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Labor’s ‘Bulldog’ Trumka Challenged by Dwindling Ranks, Public Perception

As AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka works to protect organized labor from the excesses of big business, he faces dwindling ranks, splits among union groups, and diminished public support. Paul Solman reports.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And finally tonight, a new leader takes over the country's largest union organization.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman has our profile. It's part of his ongoing reporting on making sense of economic and financial news.

    RICHARD TRUMKA, president, AFL-CIO: The American labor movement is right here with you today. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with you for as long as it takes and with whatever it takes.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    New AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at a recent protest of teacher layoffs in Washington, D.C.

  • RICHARD TRUMKA:

    And it is time that we win together!

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    As the new head of the labor movement, Trumka needs to move workers old and new, and reverse a decades-long thinning of the ranks. Compounding the problem, divisions within the movement itself.

    Service Employees International Union head Andy Stern, seen here in his trademark purple shirt, formed a rival federation just four years ago. In the late '60s, age 19, Trumka followed his father, who died of black lung disease, and grandfather down into the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

    But college and law degrees took him to the United Mine Workers. In 1982, he became its aggressive president.

  • MAN:

    Richard L. Trumka!

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The strike he led in 1989 against Pittston Coal in West Virginia became a symbol of new labor activism.

    Trumka became president John Sweeney's right-hand man at the AFL-CIO 14 years ago, making his name as a bulldog against corporate overreach.

  • RICHARD TRUMKA:

    I will stop demonizing big business just as soon as they put their country before their profits and they put their workers before their greed. I will stop at that point.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Three weeks after his election as president, we sat down with Trumka at union headquarters.

    The Wall Street Journal describes you as an old-school bullying leader known for your toughness, short fuse, and gruff sense of humor.

    That accurate?

  • RICHARD TRUMKA:

    Look at me. Don't I look like I'm one of those guys?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Well, you don't look gruff at the moment.

  • RICHARD TRUMKA:

    I sort of expect that from the Wall Street, and with some of them, I guess I have been rough, because we have taken on Wall Street, because we think they have created a lot of the problems that the country is facing right now.

    We think CEO pay, for instance, out of control. We think the risks that they took were unreasonable. And we're asked to pick up the price. And, if that's their description of me, that's fine. Now, but there's also this warm and fuzzy side of me, I guess, too.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Warm and fuzzy, indeed. Check out his acceptance speech at the AFL-CIO Convention.

  • RICHARD TRUMKA:

    From my first day working in the coal mine, to my last day as international president, I have always been in awe of the courage and the compassion and the unbreakable solidarity of my UMWA brothers and sisters. And I want you to know that, just as you have always stood by me, I will always…

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