Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Future of The Labor Movement After Richard Trumka


At the headquarters of the AFL-CIO in Washington, union members and others gathered on this Saturday to pay their final respects to the organization's president, Richard Trumka. The 72-year-old Trumka died last week, his body lying in repose today at the Labor Federation offices. A top figure in the American labor movement for decades, Trumka was a strong ally to President Biden, who pledged to be, quote, "the most pro-union president you've ever seen." But Trumka's passing leaves many wondering - what now? - for labor and for the future of the AFL-CIO.

For that, we've called Steven Greenhouse. He's a former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times and the author of the book "Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present And Future of American Labor."

Steven Greenhouse, welcome.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Great to be here, Don.

GONYEA: First, can you just briefly describe who Richard Trumka was and why he was so important to the labor movement?

GREENHOUSE: Richard Trumka was a charismatic, powerful leader of the nation's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, which is a association of 56 different unions representing somewhere upwards of 10 million workers. And for years, you know, it has been the voice of labor. And, you know, he comes out of a powerful union, the United Mine Workers union. He led some very visible, confrontational strikes there that he won at a time in the 1980s, early 1990s when labor's doing very badly.

And he really made a name for himself as a forceful, truculent labor leader who wouldn't give in. And that catapulted him to be the No. 2 in the AFL-CIO. And then 12 years ago, he became the president of this overall labor federation, he was the main lobbyist for all union members in the country. He gave major speeches to really help set the tone agenda for labor. And he was really looked to as an inspiring and tough guy that really says labor has to fight and stand up and not allow corporations to push workers around.

GONYEA: Trumka's 12 years as head of the AFL-CIO coincided with a continuing decline of organized labor in terms of membership. Just over 1 in 10 American workers are union members today. But at the same time, public support for unions is actually growing. A Gallup poll done last year found some 64% of people said they approved of unions. Richard Trumka was well-aware of this disconnect. In your view, what drives that contradiction, those two lines going in different directions?

GREENHOUSE: On one hand, you know, Trumka died during a very hopeful time for unions. Joe Biden, whom unions very much helped elect, is the most pro-union president in decades. And now we have all these young workers enthusiastic about unions, flocking into unions. We see that with museum workers and grad students and adjunct professors and people in our profession, digital news media, and nurses. So it's a hopeful time for unions.

On the other hand, the two huge problems they faced - first, corporate America is humongously anti-union. You know, American corporations fight harder against unions than corporations in any other advanced industrial nation. That makes it extremely hard for workers to unionize. And the second thing, Don, is American laws are really tilted in favor of corporations and against workers when workers seek to unionize.

GONYEA: Trumka often complained that the deck was stacked against workers.

GREENHOUSE: Yes, absolutely. And that's why he is - was the foremost supporter of enacting a law called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the PRO act, which would go very far to make it easier to unionize. It was really the most comprehensive pro-union piece of legislation since FDR and the New Deal. And it has passed the House, and almost every Democrat in the Senate has supported it. But it faces this little hurdle called the filibuster.

GONYEA: Right. You have written about philosophical divisions within the labor movement. There might have been unity about fighting trade deals, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. But on a topic like whether unions should back things like path to citizenship for immigrant workers, it gets more complicated. And I guess we should also note that a lot of union members voted for Donald Trump. Talk about those divisions within the movement itself.

GREENHOUSE: Union members are Americans, and there'll be some progressive ones and some conservative ones. You know, many white union members, you know, bought into Trump's rhetoric that immigrants are going to hurt America. They're going to take away your jobs. They're going to threaten white dominance of your state, of the nation. And some - you know, some conservative unions, especially some construction unions, were kind of scared to take on Donald Trump. They didn't want to push hard, you know?

They told Richard Trumka - they told the AFL-CIO, don't push too hard to help immigrants. Don't push too hard to get them a path to citizenship. And there are progressive unions, like the service employees' unions and the hotel workers' unions, that have many immigrant members. And they're - they say we've got to push much harder to help immigrants, you know? The unions - these progressive unions said the future of labor lies in large part on immigrants because immigrants are so exploited. They're often so low paid that many of them are so eager to unionize and speak up. And they come from countries where unions are strong. So they'd be an important part of the future of labor.

GONYEA: In this post-Richard Trumka time, do you have a sense of what direction the organization will go?

GREENHOUSE: A big question now, Don, is we have this very pro-union president who really wants to lift workers and help unions. But the legal playing field makes it very hard for unions to win unionization drives. And that's why people say it's so important for Biden and the Senate to end the filibuster to enact pro-union legislation. If that doesn't happen, it's going to be really hard to turn around the decline of unions and enable unions to unionize millions more members.

GONYEA: We have been talking to Steven Greenhouse, former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times. Steven, thank you very much.

GREENHOUSE: Great to speak with you, Don.

(SOUNDBITE OF J-WALK'S "SOUL VIBRATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.