Another Hail Mary Pass From Labor’s Latest Quarterback?

Published on Zmag, by Steve Early, September 14, 2009.

Hope for a revived union movement has come in successive waves in recent decades, only to recede over time. When the national AFL-CIO meets next week in Pittsburgh to choose new officers, the fans in the stands will be cheering the latest change in quarterbacks.

But neither handing the ball to Rich Trumka (current secretary-treasurer of the federation) or creating a united front of the AFL, Change To Win (CTW), and the National Education Association—a parallel effort now stalled by Trumka’s own election–are likely to stem union decline, by themselves. Outside the Beltway, labor’s condition continues to worsen as workers face an avalanche of job cuts and contract concessions.

In the 1930s, adversity was the mother of invention for the working class; from the depths of the depression came a grassroots upsurge that, in tandem with a new Democratic national administration, changed the balance of power between unions and management for decades to come. In our time, despite myriad economic woes, neither the AFL nor the breakaway CTW have yet found a way to convert our current recession into a “rebuilding season.”  

Union members made key contributions to Barack Obama’s election victory last fall, yet their payback so far has been meager. The current healthcare muddle in Washington doesn’t bode well in many ways, most of all for real labor law reform – when and if that contentious issue moves up on the Administration’s agenda …

… Unlike the detailed, programmatic vision projected by “New Voice” in 1995, Trumka’s own “Hail Mary pass” for organized labor revolves around his uncontested election; the man himself is the message.
He spent the summer on a self-proclaimed “listening tour,” but actually did quite a bit of talking–about himself, for the purpose of refurbishing an image of militancy (developed at the Mine Workers two decades ago) that has suffered from 14 years of Prince Charles-like waiting in the wings for Sweeney to retire.

One resulting profile was a Sept. 7 Washington Post piece by Alec MacGillis, entitled “No Getting Around This Guy.” Based on a long chat with 60-year-old Rich—who has the “burly build” of a “bulldog”–MacGillis sees next week’s convention as “ushering in a tone of leadership that will be far more muscular than that of the avuncular Sweeney.”

And that’s because, as the Post reported, Trumka played “the ‘monster man’ position” on his high-school football team in Nemacolin, Pa., forty-two years ago. (Translation: he was a defensive back who could “stop the fullback in the middle or pick up speedy receivers on the flank.”)

Left unsaid (or unreported) was whether Trumka’s proposed shift from defense to offense, with him playing quarterback instead of Sweeny, is actually going to move the ball down the field any further than the same team did before its “New Voice” became old. (full text).

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