New AFL-CIO Chief Has Tough Road Ahead

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The nation's largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, gets a new president next month. Former United Mine Workers President Richard Trumka will replace John Sweeney. Trumka faces major challenges, including the long-term decline in union membership. But he also will have a friend in the White House in President Obama.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Next month, the nation's largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, gets a new president. John Sweeney is retiring. His replacement is the combative and charismatic former United Mine Workers President Richard Trumka. He will have to confront a long-term trend showing a decline in union membership. But for the first time in years, labor has a friend in the White House.

And as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, Trumka plans on making the most of it.

DON GONYEA: AFL-CIO delegates select a new leader in mid-September, but such is Richard Trumka's stature that he's running unopposed for the job. Still, he's been out at rallies and union picnics, like this one earlier this month in front of the West Virginia State Capitol building.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: At this event, Trumka is coming back to his roots. This is coal country. He made his name as president of the United Mine Workers.

Unidentified Man: Let's give a warm welcome to the next president of the AFL-CIO, your friend and mine, Richard L. Trumka.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: At the mic, Trumka speaks of labor's history and of what the union did to improve life in the mines. But mostly, he talks about today. He presses his audience to push Congress to pass health care legislation that includes a public option.

Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (Former President, United Mine Workers Union): We dream of an America where everyone who needs health care has the right to quality health care. You see, that's our dream. And this is our moment. This is our moment to ask why not.

GONYEA: President Obama won the White House with significant backing from organized labor. Trumka talks of the opportunity provided by having a president who calls himself pro-union. But he also says it is a two-way street.

Mr. TRUMKA: We need to let President Obama know that so long as he keeps fighting for American workers, he can count on us American workers to fight for him, right?

Unidentified Group: Right.

Mr. TRUMKA: Right?

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: On health care, many economists say paying for it may require taxing workers' health benefits. Unions, having negotiated those benefits, strongly opposed that idea.

As for the so-called Blue Dog Democrats in Congress who have been hesitant regarding health care legislation, Trumka, speaking this morning in Washington, said many of those members need to be reminded of how happy they were to have union members make phone calls and knock on doors during the campaign.

Mr. TRUMKA: Somehow they always seemed to forget workers after the votes are counted. For example, legislators who don't understand that their job isn't to make insurance companies happy - it's to make Americans healthy.

GONYEA: Trumka has been the AFL-CIO's number two officer since 1995. He promises a reorganization to improve communication between the national office in Washington and state and local union leaders.

He also hopes to heal a rift within the top ranks of U.S. labor that saw six unions, including the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Unions, split off from the AFL-CIO four years ago. They called the federation out of touch and formed an organization called Change to Win. Trumka says he hopes to bring most of them back into the fold, but Change to Win director, Anna Burger, says that's not likely.

Ms. ANNA BURGER (Director, Change to Win): I think that rich will be a very strong voice and a very strong advocate for working people. The difference is that we have different strategies.

GONYEA: But Burger says those differences do not prevent them from working together on common goals.

Back at the picnic in West Virginia, local union leader Kenny Purdue says Trumka has the exact kind of skills the movement needs at this time in history.

Mr. KENNY PURDUE (President, West Virginia AFL-CIO): I think he's ready for a fight.

GONYEA: And a fight is what he'll get - plenty of them, in fact - as he pursues an aggressive agenda for the AFL-CIO.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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