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Can Anyone Save the Labor Movement?

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Amy Dean’s profile of AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka is excellent and well worth your time.

I am skeptical of the framing of this issue as “Can Richard Trumka Save the Labor Movement?” (and to be fair, the framing is in the title, which Dean almost certainly didn’t write) because, as is so common when talking about organized labor, unions themselves get the blame for their own decline. Even if we grant that unions made a lot of mistakes in the second half of the twentieth century and are large, cumbersome, hide-bound organizations that struggle to adjust to new conditions, the problem organized labor faces is structural. At best, unions’ own mistakes are the 4th or 5th largest reason for their decline. These mistakes are less significant than what has really eliminated union jobs–capital mobility, the organized corporate movement after the Powell Memo, mechanization, outsourcing, free trade agreements. Yet even within the labor movement (especially those who want to see labor reformed from inside) usually these conversations come down to what the labor movement did wrong instead of the structural problems making it nearly impossible to organize successfully.

Overall, Trumka is probably the most progressive AFL or AFL-CIO leader in history. If you consider the competition–Sam Gompers, William Green, George Meany, Lane Kirkland–Trumka clears a not very high bar. If you include the CIO leaders in this list, that adds John L. Lewis, Philip Murray, and Walter Reuther. Given how Lewis turned on the whole New Deal and mostly supported Republicans his whole life, it’s hard to call him to the left of Trumka. One can certainly make the argument for Murray and Reuther, but they operated in such different times with such different union membership, that the comparisons begin to lose meaning. Trumka’s predecessor John Sweeney was a key transitional figure from the bad old AFL-CIO to an organization that was going to try and push the agenda, but Trumka is probably more successful. And one has to consider as well that Trumka is the head of a federation whose most left-leaning unions have been decimated by job losses, leaving mostly the old craft unions and public sector unions as the core of the organization. But with SEIU leaving the AFL-CIO, that only leaves AFSCME as a major force to counter the politically conservative and organizing and alliance-building adverse craft unions. What’s left of the UAW and United Steelworkers may help, as well as UFCW and some smaller unions, but Trumka is pulling the AFL-CIO to the left in an atmosphere where the overall political center of American union leaders is not moving to the left.

I largely consider what Trumka is doing to be good. His attempts to connect labor to more progressive movements is a key step in building cross-movement solidarity that all movements need in this age where corporate capital controls American politics to an extent we haven’t seen in an century. His work has helped put organized labor at the forefront of a pro-immigrant agenda, a remarkable step for a movement traditionally hostile to immigrants. But it’s really hard to build effective coalitions when your movement is really a coalition of its own, as we’ve seen over Keystone where you have the Laborers’ union openly hostile to any work with environmentalists, including openly attacking unions that are building those bridges. Remember, Trumka is the head of a diverse federation. He’s no dictator. So he has to drag a lot of unions along kicking and screaming (or others that are weighed down by inertia and indifference) to most of these advances.

I don’t know what will save the labor movement. I don’t think Trumka could do too much more than he is already doing. But there is no one thing or one person that will save it. It’s going to take a reshaping of the structures of work and trade agreements and legal regimes and regulatory frameworks and, yes, unions themselves in order to make that happen.

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