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Expected new AFL-CIO chief to lead rebuilding effort

Trumka seen as 'aggressive, bold, smart'

FIRST NEW LEADER IN 14 YEARS Richard Trumka is favored to become president of a union at a time of great promise for the labor movement. FIRST NEW LEADER IN 14 YEARS
Richard Trumka is favored to become president of a union at a time of great promise for the labor movement.
By Sam Hananel
Associated Press / June 9, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Richard Trumka still keeps his old coal miner's helmet on a shelf in his spacious office overlooking the Washington Monument.

The scuffed-up relic is a reminder of how far Trumka has come since he started working in the mines of Pennsylvania at 19, a path that led him to become the youngest president of the United Mine Workers and, later, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

Trumka is the favorite to become the next president of the nation's largest union federation later this summer - its first new leader in 14 years - at a time of great promise for a labor movement that has spent decades on its heels.

Several large unions that left the AFL-CIO in a bitter dispute four years ago are in discussions to come back. Lawmakers are trying to work out a compromise on a bill that makes it easier for workers to unionize. And it's all happening under a prolabor president.

"Rich will be aggressive, bold, militant, and smart," said Rose Ann DeMoro, a longtime friend who is executive director of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.

A burly man with thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, Trumka is a dynamic speaker who labor advocates hope will bring more energy to the post than the low-key John Sweeney, who has been president since 1995.

"Sweeney is not dynamic and Trumka is," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "We've had unfortunately a generation of labor leaders who occupy the position of president of the AFL-CIO who have been terrible speech givers."

Trumka, 59, raised his profile last year after giving a speech denouncing racism within union ranks at a convention of the United Steelworkers. A video of the speech has received more than a half-million hits on YouTube, and Trumka is credited with helping to deliver working-class white voters to Barack Obama in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other battleground states.

"That speech embodied what the modern trade union movement stands for," Lichtenstein said. "He did it brilliantly, in a heartfelt fashion to his own people."

If he wins a four-year term as president at the federation's annual convention in September, Trumka is expected to lead an aggressive program to rebuild a fractured labor movement and encourage local union leaders to make more key decisions, rather than enforcing a topdown style. The AFL-CIO is made up of 55 unions representing about 11 million workers.

"The goal will be to make us more transparent and more responsive to the affiliates," Trumka said in an interview. "And you'll see us be far more aggressive when it comes to economic policy."

Not everything has gone smoothly in Trumka's career. He fell under a cloud in the late 1990s after he was linked to the 1996 Teamsters election scandal. Federal prosecutors spent months investigating whether Trumka tried to help Teamster president Ron Carey launder money for Carey's last campaign.

Trumka refused to testify before a grand jury, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Although the AFL-CIO had an internal policy to expel any officer who takes the Fifth to avoid scrutiny, the federation decided not to remove him from office. Sweeney insisted there was no evidence Trumka was part of the money laundering scheme.

Carey ultimately was forced out of the Teamsters. He was later acquitted of all federal charges.

Trumka would take over the AFL-CIO at a time when union membership has gone from a peak of 35 percent of the nation's workforce in the 1950s to 12.4 percent today, and just 7.6 percent of the private sector. Seven unions - led by the Service Employees International Union - bolted from the AFL-CIO in 2005, saying they were frustrated with Sweeney's leadership and wanted a more aggressive approach to build membership.

The departure of those unions, which formed the Change to Win federation, contributed to a steady decline in the AFL-CIO's finances. The federation reported a $64 million surplus in 2000, but was $2.3 million in debt last year.

Reunification would give the AFL-CIO a financial boost and help organized labor speak with one voice on key political issues like healthcare reform and trade policy.

That political clout would soar if Congress passes labor's number one priority - the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as "card check." The bill would give employees the right to sign cards instead of holding secret ballot elections in deciding whether to form a union. But it has stalled in the Senate, as Republicans threaten a filibuster and Democrats have been unable to round up the 60 votes needed to proceed.

Some of those breakaway unions want to return only if there are wholesale changes in the way the AFL-CIO is structured, but Trumka says he doesn't favor reunification at any cost.