The Legacy of Richard Trumka (1949-2021): Two Critical Contributions to the Discussion

Richard Trumka

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka passed away from a heart attack on August 5 at the age of 72. Before taking the helm of the AFL-CIO, Trumka was president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He rose to prominence in the labor movement after he led a victorious and militant nine-month Pittston Coal strike during the Reagan era.

During his tenure as AFL-CIO president, the labor movement adopted a number of progressive issues regarding social justice, making a shift away from previous tradition.

Trumka had planned to step down as AFL-CIO president at the next federation convention. Trumka’s appointed successor, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler (who is now interim president of the federation), is expected to be challenged for the top labor post by militant labor leader Sara Nelson, president of the Flight Attendants union.

We are publishing in this newsletter two contributions to the discussion regarding Trump’s legacy. Both contributions below focus on two key questions: (1) the fight for trade union democracy, and (2) the need for labor to break with its subordination to the Democratic Party.


Vermont AFL-CIO President David Van Deusen Speaks Out

[Following are excerpts from an interview conducted July 19 by Richard Wolff on his “Economic Update” podcast with David Van Deusen, elected president of the 10,000-member Vermont AFL-CIO. Van Deusen was part of a slate called United. It is a progressive caucus within Vermont’s organized, labor movement, committed to rank-and-file union democracy and to social justice unionism. In Vermont, during the state AFL-CIO’s internal elections in the years 2019 and 2020, the United Slate won every leadership position within the state AFL-CIO.]

Richard Wolff: There is an ongoing conflict between the Vermont state AFL-CIO and the national AFL-CIO based in Washington DC, led by Richard Trumka.[1] I would like you to describe that conflict for our audience.

David Van Deusen: In November 2020, as you will recall, our democracy was entering a crisis. The election resulted in Donald Trump losing to Joe Biden. We were entering a crisis phase of democracy, and there were serious concerns that a political coup was in the making by Donald Trump and his cronies.

The Vermont AFL-CIO takes bottom-up democracy very seriously. We saw these warnings written on the wall, and we brought the question up of what we would do if our democracy fell victim to an attempted coup, and what it would do to our members.

At our annual convention here in Vermont, after a long discussion and debate with our rank-and-file, 87 percent of our members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a call from our elected executive board for a general strike in the event of a coup.

Richard Trumka and the national AFL-CIO, however, did not see it the same way we did. They didn’t like that we allowed our members to vote democratically. They retaliated against us and opened an investigation against us for alleged misconduct, simply for allowing our members to pursue a democratic process, to discuss and decide on what to do if we had to defend democracy. That’s the situation we find ourselves in today.

I am proud of the brave action and commitment to our democratic process that our members showed in November 2020. That’s the kind of leadership we should have been seeing at the national level from Richard Trumka.

Wolff: Are there other labor bodies, other state AFL-CIOs, where there are similar sentiments and where they might be looking at the actions in Vermont as a possible inspiration?

Van Deusen: We had a number of significant Central Labor Councils and labor bodies around the country that were also preparing for a general strike should a coup come into being. This includes the Central Labor Council in Seattle, with well over 100,000 members. They passed a resolution in support of a general strike. Labor councils in Rochester, New York; Troy, New York; and the Western Massachusetts Central Labor Council, all of which are within AFL-CIO – they did likewise.

In Chicago, unions such a CTU, were preparing to defend democracy through direct action and member engagement. This was building at the grassroots level. We were the only state Federation to go against the conservative wishes of Richard Trumka and, as a state AFL-CIO body, to authorize a call for a general strike, if necessary.

We were not – and we are not – going to be intimidated by Richard Trumka’s tactics to try to silence us. Instead, we are currently reaching out to state federations, labor councils, and locals throughout this country to seek to build a progressive caucus within the national AFL-CIO to change the way we do things.

Wolff: What are the implications of what you have been telling us in terms of the relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party?

Van Deusen: Well for decades now, and this is no mystery to you or your listeners, the national AFL-CIO has essentially put all of our eggs in the basket of the national Democratic Party. We have hitched our wagon to them, pumped tens of millions of dollars into their elections every two and four years, and what have we gotten in return?

At present we have Democrat majorities in all bodies of government. We are still three Democrats away from having a majority in the Senate for the PRO-Act. And even if they have that majority, we are well short of the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster. And yet Democratic Party officials refuse to engage in a real discussion about getting rid of the filibuster. So, what have we got for hitching our wagon to it?

I say the time has come not to put in tens of millions into the Democratic Party, but to put that into organizing. Our real power is not going to be through the suits and ties in Washington DC. Our real power for change is going to be through building those relationships with social justice groups, who are fighting for racial justice, who are fighting for real reform, in our communities.

That’s the direction we need to go. Not with the Democratic Party, which has failed us time and time again. It is time to look for alternatives. We cannot keep going down that failed road.


Why Did AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka Diss Medicare for All Over the Labor Day Weekend?


[Sandy Eaton, RN, posted this article on the blog of Labor Fightback Network on September 12, 2019.]

According to Reuters, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stressed a preference for the so-called public option, a tax-subsidized plan in competition with all the current private health insurance plans in an enhanced marketplace.

He quotes former Vice-President Joe Biden, who asserts that this marketplace is necessary to maintain existing union-negotiated plans and that an improved Medicare for All would likely deliver poorer benefits to union members than those private plans.

Trouble is, the AFL-CIO membership, through their convention delegates, affirmed their preference for the social insurance model, Medicare for All, at the federation’s 2009 Pittsburgh convention, and even more clearly in 2017 in Saint Louis.

The fact of the matter is that the expanded and improved Medicare for All bills in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, and in many state legislatures, provide benefits that far exceed the best of the negotiated union plans (including long-term disability) with no co-pays, deductibles or out of pockets, with the right to choose your own healthcare providers, guaranteed lifetime coverage with no break in coverage, and no more trading off wages and benefits for basic healthcare at the bargaining table.

Furthermore, Labor’s taking the lead in winning a truly universal health plan, one that establishes a single high standard of care for all of us, constitutes a profound act of solidarity. We’ve seen the evil that’s generated in society by those who glory in their own successes and have nothing but distain for those lacking those benefits.

The members have a clear preference for Medicare for All, as reflected in Resolution #34 of the 2009 AFL-CIO Convention and in Resolution #6 of 2017. The federation’s officers are mandated to follow the will of the members so expressed rather than the concerns of corporate Democrats and their allied medical-industrial complex.

We must continue to raise such a clamor for healthcare justice that such leaders will not be able to turn a deaf ear. Unite around a plan of action, not of retreat!

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