WASHINGTON-Richard Trumka, a third-generation coal miner and lifelong union member, takes the mantle Friday as president of the largest labor union in the United States: the AFL-CIO. Those who know Trumka describe him as a tougher leader than his predecessor, John Sweeney, who is resigning after 14 years in the office.
The labor organization has watched its membership rolls decline in recent years, down to 11 million as manufacturing has all but disappeared in the United States. Last year several major union federations left the AFL-CIO to form their own coalition called the Change to Win Federation, taking 6 million workers with them.
While the labor movement is divided and aging (the average age of AFL-CIO members is 47), its leaders are optimistic about the near future with Democrats in power in Washington.
President Obama made some promises to unions-and won their support in the election. Trumka himself gave a speech last year that went viral on YouTube calling on union workers to vote for Obama, bluntly criticizing racism among his audience.
"There's only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama," he told a gathering of the United Steelworkers. "And that's because he's not white."
Trumka has pointed out that when unions support a candidate, they expect that candidate to follow through on his or her promises. He wants Obama to push the Employee Free Choice Act-known as "card check"-and to make the public option a priority in the healthcare bill.
Obama is doing what he can to keep unions enthused, even though neither of those union priorities have been a priority for him so far. He spoke at an AFL-CIO picnic on Labor Day, then again at the federation's convention Tuesday in Pittsburgh to a raucously welcoming crowd chanting his name.
"The White House is pretty nice, but there's nothing like being back in the House of Labor," he said to start things off. Calling his listeners "brothers and sisters," he continued, "Whether we're in good economic times or bad economic times, labor's not the problem. Labor's part of the solution."
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis spoke to the convention on Monday. Both Solis and Obama assured union members that the White House would work to make sure labor reform passes Congress. That may happen, but healthcare has derailed all other major legislative efforts. Also, the Senate just dropped the "card check" provision of the bill, which would make unionization of a workplace easier. So even if a labor bill passes, as the White House is indicating it will, it may not have the elements that Trumka is looking for.