Labor's Undisputed New King
With SEIU boss Andy Stern’s surprise retirement, the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka becomes labor’s most powerful leader. Benjamin Sarlin talks to Trumka about Stern’s legacy—and the unions’ next fight.
You wouldn’t know it from the humble setting and the sparse turnout from the press. But AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka this morning was unofficially crowned the undisputed king of labor.
Trumka, flanked by a small coterie of staffers at AFL-CIO headquarters, gleefully discussed attacks on the movement by Glenn Beck, who is fending off a campaign by unions aimed at his advertisers, and shots from Rush Limbaugh. He circulated an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal on financial reform—deadpanning that he “used to appear in there frequently,” a reference to the editorial board’s anti-union leanings.
“There’s more need for us to be united in purpose than ever before because of the economic environment and because of those that are arrayed against us, against working people especially,” Trumka said.
But soon the topic turned to the big news of the day: longtime SEIU president Andy Stern, by far the most recognizable voice in labor, is unexpectedly stepping down.
“They’ll be looking for a new punching bag,” one staffer said, turning to Trumka.
“I’ll be glad to accommodate. I wear that proudly,” he replied. Then, thinking aloud: “I wonder where he’s going?”
That’s anybody’s guess at this point. And the reasons for Stern’s departure are unclear. An article out this morning in Politico cited an unnamed SEIU official speculating that the passage of Obama’s health-care law last month may have prompted the decision, given that it was a longtime cause for Stern and the SEIU, which represents over 1 million health-care workers. (A spokesman for the SEIU did not immediately return requests for comment).
Stern’s exit is particularly interesting since he helped weaken the clout of the AFL-CIO back in 2005, when he and a number of other national union leaders broke away from the umbrella labor group (led at the time by John Sweeney) to form their own coalition, Change to Win.
The differences were rooted in strategy, with Stern and his allies interested in a greater push to expand union membership.
Despite their differences, Stern and Trumka, who took over the top job at the AFL in 2009, have worked closely together in the last few years. They teamed up to push for President Obama’s health-care reform, both of them spending millions on ads in support of the bill and leaning on wavering Democrats to vote for its final passage. Last year Stern and his fellow SEIU officer and potential successor, Anna Burger, visited the White House more than anyone other individual, according to visitor logs. Trumka has met with President Obama seven times this year already.
Stern’s exit raises the possibility that the SEIU might even rejoin the AFL-CIO. For his part, Trumka is wary of predicting any change for the moment (“That all depends on who his replacement is,” he said), but pledged to “work diligently” with the SEIU’s next leader on reunification.
“There’s more need for us to be united in purpose than ever before because of the economic environment and because of those that are arrayed against us, against working people especially,” he said.
Trumka offered up a litany of causes that the two groups had achieved “unity of purpose” on–such as Obama’s election, health care, confirming labor representatives to the National Labor Relations Board, and enacting card check legislation, which would make it easier for workers to unionize.
“We've been working together for the last couple of years very effectively,” he said.
Stern’s departure comes as labor has plenty more on their plate. The AFL-CIO is about to kick off an intensified push in support of financial-reform legislation making its way through the Senate this month. On Tuesday, the organization debuted a new Web site, Paywatch, that tracks CEO compensation and lobbying efforts by banks. Protests are planned on Wall Street later this month as well. The goal is to push through Sen. Chris Dodd's (D-CT) financial reform bill, while hopefully strengthening its provisions on consumer protections and private-equity regulations and at least preventing lawmakers from watering it down any further along the way to final passage.
“Our message this year to all the bank CEOs is that hardworking Americans will not be your ATMs,” he said. “Working Americans are mad and we won't take it anymore.”
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.