In Barack Obama, organized labor knows it has its man in the White House. Arguably more than any U.S. president in history, President Obama supports the union domestic agenda, ever and always anchored in aggressive government intervention in the economy. And union officials support him, having provided indispensable financial and logistical support for his campaign last year. To show his appreciation, Obama was in downtown Pittsburgh today to address the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention. His speech is the highlight of the labor confab at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which will run through Thursday. The Democratic Party leaders and allied progressive-Left activists also are on hand in hopes of persuading Congress to pass Obama’s domestic policy agenda. So will AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s all-but-approved and unchallenged successor, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, a man whose past should be a major issue. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
Since its founding in 1955, the AFL-CIO has been the primary political voice of America’s unions. Now representing 54 or 56 unions (accounts differ) with a combined 11.5 million members and affiliates, federation faithful are getting an extra testosterone surge at this convention. That’s because it’s all but certain that when John Sweeney, first elected in 1995, steps down, he will hand his gavel to the 60-year-old Richard Trumka. Granted, labor leaders by nature aren’t shrinking violets. They know that to be effective in organizing and collective bargaining, they must be confrontational. Their stature among rank and file depends upon it. Yet Trumka takes confrontation to a new level. During his tenure as president of the United Mine Workers, and again as immediate past-president, he’s engaged in actions that might well have qualified as incitement to riot.
Union Corruption Update this past August described in detail how Trumka, despite his denunciation of disruptive tactics by certain opponents of President Obama’s national health insurance plan, more than once has given the green light to Mine Workers thuggery if it furthers union objectives. In 1993, during a multi-state UMW strike against Peabody Coal by some 17,000 workers, he explicitly called for beating mine operators and non-striking employees. Trumka’s goon squads vandalized homes, fired shots at a mine office, cut off power to a mine (temporarily trapping more than 90 miners); he rationalized, after the fact, a cold-blooded murder of a non-striking worker. In 1998, he refused to answer questions following a mass assault and battery by union loyalists against protestors at a Bentleyville, Pa. rally that he and UMW President Cecil Roberts had led.
But Trumka, a trained lawyer, has done more than give union violence a free pass. He’s also been involved in corruption. Trumka took part in two of the money-laundering schemes that helped re-elect Teamsters General President Ron Carey over rival James P. Hoffa in 1996. In his report disqualifying Carey from holding office, Teamsters Election Officer Kenneth Conboy concluded that Trumka had laundered $150,000 from the Teamsters through the AFL-CIO to a political advocacy group, Citizen Action, which in turn routed $100,000 of the money to the Carey campaign. Conboy also concluded Trumka participated in another illegal scheme in which he either contributed or solicited $50,000 in order to bankroll the campaign. National Legal and Policy Center in 2000 filed a formal complaint with the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court requesting that the board disbar Trumka. Though unsuccessful, the complaint was rooted in facts. And considering that Carey was removed from the Teamsters and that several close associates, including Teamsters political director Bill Hamilton, either pleaded guilty or were convicted by trial, Trumka was lucky.
President Obama, far from expressing concern about Trumka’s background, is an avowed ally. At his speech today in Pittsburgh, he had this to say about the next AFL-CIO president: “I know it’s bad luck to congratulate someone before they are officially elected, but I’m willing to take my chances and congratulate the man who will pick up John’s (Sweeney’s) mantle, a son and grandson of Pennsylvania coal miners, my friend, and a fiery advocate for America’s ideals, Rich Trumka.” Such words make sense. Obama, like Trumka, believes that without unions, America would wind up a nation of a privileged few and a great many suffering poor, and that union activism, more than anything else, created our nation’s middle class. President Obama made clear this view:
(T)he fundamental test of our time is whether we will…let America become a nation of the very rich and the very poor, of the haves and the have-nots; or whether we will remain true to the promise of this country and build a future where the success of all of us is built on the success of each of us.
That’s the future I want to build. That’s the future the AFL-CIO wants to build. That’s the future the American people want to build. And that’s the future we’ve been working to build from the moment I took office.
Richard Trumka couldn’t have put it any better. That’s why if the AFL-CIO under Trumka engages in corruption, it’s not likely Obama, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (also a speaker at the convention), or anyone else within the administration will be all that concerned. The president long ago learned the value of rewarding friends and punishing enemies. And Rich Trumka is a friend.