a politics of division. Trumka took an equally clear stance in support for immigrants and immigrant rights, and in recognizing that sexual harassment has no place in the workplace or in the labor movement.

Of course, just saying that racism, sexism, and fear-mongering have no place doesn’t make inequity go away, doesn’t erase overnight an outlook that took root in a society built on the premise that some people are less human than others. But calling it out publicly is a necessary part of defining working-class perspective and building a genuine working-class unity that is the only path toward independent working-class politics.

A speech Trumka gave (alongside Poor People’s Campaign leader Rev. William Barber) at a memorial in Alabama honoring four children killed in a bomb detonated during a Sunday Service in 1963 — the murder of Black children worshipping being the Klan’s answer to the March on Washington only a few weeks earlier — gives a sense of the principles that underlay his vision of unionism:

Every time a union leader calls for equal pay, every time a shop steward says to the boss ‘you can’t do that, it’s discrimination,’ every time we cast a vote, we honor the memory of Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole and Denise [the four martyred children].
But our debt as a labor movement to this community is greater than that. On the day the Ku Klux Klan set off the bomb, parts of the labor movement were racially segregated including in Birmingham. The divisions and hatred that landowners and employers had been sowing since the founding of this country infected our own movement.
And so when the AFL-CIO fought for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we were fighting to end discrimination and racism not just by employers, but by our own unions, our own institutions. We were fighting to change ourselves. We believe that people can change and grow and overcome so that history can be made right. We believe that people — and we, the people — don’t stay in the same place forever. We can be moved forward. After all, that is why it is called a movement.
America’s labor movement stands with every union member and every person in this country who is demanding justice and striving for the end of racism.

IV. A Connecting Link

Knowing what policies to advocate, what forms of political action to engage in, how to build a labor movement that is true to itself and true to the larger movement for social justice of which it is a part, requires understanding who or what stands in the way of worker rights. After a strike is over, win or lose, unions must bring those scabs back into the fold or else remained permanently divided.

Similarly, those workers blinded by racism still have to be represented when an employer violates their contractual rights, still deserve health care and pensions. Abhorrent views must be rejected without losing sight of the need for universal rights and protections for all working people.  Moreover, being the tools of the wealthy and powerful doesn’t change the fact that tools remain the tools of others.

Particular employers are often the direct source of workers’ grievances, as those striking Nabisco or trying to organize Amazon are currently experiencing, as workers anywhere asserting rights against a recalcitrant employer know all too well. Those fights, however, generally take place apart from each other and though solidarity does have meaning in a practical sense, Nabisco workers can’t organize Amazon, Amazon workers can’t win Nabisco workers’ strike. Unions often engage such foes of human rights piecemeal because that is how the conflict manifests itself — and is the basis for horse-trading politics or even the kind of politics that Bill Gray spoke to at that NALC Convention, in which electing Democrats was more important than holding them accountable, apart from narrowly defined aims.

Our political system is structured so as to undermine the power of working people and reinforce divides among them. Thus, while the need for political independence — meaning the ability of working people and their organizations to advance their interests and the goal of popular rights and genuine equality over and against corporate interests — is evident, the pathway forward is murky and requires identifying where barriers are placed by those who profit from worker divides.

Trumka used his legal training to develop a systemic critique of the way our institutions are failing us. His analysis of the direction of the Supreme Court over the past decades hinged on demonstrating how even the fig leaf of precedent is removed in the way rulings have attacked one labor right after another. Far from isolated attacks, these rulings are itself part and parcel of a broader attack on democracy. And that is the territory on which he staked out a framework for building workers’ political independence — by organizing on behalf of a genuine democracy in the face of a legal system that is serving to entrench an ever more oligarchical economic and political system. A speech Trumka gave to law students at Yale when arguing against Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve on the Supreme Court can serve as an example:

“Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” Those are lyrics from a song about a bitter struggle between my union, the United Mine Workers of America, and mine owners in southeastern Kentucky. The song continues, “They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there. You'll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair.”
Unfortunately, today those lyrics could serve as the fight song for the Supreme Court’s pro-corporate, activist wing of justices who wax poetic about precedent and judicial restraint, yet regularly bend over backwards to serve the interests of the wealthy, the powerful and the privileged. There are no neutrals there. …
The [Supreme] Court has used its authority to entrench economic and political power in the hands of the elites against a growing number of Americans and increasingly to foster division on racial, religious and ethnic lines. It is impossible to read the Court’s decisions in major cases over the past two decades without coming to the conclusion that they amount to deck stacking … an effort by the Court in tandem with reactionary political forces to ensure that justice is only available to the wealthy and well-connected.

V. Building on a Legacy

This kind of understanding is shared by the House Progressive Caucus.  To an extent not seen in decades, the caucus is taking shape as a cohesive force forging a progressive agenda distinct from — and when need be, in opposition to — mainstream liberalism without ever losing sight of the greater danger to democracy and human rights posed by right-wing Republican policies. The strength the caucus has demonstrated, and the popular movement that led to the election of so many principled progressives to federal, state and municipal offices across the country, is the reason the Biden administration has taken the steps it has to date to advance working people’s interests. As the Congressional battle over voting rights and labor law reform (and the continued fight to protect renters from eviction) indicate, so much more can be done. In that respect, we see the shape of a genuine political independence that Trumka advocated his entire life. And that potential can be further realized if organized labor as a whole builds on the perspective Trumka put forward.

We should remember that the wildcat 1970 postal workers strike and the subsequent rank-and-file movement that brought new leadership to a transformed NALC and created the American Postal Workers not only led to improved pay and benefits; it created powerful vehicles that have resisted every effort of the Postal Service to use technological change and changes in communication technology to destroy or privatize the postal system itself. The victory of Miners for Democracy gave miners back their union, which has consistently fought for better wages, stronger safety protocols and pensions, even as the industry has gone into freefall. The current months-long strike of over 1,000 miners in Alabama is testament to that continued determination.

Yet it would be hard to deny that the hopes of those renewed rank-and-file movements have not been realized, that postal workers, miners, all working people, have been locked in a defensive fight for over four decades. For all the heroism and power demonstrated in workplace struggles, progress requires the political strength of a united movement. By the same token, only through a united labor movement rooted in membership engagement and ideas, such as those postal workers and miners expressed and acted upon decades ago, will political action have the power to be and remain genuinely independent of corporate wealth and blandishments. This returns us to the connection between responding to practical needs and deeply held aspirations as the core of unionism at the workplace and in society.

With that in mind, it is fitting to remember the values which underscore our engagement. So we close with remarks provided by Trumka in a speech memorializing Joe Rauh, who represented rank-and-file miners seeking justice for Yablonski:

You see, workers are willing to endure hardship. We are the most resilient group of people the world has ever known. But what we won’t accept is the feeling of being unnecessary. What we won’t allow is for anyone to strip us of our value, our dignity, our worth.
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