Twelve years ago, the last time delegates to the AFL-CIO’s National Convention mustered in Pittsburgh, the rhetoric was lofty with invocations to organizing and expanded horizons, Union Cities and Street Heat, but in retrospect the most striking feature was money. Money represented by the legions of smarty-pants staffers and the repeated vows to spend $20 million a year on organizing and whatever it took on politics; money as expressed in the ubiquitous media “outreach,” the glossy brochures and overproduced sets whose only functional purpose was to justify the retainers of the formidable crew of hired pr experts; money as an AFL side business in the form of its Union Plus credit card program, then being vigorously promoted.
At a boat ride soiree on Pittsburgh’s rivers one night during that 1997 convention Andy Stern, then relatively new as John Sweeney’s successor as SEIU president, was breezily chatty about labor’s fighting side, the potential for blue-green alliances and subjects far afield union matters. He had been instrumental in organizing Sweeney’s victory as president of the federation in 1995, and as the union president most identified with the style and scaffolding of the New AFL, it seemed he could not have been happier.
Now Stern is gone and the money’s gone, from the AFL-CIO at least, and when delegates again converge on Pittsburgh for another National convention from September 13 through 17 they will bid a final adieu to Sweeney too. What will remain most prominently of that season of change will be Rich Trumka, elected secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO fourteen years ago and now barreling forward to an uncontested election as the head of the federation, promising again to be an agent of change.
The numbers aren’t fully known, but the federation’s debt is said by one union leader to be in the neighborhood of $24 million. The money gained from royalties on the Union Plus card, which once accounted for something like 30 per cent of the federation’s revenue, has been blown, as have most of the operating reserves. What had been a $66 million surplus in 2000 has vanished, to the point where the Machinists’ Tom Buffenbarger warned earlier in the year that “insolvency might be right around the corner.”
“Bully pulpit” is the term being used, and it fits. Beloved by some in organized labor — for his heroics at the helm of the 1989-90 Pittston strike when he headed the United Mine Workers, for his fist-thumping rhetoric and brusque manner — Trumka is the bane of others for his performance as part of a team that turned out to be less inspiring than many had hoped.
“Narcissistic, lazy, self-indulgent,” one longtime union organizer quickly ticked off when I asked for an assessment of Trumka. “With Richard, everything will always be about Richard.” He will claim center stage. He will disburse rewards and punishments based on who makes him feel comfortable or not. He will take credit for victories and deflect blame for failures. He will bristle at even polite criticism. More than anything, perhaps, he will enjoy the sound of his own voice.
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