Communist Party USA

  “Workers First” was a familiar line of Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO from 2009 to 2021. He passed away at his home on August 5th. He was the first president of the merged AFL-CIO (1955) to come from an industrial union, the United Mine Workers of America. In the United States, the UMWA and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) birthed industrial unionism, which sought to organize workers on an industry-wide basis without distinction by craft or particular trade to contend with the explosion of mass manufacturing, and mass wage labor, and to defend workers against the rising power of the giant corporations and trusts. Richard Trumka was a coal miner’s son. He was born and raised in Nemacolin, a small town near Pittsburgh. His father was a second-generation Polish American who worked in the mines. Trumka himself worked in the mines to pay his way through college. After earning his law degree, he became a staff lawyer for the United Mine Workers. Lawyers are weapons in the class war, and Trumka knew labor needed some weapons. He joined the reform movement in the UMWA and was a bright, progressive light in organized labor’s leadership shift leftward from the cold war stance of Lane Kirkland and George Meany. They embraced the civil rights movement for equality as inseparable from the goals of the labor movement. Together with John Sweeney, he helped bring an end to the old era and returned the federation to a more progressive program. As president of the UMWA, Trumka led a historic nine-month pitched battle in 1989–90 against Pittston Coal that included a mass movement approach to allies and friends — and won! In 2008, the year before he succeeded John Sweeney as president, Trumka made an extraordinary speech to the AFl-CIO convention endorsing Barack Obama. In a now legendary and oft-repeated section, he addressed racist critics head-on: We can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there who just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a Black man. . . . Obama’s policies will help working-class voters of all races. But there is only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama. And that’s because he’s not white. Trumka was devoted to dignity at work. On a job site, whether it was a mine or a COVID-infected meatpacking plant, he would frequently ask three questions: “Will workers be safe?,” “Will workers be treated fairly and with dignity?,” and “Who will get the wealth workers create?” Perhaps his greatest contribution was his commitment to forging the labor movement into the key force charged with the responsibility of protecting our democracy. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler wrote: Trumka in 2020 was prepared to lead working people into battle to defend our democracy — and his leadership in 2020, together with the courage of union members, helped make sure that the votes were counted, the result was honored and democracy was saved. In what turned out to be his final address to a union crowd, Trumka declared that organized labor is fighting not just for itself but for “democracy, which has been under siege.” “Give us back our power, and we’ll pull our country back from the brink,” he declared. In the same speech, as he did so many times over the years, Trumka identified for us who the enemies of democracy are in this country: It’s no coincidence the opponents of democracy are also anti-worker politicians—politicians who have spent decades dividing and weakening working people, tearing us apart by…

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For Trumka, it was always “workers first”