Barack Obama, like any Democratic president, has serious IOUs to labor unions. And AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, more than any other labor leader, is one ally he can’t afford to alienate. About the last thing Obama wants, especially as his party faces heavy losses in congressional elections this November, is the subject of Trumka’s lengthy track record of aggression and corruption to come up. Major media, for the most part, have obliged him in the wake of the round of speeches yesterday at the Milwaukee Area Labor Council Laborfest, making little or mention of inconvenient facts. It isn’t as if Obama or top members of his administration are complaining.
The Milwaukee Laborfest is an annual AFL-CIO-sponsored Labor Day event, a logical campaign stop for Democratic Party office seekers in Wisconsin and elsewhere. The party’s big guns were in evidence yesterday, as Obama, Trumka, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisc., each put in an appearance. Obama used the occasion to promote a $50 billion federal initiative for infrastructure improvement. Should Congress oblige him, he and his administration can be counted on to route as much of that money as possible toward projects hiring union labor.
Rich Trumka, for one, is counting on it. Installed as AFL-CIO president a year ago in his home town of Pittsburgh (where Obama himself had spoken), he’s giving the green light to all concerned that he and other union leaders are ready to rumble. At the Milwaukee labor extravaganza, Trumka offered the following progressive-Democrat boilerplate, and with real gusto:
President Obama and Democratic leaders share our vision of an America built on good jobs – and together we’re going to get America back to work. It won’t be the bankers. It won’t be the Tea Partiers. It won’t be the ‘party of no’…Do you want to go forward with Obama and the Democrats or backwards to the policies that wrecked our economy? Do you want an America where working people earn a fair share of the wealth we create, where our economy works for everyone?
The mainstream press gave these remarks, along with those of the president, prime coverage. What they downplayed was that Trumka, now 61, during his years as United Mine Workers president and then as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, became a rising star in the organized labor firmament by enabling union violence and corruption. In other words, his tacit and at times open encouragement of intimidation and deception as union empowerment tactics may have helped him win his current job.
Consider a multi-state coal miners strike organized by the UMW back in 1993. As union president, Trumka ordered more than 17,000 workers to walk off their jobs. He was determined, among other things, to ensure that nobody would find work in a mine without paying dues or agency fees to the union. He explicitly told strikers to “kick the shit out of” employees and mine operators resisting union demands. UMW enforcers obliged him. They vandalized homes, fires shots at a mine office, and cut power to another mine, temporarily trapping 93 miners underground. Worse yet, a union goon on July 22, 1993 murdered heavy equipment operator Eddie York, a nonunion contractor, shooting him in the back of the head in his pickup truck as he drove past strikers at a Logan County, West Virginia work site; a bunch of goons then proceeded to pelt York’s would-be rescuers with rocks. Rather than apologize, Trumka offered the following rationalization: “I’m saying if you strike a match and put your finger in, common sense tells you you’re going to burn your finger.” In other words, Eddie York had it coming. His widow, Wanda York, saw things differently. She sued the union for $27 million, naming Trumka and other union officials as co-defendants. After a long battle, UMW lawyers quickly decided to settle out of court in June 1997 once federal prosecutors announced they would release evidence from the trial of Jerry Dale Lowe, convicted of conspiracy and weapons charges related to York’s murder by a federal jury three years earlier.
The election of John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president in the fall of 1995 gave Trumka a new career as federation secretary-treasurer; apparently, the AFL-CIO didn’t see Trumka’s de facto advocacy of United Mine Workers violence as a problem. Nor would it see a problem in April 1998 when Trumka, now UMW immediate past president, gave a wink to criminal violence by loyalists against dissenters at a rally in Bentleyville, Pa., where he and union President Cecil Roberts came to speak. An eyewitness account put it this way: “Within minutes a group of UMWA officials and their supporters attacked the protesting miners, ripping leaflets and protest signs from their hands. Several miners were punched, knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly.” Trumka, while not openly endorsing the violence, offered no words of condemnation either.
Trumka’s closet skeletons extend to corruption, specifically, a pair of money-laundering schemes, among a half-dozen totaling $885,000 that helped re-elect Teamsters General President Ron Carey in 1996 over his close rival, James P. Hoffa. That election eventually was invalidated, paving the way for Hoffa’s current presidency. The Teamsters had been under federal oversight since 1989, the result of an out-of-court settlement of the Justice Department’s civil RICO suit against the scandal-ridden union. In his report disqualifying Carey from office, the union’s special election officer, Kenneth Conboy, concluded that Trumka had laundered $150,000 from the union through the AFL-CIO to a political advocacy group, Citizen Action, which in turn routed $100,000 of the money to the Carey campaign. Conboy also concluded Trumka had participated in another illegal arrangement in which he either contributed or solicited $50,000 in order to bankroll the Carey campaign.
Congress took an interest in the Teamsters election campaign. Trumka wasn’t very talkative. Though not subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce at an April 30, 1998 hearing, he indicated beforehand that he would have taken the Fifth Amendment had he been called. His boss, John Sweeney, took his place, telling the committee, “I do not believe that Rich Trumka would knowingly participate in a scheme to launder union money into the campaign coffers of a candidate for union office.” That statement would have been more convincing if Trumka had appeared.
National Legal and Policy Center was no idle bystander. In 2000, NLPC filed a complaint with the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court requesting that the board disbar Trumka. Though unsuccessful, the complaint was rooted in a sound finding of facts. And considering that Carey was removed from the Teamsters presidency and then the union altogether, and that several associates, including Teamsters political director Bill Hamilton, either pleaded guilty or were convicted by trial, Trumka should be seen as a lucky man.
Having inherited the mantle of AFL-CIO leadership from Sweeney last September, Richard Trumka isn’t likely to talk about these things. After all, it’s all in the past. He has “moved on.” But the whole idea of public accountability is rooted in reminding those guilty of criminal and/or unethical behavior about history. Public figures shouldn’t get a free pass when it comes to abusing trust in their position, whether an incriminating act happened a year ago or 20 years ago. Unfortunately, major news media aren’t likely to be of much help.