By: Mark Han
Mark Han is a union organizer in the Pacific Northwest, and member of the American Party of Labor.
With the unexpected passing of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the American Party of Labor joins the American Labor Movement in reflecting on Trumka’s legacy. As a longstanding and influential president of the AFL-CIO, it is undeniable that Trumka was an important figure to the American Labor Movement. From leading successful coal miner strikes at Pittston and Peabody to helping build American Miner solidarity with South African miners fighting Apartheid, Trumka was present for some of organized labors’ most important fights in the anti-union era of the 80’s and 90’s. However, although Trumka was a well-intentioned figure in labor, it’s equally important for workers to recognize the shortcomings of Trumka and the AFL-CIO under his presidency.
Keeping with the traditions of the AFL-CIO, the organization under Trumka remained a largely top-down bureaucratic union. This top-down organizing model led to significant disconnects between the organization’s top brass and their rank-and-file members. This disconnect was most recently and widely apparent during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings– Where rank and file members of AFL-CIO affiliated unions demanded the organization expel police unions from their organization. Rather than acquiesce to the demands of rank-and-file racial justice activists, Trumka came to the defense of police unions and refused to consider plans to expel police unions from the organization. In response, local unions and labor councils (such as the MLK Labor Council in Seattle) defied the national organization and proceeded with expelling police unions from their ranks.
All in all, it’s clear that Trumka was a well-intentioned activist within Organized Labor. But like all top-down unionists, his legacy was a mixed bag and despite his leadership in important fights, it is crucial for trade unionists in the United States to analyze the shortcomings of both Trumka and the AFL-CIO. Most importantly, it is crucial for trade union members of the AFL-CIO to recognize the clear need for increased rank-and-file democracy and control within the organization in the post-Trumka era. With the vacancy created by Trumka’s departure, there is a clear opportunity for a left wing challenger to ascend to the AFL-CIO presidency and transform the organization into a truly progressive, democratic organization– A prospect which our party hopes to see materialize in the near future.