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January 29, 2010

Jobs reigned high among the priorities outlined in President Obama's first State of the Union address. But union members, some of Obama's most active supporters, are hoping he delivers not just jobs, but union jobs. They have reason to be hopeful — when the AFL-CIO held its convention the week of September 14, 2009, there was a new AFL-CIO leader, Richard Trumka, a new president in the White House and a Secretary of Labor friendly to some of organized labor's priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka joins Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL to talk about why he thinks labor remains relevant, how labor has fared thus far under the Obama presidency, and the role he envisions for unions in the future.

Since their heyday in the middle of the 20th century, unions have fallen on hard times. A recent Gallup poll showed support for unions at the lowest level since they began posing the question in 1936. And, although there was an uptick in membership in 2008, the percentage of American workers represented by a union is down to about 12 percent from more than 25 percent in 1950.

As World War II came to an end, more than a quarter of the American workforce belonged to unions. Labor leaders wielded major clout in Democratic Party politics. They had the ear of the White House and Congress. That power plummeted as states adopted right-to-work laws, jobs moved overseas, and union-busting campaigns by corporate America became commonplace. For many, the benefits of union membership — job and wage security, workplace safety, health and pension benefits — evaporated.

But AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says unions are still strong, and are absolutely necessary to building a strong and sustainable American economy. According to Trumka, the recent housing collapse underscores the importance of collective bargaining:

>Learn more about and contemporary issues facing America's workers and about American labor history.
We've proven now that you can't borrow your way into the middle class. You have to bargain your way into the middle class. And that's why the Employee Free Choice Act is so important. It's important as part of the economic recovery program so that workers can get a fair share of what they produce. Their productivity gains ought to be split in some manner with their employer. And the only way that that happens is through collective bargaining. So, you get collective bargaining. Wages start to rise again. The consumers start to spend again. The economy's rebuilt again.
Richard L. Trumka
Photo by Robin Holland On Sept. 16, 2009, Richard L. Trumka was elected president of the AFL-CIO by acclamation at the federation's 26th Constitutional Convention in Pittsburgh. His election followed 14 years of service as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO and built on his roots in the small coal mining communities of southwest Pennsylvania. He was elected the youngest secretary-treasurer in AFL-CIO history in 1995, as part of an insurgent campaign to reinvigorate the American labor movement. At the time of his election, Trumka was serving his third term as president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

Trumka has been a key part of White House economic initiatives, starting in 1993, when President Clinton established the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform and nominated Mr. Trumka to be a member of the commission. Most recently, President Obama in 2009 named Trumka to the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker. A member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council since 1989, Trumka has been instrumental in developing tactics to rally the support of international labor on behalf of U.S. workers struggling for workplace justice against multinational conglomerates. He also served on the executive boards of the International Miners' Federation and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and played a key role in organizing a new global coalition of coal miners' unions in five countries.

Trumka, a third-generation coal miner from Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, began working in the mines at age 19. As a member of UMWA Local 6290, he served as Chairman of the Safety Committee. He soon became an activist in the Miners for Democracy reform movement. Trumka worked in the mines for more than seven years, supporting himself while attending Pennsylvania State University, where he graduated in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science degree, and through Villanova University, where he received a law degree in 1974. He served four years on the legal staff of the United Mine Workers during the reform administration of Arnold Miller before returning to the coal mines in 1979, while also conducting pro bono legal work for local families in the Nemacolin area during his hours away from the mine.

As President of UMWA, Trumka led the union in one of the most successful strikes in recent American history against the Pittston Coal Co., which tried to avoid paying into an industry-wide health and pension fund. This action resulted in significant advances in employer-employee cooperation and enhanced mine workers' job security, pensions and benefits.

Because he consistently utilized non-violent civil disobedience throughout such strikes, in 1990 he received the Labor Responsibility Award from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Over time, his successes built upon one another. During his three-term UMWA presidency, Trumka won passage of the federal COAL Act that provides guaranteed health care for retired miners. He brought the UMWA back into the AFL-CIO; mobilized support to win a contract for 18,000 miners forced out on strike for 10 months by the Bituminous Coal Operators' Association; and established an office that rallied support among mine workers for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Guest photo by Robin Holland.
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The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a voluntary federation of 55 national and international labor unions and represents 10 million workers. he AFL-CIO was created in 1955 by the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

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