Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO since 2009, speaks with students… (Mark Duncan, Associated…)
Reporting from Columbus, Ohio — The future of the labor movement may very well rest in the hands of a man who was sitting over a paper plate piled with spaghetti, amusing his audience by twirling a napkin in his ear, then hamming it up with a wink and a goofy grin that would make any teenager cringe.
He'd been working for 12 hours already, but AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had every reason to be giddy. Ohioans had just voted down a law that restricted collective bargaining for public workers, and the American labor movement was savoring a rare victory.
"When our members are motivated, when they're united, no one can turn them around," Trumka shouted later that night to the raucous crowd that gathered outside the firefighters union hall where Trumka had wolfed down his spaghetti.
Union membership has been shrinking, down from 20% of the U.S. workforce in 1983 to less than 12% today. Union leaders are trying to hang on to one of their last remaining strongholds: government. Strapped for cash, many states are looking to cut costs by ending collective bargaining agreements.
To counter this — and a 2011 Pew poll that showed just 45% of Americans viewed unions favorably — Trumka is going on the offensive, trying to harness frustration with Wall Street and concerns about income inequality to build broader support for labor.
If he succeeds, he will help pro-union Democrats in the Nov. 6 elections and, perhaps, begin to reverse organized labor's long decline as a political force.
Trumka has "an impossible task," said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. "There's no way in which one leader, no matter how effective, can by themselves alter the structure in which they find themselves. The standard operating procedure of all businesses is to basically do whatever is necessary to avoid unionization."
But Trumka, 62, says the stagnant economy presents an opportunity for change.
"We've been trying to have a debate on inequality for a couple of decades now, and we're finally able to have that debate because its gotten so bad," he said from the passenger seat of a car as he rushed to make a live interview on CNN. "Now it's up to us to change this moment into a movement."
The challenge Trumka faces is evident in his hometown, the onetime union stronghold of Nemacolin, Pa. The coal mine has closed; the company store is boarded up; only a few homes sport the yellow-and-gold signs supporting the United Mine Workers, though some residents still work in nearby mines.
Even Trumka's childhood home — a brown, two-story house with white trim — is empty. His parents have died, and his sister has moved away. Trumka and his wife live near Washington, not far from their 27-year-old son.
Trumka entered the mines at age 19 with a hard hat, a flashlight and enough fresh fruit and water to last him the day. But from childhood, he knew he didn't want to stay in the mines forever. His grandfather and father worked the mines and were frequently ill from lung-related diseases.
He often tells a story about his grandfather asking him during a miners strike how he was going to help local workers. Trumka was 12 at the time. "I said I would become a politician, and he backhanded me," Trumka said. "Then I said a lawyer, and that was the right answer."
He worked in the mines during high school and college, performing a number of jobs, including laying track and erecting supports, and the UMW helped pay his way through Penn State and law school at Villanova University. He became a lawyer for the union and in 1982 was elected to president, leading the UMW through two strikes, in 1989 and 1993.
Ask some people around Nemacolin what they think of Trumka, and they'll echo Edward Begovich, a coal miner who said Trumka "will go down in history as one of the greatest labor leaders this country has ever seen" because Trumka helped the UMW gain bargaining power at a time when unions were under assault.
Friends say that as the head of the UMW, Trumka ended the cronyism that allowed leaders' family members to get plum staff jobs. He negotiated changes in the way miners earned their pensions: instead of counting tonnage hauled, employers agreed to count hours worked — making it harder for mining companies to shortchange workers, said Michael Dulik, a Nemacolin resident who headed a local branch of the UMW in the 1980s.
Other union locals, though, resent Trumka for leaving them behind. He went to the AFL-CIO as secretary-treasurer in 1995, during a time when the UMW was losing membership. Some complain that Trumka agreed to shut mines in the region and didn't help friends find new work.
UMW membership fell to 84,000 in 1995, the year Trumka left, from 153,000 in 1985. It's now at 57,000.
Trumka had tried to reverse the membership decline, even though his tactics put off some union leaders, said Richard Hurd, a professor at Cornell University's industrial and labor relations school.