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Remembering Richard Trumka: Union Leaders Reflect on Death of AFL-CIO Head & Labor Movement Challenges Ahead

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Image Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

Richard Trumka, the longtime president of the AFL-CIO and one of the most powerful labor leaders in the United States, has died of a heart attack at the age of 72. Trumka’s death has prompted an outpouring of tributes from fellow labor figures, activists and lawmakers, including President Joe Biden. Trumka was a third-generation coal miner from Pennsylvania who, at the age of 33, became the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America. He continued climbing through the ranks of organized labor for the rest of his life, fighting campaigns against apartheid in South Africa, racism within the labor movement and anti-union rules across the United States. He was elected president of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor federation, in 2009. “We were broken by the news,” says Arlene Holt Baker, former executive vice president for the AFL-CIO and friend of Trumka’s. “He’s the brother in our movement who fought in so many ways for what was right.” We also speak with veteran labor organizer José La Luz, who says Trumka’s main challenge was fighting the erosion of worker power. “What we have witnessed in the past few decades is a massive distribution of wealth from the bottom to the top,” says La Luz. “This remains a fundamental challenge for whoever is going to take up the mantle.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the life and legacy of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who died of a heart attack Thursday at the age of 72. He had led the nation’s largest labor federation since 2009. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Trumka’s death Thursday.

MAJORITY LEADER CHUCK SCHUMER: I rise today with some sad, some horrible news about the passing of a great friend, Rich Trumka, who left us this morning. The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most. Just yesterday, Rich was lending his support to the striking miners in Alabama. Following in his father’s footsteps, he worked in the mines. He went to Penn State, earned his law degree, didn’t practice, didn’t go to some fancy place, went right to work for the United Mine Workers, which he led for so many years, and then he became head, first secretary-treasurer, in AFL-CIO. He had, in his veins, in every atom of his body, the heart, the thoughts, the needs of the working people of America.

AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign paid tribute to Richard Trumka by saying, quote, “We have lost a dear friend and brother in the struggle for justice. … He never separated the fight for economic and labor rights from the fight for voting rights and civil rights. He knew they are simultaneous fights,” Barber said.

Richard Trumka was a third-generation coal miner from Pennsylvania. At the age of 33, he became the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America, where he helped organize strikes against Peabody Coal and the Pittston Coal Company. He also led union efforts to oppose apartheid in South Africa and backed a boycott of Royal Dutch Shell, which had been called by the National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa. Richard Trumka would go on to serve as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. In July 2008, he made headlines when he denounced racism within organized labor and called on all workers to vote for Barack Obama.

RICHARD TRUMKA: There’s not a single good reason for any worker, especially any union member, to vote against Barack Obama. And there’s only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama, and that’s because he’s not white.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2009, Richard Trumka was elected president of the AFL-CIO after the retirement of John Sweeney. This is Trumka speaking in 2018 after the Supreme Court issued a major anti-union ruling eviscerating the power of public sector unions in the case Janus v. AFSCME.

RICHARD TRUMKA: All over our country right now workers are organizing, and they’re striking as we haven’t seen in years. Fifteen thousand workers in April, in one week, joined the union. And that’s on top of the 262,000 new members who joined our ranks last year. And the optimistic to be even more optimistic, 75% of them were under the age of 35 — our turn’s coming — and despite the fact that too many of our labor laws have been written to undermine the freedom to organize. Now, new research from MIT shows a 50% increase in the number of nonunion workers who would vote to join a union tomorrow, if given the opportunity. Tens of millions of workers are ready to experience the transformational power of collective bargaining. And in many cases, all that stands in the way is a rigged system. …

Let me be clear: The Supreme Court is on the wrong side of history. What they did flies in the face of where America is headed, where workers want to go and where workers need to go. And it shows exactly how out of touch they are with the real America that’s out there. Janus or no Janus, workers are demanding a voice. We’re standing up, and we’re speaking out for a better life. We’re demanding a fair share of the wealth that we help create. We’re marching, and we’re organizing, and we’re bargaining. And we simply will not allow a corporate-controlled Supreme Court to stop us from doing our job.

AMY GOODMAN: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaking in 2018. He died Thursday at the age of 72.

To talk more about his life and legacy, we’re joined by two guests. Arlene Holt Baker served as the executive vice president for the AFL-CIO from 2009 to 2013. She was the first African American to ever serve as an executive officer in the AFL-CIO’s history. We’re also joined by José La Luz, a veteran labor organizer, campaigner and educator. He’s been a workers’ rights activist for decades.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Arlene Holt Baker, you worked side by side with Richard Trumka for years. Can you talk first about the reaction to his death and what you feel it’s important for people to understand about Richard Trumka’s legacy?

ARLENE HOLT BAKER: Well, good morning, Amy. I am happy to be here to talk about my brother, Richard Trumka, so happy to also be here with my brother José La Luz.

The reaction and — it has been devastating for us. I think you heard it in the emotion of Senator Schumer’s voice. We were broken by the news. But if you knew anything about Rich Trumka, it could only bring a smile to your face, because he’s the brother in our movement who fought in so many ways for what is right.

My own reflection is, you know, you start to think about the last time you saw him or spoke to him. And I thought about the last time I actually saw Rich, and it was on Facebook, because he was doing a speech at the AFL-CIO where he had welcomed the Texas delegation to come. And he stood with them as he talked about the right to vote. And he talked about the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and For the People Act. And then he connected all of that to the PRO Act, which is the right for workers to organize.

And Rich truly believed, as all of us in the labor movement believe, that you can’t have the denial of voting rights and suppress the votes of anyone and not have a strong labor union, without destroying your democracy. Rich understood that democracy was on the line. So, I thought, you know, Rich, the last time I heard him, he was giving the same message that I’ve heard him give so many years. It was about empowering workers and empowering our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a bit of that speech that you’re describing, Arlene, the speech Richard Trumka gave in Washington, D.C., in July.

RICHARD TRUMKA: And we cannot afford to let any of our agenda, from democracy in the workplace to democracy at the ballot box to investment in our people, fall victim to a procedural tool conceived in segregation. It’s become clear that one of two things must be pushed aside: the filibuster or the hopes and aspirations of the American people.

AMY GOODMAN: That speech, Richard Trumka gave in July. Arlene Holt Baker, talk about your rise with him. In 2009, we played in the introduction here that speech he gave addressing the labor movement and addressing the issue of racism within the labor movement, as he was campaigning for Barack Obama to become the first African American president of the United States. Then you became the first African American executive within the AFL-CIO, becoming the executive vice president for the federation. Talk about that time.

ARLENE HOLT BAKER: Well, I have to reflect back, Amy, to 1995, when the New Voice team of John Sweeney, Linda Chavez-Thompson, the first woman, Latina woman, to be elected, and Rich Trumka, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, ran on a ticket in 1995 talking about inclusion and diversity and a new voice for workers around this country, understanding the importance of diversity in the labor movement. I was very, you know, honored, because, in 2007, I was appointed by John Sweeney to serve out Linda Chavez-Thompson’s term when she decided to step down from her position. And I served in that position.

But it was in 2009 through 2013 that I served alongside Rich Trumka as his executive vice president. And during that period of time, history was also made, because we know so many things were happening in the country, particularly the election of Barack Obama. We were pushing for that. But Rich Trumka understood that you could not be silent, you could not be silent when it came to race. And his boldness when he stepped out and he spoke to a convention in 2008 and put it all on the line, that says that if you are not willing to vote for this man, who certainly has supported workers’ rights and everything we believe in, it only can be chalked up to racism. The boldness, the willingness to speak truth to power no matter where it was, and to speak truth to our unions.

The other piece of this I think that’s important is that Rich understood that the diversity of the labor movement, the labor movement had to be reflective and must be reflective of our membership. And that’s women and young people and people of color. So on that team also was Liz Shuler, the first secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, a young woman. So, the Rich Trumka team was a team representative of the future of the labor movement, if we were going to continue to grow and be empowered, but, most importantly, to empower working people. It was a wonderful, exciting time. And it was wonderful to be on the side and standing with Rich Trumka as we continued to forge a path that included diversity, inclusion and, my god, organizing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring José La Luz into this conversation, veteran labor organizer, campaigner, educator. He’s been a workers’ rights activist for half a century on the mainland United States, in Puerto Rico and through the Western Hemisphere. José La Luz, can you describe your response when you heard the news of Rich Trumka’s sudden death yesterday? And can you talk about his legacy?

JOSÉ LA LUZ: Indeed. Thank you for having me, Amy. You know, first of all, my deepest condolences to his wife Barbara and his son Richard and his grandchildren.

This has been a significant loss for American workers, no doubt. And I think it’s important to take a moment to understand who was, in fact, Richard Trumka as a trade unionist. You know, he came out of the mine workers. He was a reformer in the mine workers. This is the union that had been led by John L. Lewis, you know, the founder of the CIO, that organized the mass industries in America. But it was also the union that became infected with corruption — Tony Boyle, who ordered the execution of Jock Yablonski, and, you know, the emergence of the rank-and-file caucus known as the Miners for Democracy. Trumka came out of the reform tradition, the militant reform tradition of the mine workers, which is the reason why he led that strike against the Pittston Coal mine company.

And so, when he was elected as part of the slate of the New Voice slate, as my friend and sister Arlene was talking about, in 1995, those of us who see ourselves as reformers, as militant reformers in the trade union movement, had a lot of hope for this coalition that came together around John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson, in terms of dealing with this fundamental challenge that the American labor movement has, and that is, how to build power for workers, how to build political power, how to build economic power, how to become a very strong force for a profound transformation in society. And so, Trumka was, in fact, a reformer and a visionary. And in that sense, you know, this is a great loss.

But much has been left undone. And now his legacy must be lifted up by whoever emerges as the leader or the new team of leaders of the only labor federation in this country to deal with this challenge of how to build powerful workers, when in fact what we have witnessed in the past few decades is a massive distribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, workers losing power, you know, political power and power in society. And so, this remains a fundamental challenge for whoever is going to, you know, take up the mantle and try to live up to the legacy of Brother Trumka.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you think the labor movement and the AFL-CIO needs to go now? What do you think, José La Luz, that the AFL-CIO needs to gain more strength for workers?

JOSÉ LA LUZ: One, you know, the challenge of organizing. When you represent only 10% of the labor force, I mean, it’s hard to envision being able to exercise a lot of power. I mean, the labor movement must grow. And this means that the resources have to be allocated, have to be invested in organizing. And there has to be massive campaigns that are coordinated among different unions that are done by industries, because one of the weaknesses of the American labor movement has to do with the fact that it’s not organized industrially like it is in many other advanced capitalist countries across the Atlantic, in Europe and even in other countries. So, the question of organizing by industries is going to require a new architecture for the American labor movement, and the federation has the lead in terms of that.

And in terms of political action, you know, there is a need to develop a new strategy that’s far more independent from the Democratic Party. I mean, it’s important to realize that there are elements in the Democratic Party that are supported by corporate donors and really don’t have a very serious commitment to empower workers and the working class. On the other hand, there are people within the Democratic Party who see themselves as working-class advocates, who fight for the rights of workers and to build power for and by workers.

And so, you know, this will be one of the challenges that the new team that takes over the rein in the labor federation is going to have to wrestle with, not to mention the challenge of trade and development. I mean, we’re dealing with a globalized work. There is a need to develop alliances across borders, and immediately, you know, the question of building strong alliances with Canadian workers up north, with Mexican workers down south, to deal with the fact that we continue to witness runaway capital, which impacts jobs in this country. But the question is: How do we develop a strategy that raises the standard of living for workers in McAllen, for workers in Matamoros and for workers in Toronto? And so, that requires an alternative economic development trade strategy. And those of the challenges that I see ahead for the new team emerging at the helm of the labor federation.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go, Arlene Holt Baker, I wanted to ask you about the PRO Act. That’s the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which did pass the House, which sits in — I mean, the Democrats do control the Senate — still sits in the Senate since March. Richard Trumka was a major advocate of this act. Can you talk about its importance?

ARLENE HOLT BAKER: It is critically important. It’s so important, because workers want to organize. There’s no question about that. They want to have a voice at work. And the PRO Act will make it possible for workers to do so without being intimidated, harassed, fired, and the company would be penalized for that. So the PRO Act is critically important now.

We have to have workers be able to freely have a voice on their job. If they aren’t able to do that, they will not be able to reach the economic conditions that they so need in order to survive. Power, yes, it comes from the ground up, from workers. But unless they have that voice on the job, free of intimidation, harassment, and free of having to sit in captive audience meetings held by their employers, they will not be able to fully see the potential of their worth.

So, the PRO Act is critically important. As I indicated earlier, that was one of the last things I heard Rich talking about, connecting voting rights and voter suppression and the PRO Act together, because we must empower workers’ voices on the job, we must continue to empower the voter in this country, so that we can be sure that our democracy holds strong. So, the PRO Act is critical to us.

And I would say to the senators, all of the senators who are listening, it’s not enough for you to just talk about and give accolades to Richard Trumka. If you really want — if you really want to show how much you truly care about Richard Trumka and the workers that he cared so much about, I would say pass the PRO Act. Pass it now, Senate. And I would say pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act now. Enough talking. That’s what Rich would say. Rich would say, “Enough talking,” because the word Rich would want to give you, that workers, we are never, ever, ever going to back down.

AMY GOODMAN: Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president for the AFL-CIO from 2009 to 2013. She was the first African American to ever serve as an executive officer in the AFL-CIO’s history. And I want to thank José La Luz, veteran labor organizer, campaigner and educator.

Coming up, we go to Afghanistan, where the U.S. is ramping up airstrikes as the Taliban tries to seize a number of provincial capitals. Stay with us.

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