Labor's Voice for Change (44) June 16, 2009

Whom Should We Choose as AFL-CIO President?
Richard Trumka? Leo Gerard? Or Somebody Else?

By Harry Kelber

At the AFL-CIO’s 2009 convention on September 14-17 in Pittsburgh, delegates will chose the next president of the AFL-CIO. Although under the AFL-CIO Constitution, nominations for president and other national positions won’t officially take place until the third day of the actual convention, two labor leaders have their fervent advocates for the top post. They are: Richard L. Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, and Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers.

A Simple Strategy for Winning the Prize

Richard Trumka wants to be president of the AFL-CIO, After 14 years as secretary-treasurer (the AFL-CIO’s No. 2 post), and with the retirement of John Sweeney, he believes he’s entitled to the job. Trumka’s strategy is simple: if he can keep away any candidate from challenging him, he wins by default. He doesn’t have to campaign. He can ignore his critics, and the union membership has no voice or role in the election process.

So all he has to do is to prevent any potential candidate from forcing him into an election, where he will have to defend his record. His supporters have various ways of discouraging any union leader or member who dares to oppose Trumka.

The strategy worked beautifully in three previous elections, where Trumka won the secretary-treasurer’s position without a challenge from an opposing candidate, even though unions were suffering heavy losses in membership and had lost much of their clout at the bargaining table.

Trumka’s Workingclass Credentials

Trumka went to work in a coal mine in Pennsylvania at age 19, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father. He was elected president of the Unite Mine Workers in 1982 and remained its president until December 1995. He won national acclaim for the union’s nine-month strike against the Pittston Coal Company that saved health-care benefits for coal miners. He also led a successful campaign to improve mine safety and reduce black-ling disease, says his friend, Cecil E. Roberts, the current UMW president, who has endorsed him.

Trumka, now 59, received a bachelor of science degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1971 and a law degree from Villanova University in 1974. He married the former Barbara Vidovich in 1982, and they have one son.

Where Trumka Is Vulnerable

With 14 years as a top AFL-CIO officer, Trumka’s record offers many clues how he would act and react if he were elected AFL-CIO President. Clearly, he is vulnerable on many counts. Some examples:

• When the Sweeney-Trumka team took office in 1995, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 14.9 percent of workers belonged to unions. Today, it is down to about 12.2 percent. And the number of union members in the private sector has plunged to 7.4 percent. What does Trumka say about the losses? Does he have a plan to rebuild the AFL-CIO?.

• In an age that is emphasizing change, Trumka has acted like a conservative bureaucrat. He has not proposed a single reform that would give the rank-and-file some voice in determining policy. He has never spoken out against a provision in the AFL-CIO Constitution that effectively has barred officers from affiliated state federations and central labor councils from running for national office—a ban that has been in effect for more than a century,

• He is an effective speaker at strike rallies and protest demonstrations, who uses a stock, emotion-pitched speech to make a labor audience feel good about themselves. But he rarely speaks to an audience that has questions about the labor movement that require thoughtful answers.

• During the presidential campaign, Trumka won national attention for a speech he gave telling white union members that “it was wrong to vote against Obama because he was black.” He urged them to vote for Obama. That speech is cited by Trumka’s supporters as a solid example of his leadership qualities.

• He has not cultivated a warm relation with the Hispanic population, who represent a growing proportion of the working class. He may know African-American leaders, but his name means nothing in Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant. He does not reach out to young workers or speak about their problems. He has avoided taking a position on the abortion issue. Like Sweeney, Trumka deals almost exclusively with union officials, on whom he depends for re-election.

• He has not—and does not—publicly discuss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as though they are not the concerns of American families. He almost never uses the AFL-CIO website to express his views on foreign policy, on the grounds that such matters should be left to Congress, the White House and the Pentagon.

• Trumka is not recognized as a leading advocate of health-care reform, green technology, climate change, job training, gender equality and human rights—issues that a modern AFL-CIO president should be equipped to deal with.

• Trumka has a lot to explain how, as secretary-treasurer, he handled his main job of taking care of the AFL-CIO’s finances. Why did the Federation’s net assets decline from a $66 million surplus on January 1, 2000 to a deficit 2.3 million as of June 30, 2008, according to reports filed with the U.S. Labor Department? What “creative accounting” was done to hide the deficit as it developed?

• Perhaps the biggest rap against Trumka is that, whatever talents he may have, he is not equipped to inspire the rank-and-file members, without whose involvement the unions won’t be able to grow. To put it bluntly, union members have had 14 years of Trumka and they don’t want four more years of the same.

What About Gerard of the Steelworkers as AFL-CIO President?

In the past year, Leo W. Gerard has emerged as the most articulate, best-informed speaker in the labor movement and has captivated audiences on such popular programs as "The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Bill Moyer’s Journal." (Hear Gerard on You Tube or http://www.laborsvoiceforchange,org/ He manages sharp and accurate replies to tough questions and is particularly effective in defending unions and worker rights. He can also come across with a quip: “Congress bails out those who shower before work, but not those who shower after work.”

Gerard has been energetically involved in so many issues that he seems to be acting like an ideal AFL-CIO president. He is the foremost advocate for rebuilding America’s manufacturing industries. In mid-May, his union was a major sponsor of a ”Keep It in America,” bus tour that visited 34 cities in four days, during which he made the case for saving the auto industry to cheering crowds at each city stop.

Gerard is a leading figure in the environmental movement. He is promoting “green technology,” where he sees future job opportunities. He favors universal health care under a Single Payer system that excludes profit-making insurance companies. He has been labor’s most effective public speaker in denouncing the $700 billion bailout of the banks and Wall Street financial institutions. Unlike most top national labor leaders, hr makes his views known.

Gerard has become a commanding presence in the growing global labor movement. He has championed strategic alliance agreements with unions throughout the world, including IG Metall, the German metalworkers union; Amicus, the largest manufacturing union in England, and also with unions in Brazil, Mexico and several other countries that have multinational companies that are similar to U.S. steelworkers’ core industries.

Gerard’s Background and Career

Leo Gerard, the son of a miner, was born in 1947 in a suburb of Ontario, Canada. His father was an organizer for the Mine, Mill and Smelters Union. He learned a lot about unionism at an early age. At 11, he handed out leaflets in support of a strike. He sometimes accompanied his father on union organizing campaigns.

After graduating from high school, he went to work at the Inco nickel smelter company in Greater Sudbury. He was soon elected steward, then chief steward, of a 7,000-member local union. Leo’s talents as an organizer, strategist and communicator helped him rise steadily within the union hierarchy until 2002, when he was elected to his first full term as Steelworkers’ president, without opposition.

In his first four years as Steelworkers’ president, Gerard launched a wide range of union initiatives that brought more than 350,000 new members into the union’s ranks. Under Gerard’s leadership, the Steelworkers’ union has become the largest industrial union in North America.

Leo is a graduate of Laurentian University with a bachelor’s degree in economics and politics. He is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council and its Chair on the Committee on Legislative and Public Policy. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Susan. They have two children.

Gerard Backs Trumka and We’re Back to Square One

In an open contest between Richard Trumka and Leo Gerard, the odds are that Gerard would be the winner. But Gerard is a good friend of Trumka and has vowed to work for his election as AFL-CIO president. Gerard has made his views public, stating that Trumka “has the heart and intellectual capacity to do a great job.” Unless Gerard can be convinced to change his mind, we are back to Square One, where Trumka can still avoid an election contest and win the AFL-CIO presidency by default if no other competitor turns up to challenge him.

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The Buffenbarger Initiative

There are three months left before the start of the AFL-CIO convention, and anything can happen, as the more-thoughtful union leaders consider how they can revitalize the Federation. Here is one significant development.

Leaders from 23 international unions, representing three fifth of the AFL-CIO, met on June 1 to consider changes that would dramatically reshape and revitalize the 54-year-old AFL-CIO. The two-day conference was organized by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

“We focused on systemic changes that would strengthen the Federation’s finances and increase its clout,” said IAM President Tom Buffenbarger. “We discussed a range of changes needed to modernize and upgrade existing capacities. We tallied up the current expenses and matched them to expected revenues. And we sought to reassert the historic role of the Executive Council.

Also under consideration is a massive advocacy campaign aimed at creating jobs for the 28.3 million Americans who are unemployed, underemployed or involuntarily working part-time.

“The draft blueprints will need some work,” Buffenbarger acknowledged. “Over the next few weeks, we will seek input from the unions that could not join us.”

The IAM and other unions intend to offer a series of resolutions and constitutional amendments at the AFL-CIO convention in September, that, if adopted, will guide the proposed changes.

For convention news, check regularly with our special website

Article 45 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will be posted on Thursday, June 18.