Posted on February 11, 2011 by

Barack Obama’s recent speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce prompted some union activists to insist that the labor movement denounce the president.

But AFL-CIO chief Rich Trumka did not use that event to contrast the president’s preference for the corporate agenda over the union agenda.

Maybe there was an understanding between Trumka and the white house to let Obama have his day with the business community.

Most veterans of the labor movement recognize the dance between union leaders and elected officials.  Despite the pervasive sentiment within organized labor that President Obama has let us down, he is an ally.

While most Americans wouldn’t be able to pick Rich Trumka out of a crowd, the former head of the mineworkers union has been well-known in union circles for many years, having cut his teeth in the brutal Pittston Coal strike 20 years ago.  A lawyer with deep mining-family roots, Trumka was number-two man during John Sweeney’s tenure and took over when Sweeney stepped down in September, 2009.

Trumka can be fairly articulate on the media circuit, reaching out to the vast pool of nonunion American wage earners (and the unemployed).  But there are no real expectation right now that any national labor leader can re-ignite broad working-class interest in unionization.

It’s definitely fair game for progressives to try to pressure the AFL-CIO to “take a stand” against corporate “abuse, exploitation and greed,” but we also recognize the limited value of our rhetoric.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that organized labor’s battles are not worth the fight.  But the hope that the Obama era would be resurgent for unions has obviously not come to pass.

We will – as always – play a key role in the 2012 election.  And, if we help win that one for the democrats, don’t be surprised if the newly reelected president strolls over to the AFL-CIO building for a chat.

It’s the least – and I do mean the least – we can expect.

Comments (15)


  1. Greg says:

    I am a very devout and loyal unionist. But one of the major problems we have with our economy and our circumstances is our need to so management and labor as polar opposites. We need to see ourselves as elements of the same piece of machinery. If we were more honest and cooperative with each other, it may well be that unionism wouldn’t be so diminished in this country. I mean without the employers, we don’t have jobs, but unfortunately, they have workers they can exploited even if they are not unionists. The president needs to see jobs. For that he needs the Chamber. In fact, we all need jobs. How short sighted can you be? Denounce the president for doing something that could help us all. It’s that thought process that has helped marginalize the movement.

  2. Paul says:

    For the record, I believe Brother Trumka spells his last name without a “p”.

  3. Joe Uehlein says:

    Oh, I don’t know Lou — you really think there was an understanding between Obama and Trumka about his visit to the Chamber? Maybe we’re not even on Obama’s strategy chart? I’ve seen too many elections come and go where labor works hard and makes a difference, and yes, the D’s stroll over the the AFL-CIO for a visit. And maybe they do a little. But in my voting lifetime they have never done more than a little. We get the appointments, which are really important and make a difference in the every day lives of working people, and we sometime we got better regs. But something meaningful — no. And Obama gave away much of what we wanted in health care legislation, but he would not give away taxing our benefits! I don’t know Lou, I can admire your optimism about the Democratic party, but I can’t share it.

  4. Salvador Sanchez says:

    Unions desperately need to get back into relevance again. Richard Trunka was personally selected by outgoing leader John Sweeney. He was a nod to continuity at a time when continuity was not warranted. For too long, American workers’ solidarity has been limited in scope and vision. Indeed, this is a destructive status quo that needs to be changed. A bigger question for us Lou is that if our labor leaders are brave enough to have this robust conversation in changing this said pervasive status quo.

    • Lou says:

      Greg: I do think it’s possible for cooperation between labor and management but I’m not sure that works unless workers and unions share some of the power.
      Joe: I would say I’m realistic – maybe fatalistic – about the democratic party; am I optimistic, I don’t know?
      Salvador: I think many labor leaders are, in fact “brave,” but are consumed by just trying to keep their unions alive.

  5. Ed Fry says:

    The American Tiger hasn’t changed its stripes, nor will it in the immediate future. We are a commercial enterprise where the values of capital are primary and the value of labor is glorified only to the extent that it services the interests of capital. In fact, “labor” has been demonized in American culture. “Hard work” is capital’s term for the American spirit of entrepreneurial enterprise, diligence and productivity. “Labor” is now associated with politics, corruption, union “bosses”, feather-bedding, yada yada, something antithetical to “hard work”. As if.
    Currently, we have similar associations with the word “union” in the public sector: undeserved pay scales, too rich pensions and benefits. “These unions deals are killing us!” As if.
    No political leader can immediate bridge this carefully crafted divide.
    We’re out of whack as a people and as a nation. The mutually beneficial tension on the string between labor and management is compromised by capital’s continuous attack upon labor and labor unions, and its ability to perpetually write the rules that protect its bottom line at the expense of everyone and everything else.
    I don’t know what the answer is. But in the coming years after 2012, perhaps before, as the economy goes thru wrenching changes, as the world shuns the hollowed-out dollar and prices and unemployment explode, we will swing back to more popular support of working people, an opening for organized labor, to be sure. But this will only happen after a world of hurt visited upon all of us, especially those least able to cope with it. And this after capital wraps itself in a blanket of gold or conserves itself as Swiss Francs in foreign banks.
    That’s the real American way, and not the one the PR machine of endless American flags and “mornings in America” would have you believe. When you see that stuff, just remember who is really doing the talking. For capital, America is often nothing more than a flag of convenience.

    • Glen Arnodo says:

      Whatever those of us in the labor movement think about President Obama, we need to collectively look in the mirror. We, as a movement, are not there to push, pull or support him. We represent less than 7% of private sector workers. While we don’t bear all the responsibility for that, like the deindustrialization of our country, part of the problem is us. We should ask ourselves why, in the worst economic crisis of our lifetime, we are not getting workers to look to the labor movement as a solution. We can piss and moan about EFCA and the failure of labor law reform but was that President Obama’s fault or ours. The labor movement won the right to organize in the 30′s with sit-down strikes and putting workers in the streets. They did it by signing workers up into the union by the millions.
      Our idea of getting labor law reform was by telling “sad” stories of workers getting fired and hoping politicians would feel their pain. It’s not President Obama’s job to paint the golden path to workers joining our movement. We have to create the conditions that allow him — or push him — to do that. So far, we have failed. We better figure out what we’re doing soon.

      • Rudy Corral says:

        I like that you took the words right out of my mouth
        “we have failed”

        I keep waiting for the day we find the courage and make real change, as long as we keep playing the same old game it is not going to happen, Reform is to pacify the masses.

        I do believe though we can use what is left of our tattered democracy to bring about a new monetary forum of governing
        Thanks so much for your words brother

  6. FluxRostrum says:

    If Unions want relevance, clout an jobs… the unions need to back a 3rd party candidate. The D’s & R’s do not respect the power of the Union. The time for rhetoric is over, stop supporting those who don’t support you and either they will once again support you or you’ll be supporting someone who does.

    • Greg says:

      To even consider a third party is to cloud the picture and muddy the waters. As has been said before, we don’t do enough. Yes we vote. And then we complain. There is a lot more that goes with voting to achieve what we want. It is very clear that the Chamber of Commerce, the Koch Brothers and the Republicans along with Fox News have been planning and plotting patiently for years. What do we have? What have we done? What ever the movement is, it has to start from the bottom so that we may push our leaders where we want them to go. WE have to start the movement. One of the things to do right now is to start to organize the unemployed. They are doing it in the Middle East. Why aren’t we doing it here?

  7. Dan says:

    The UAW seems to be taking steps in the right direction. The new president, Bob King, was there as the South Korean Trade Agreement was put together. It contains protection for automotive workers including keeping the existing 25% tariff for the initial seven years of the agreement. They are also targeting all the non-union automotive plants in the South, going after one company at a time.
    A lot of people carp about the administration saving the American automobile industry, but after listening to Rattner, the guy Obama picked to sort it all out, they did it to keep the recession from worsening, in the process saving over a million jobs. For that, I’m eternally grateful.

    But, as Brother Glen pointed out, the rest is up to us.

    FloxRostrum: (Somebody’s been playing You Don’t Know Jack) While a third party candidate is appealing, where would the Big Bucks come from that play such a large role in our electoral process? Some of us are entrenched in the Democratic Party. If there were more of us, we’d have some leverage to make some changes. Nowadays we’re lucky if they use a union printer.

  8. Dan says:

    Oops! “Automotive workers” not “records!”

  9. Dan says:

    FloxRostrum: (Somebody’s been playing You Don’t Know Jack) While a third party candidate is appealing, where would the Big Bucks come from that play such a large role in our electoral process? Some of us are entrenched in the Democratic Party. If there were more of us, we’d have some leverage to make some changes. Nowadays we’re lucky if they use a union printer.

  10. Rudy Corral says:

    With conditions worse for the working class since the the 1930 I ask why is organized labor so complacent and excepting of the continues free rein capital is enjoying at the cost of the working class???

    How quickly we forget; the lives, the homes; the jobs; the hungry,the pain we suffer because of this monetary system

    What do we have to lose except that chains of oppression that bond us to poverty.

    Look around my friends I don’t have tell you things are not right by far and the only way to change it is by working class powered change.

    Obama means well great historical figugure and brought hope to many of us but he dose not represent the economic interest the progreessive left wants. Just look who he has surrended himself with need i say more.

    What is wrong with the working class owning the ways and means of production for the national good of the country why not we have nothing to fear but fear itself. I truly believe that the working class could run a company a whole lot better then a CEO and why not a working class by and for the people of the United States of America.

    You don’t need big bucks my brother in a revolution.

    “All strong hearts to the front the weak one, to the back”
    Sitting Bull

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