Photo credit: Linh Do
By Jakob Stein
On August 5, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Richard Trumka died of a heart attack at the age of 72. In the wake of his death, several leading figures of US imperialism like Joe Biden mourned his death with public statements, portraying Trumka as a hero and friend of the working class. The workers, however, both unionized and not, should have no illusions as to the role Trumka played: a willing agent of the ruling class within the workers’ movement.
Joe Biden weighed in on Trumka, saying, “He wasn’t just a great labor leader, he was a friend. … He was someone I could confide in, and you knew whatever he said he’d do, he would do.” Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said that American workers lost “one of their greatest champions,” and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said they had lost “a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most.”
Major leaders of the US imperialist State would like to put Trumka on a pedestal and paint him as a hero because, in their eyes, he is one. As the head of the biggest federation of trade unions in the United States for the past 12 years, as well as its secretary-general for 14 years before that, Trumka held a prominent position in the union world, and was therefore an important servant of the ruling class. His job was essentially to act as a mediator between the capitalists and the workers, posing as a fighter for the working class while keeping a lid on worker rebellion.
The AFL was first established in 1886 as a larger umbrella group for other unions, representing skilled laborers while excluding industrial workers as well as women, Black people, and other racial minorities. Its father, Samuel Gompers, was a staunch anti-Communist who preferred to focus on the struggle for higher wages rather than political power, only throwing support behind the Democratic Party when it came to opposing immigration, which he saw as hurting wages for US workers. The AFL grew immensely during World War I, as the AFL supported the imperialist war effort.
In 1935, a breakaway faction from the AFL formed the CIO, which included many factory workers in industries like steel and rubber as well as Black workers. The CIO continued to grow quickly as Communists led and organized many of its unions at the time, until 1949, when Communists and several unions affiliated with them were expelled from the CIO. Only a few years later, the AFL and CIO merged, creating one massive hollow shell of an organization which has consistently put its support behind the Democratic Party and kept workers within the parameters deemed acceptable by the US ruling class.
As a major booster for Barack Obama, Trumka consistently threw his weight as well as that of the AFL-CIO behind the Democratic Party during his tenure. By using his position as a ‘leader of labor,’ he assisted in sanitizing the image of the bloodthirsty, imperialist Obama administration, as well as backing up Obama’s bailout of the automobile monopolies after the 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent cut in wages for autoworkers. Trumka also attempted to block numerous worker struggles during the most intense period of the COVID-19 pandemic as workers struggled against being forced back to work. The AFL-CIO under Trumka was also a supporter of the inter-imperialist conflict with China, backing up Donald Trump’s ‘trade war,’ as well as positioning itself to be an important ally of Biden in his struggle with China.
While there has been a rise in strikes in recent years, union membership has been steadily declining over the past 75 years as a result of government policies meant to remove unions’ teeth and a subsequent loss of trust in unions on the part of workers. Tribune has recently highlighted several stories of workers on strike who have been disappointed in the way unions have handled negotiations and new contracts, such as the lockout of Exxon workers in Beaumont, the ATI steelworkers’ strike across Pennsylvania, and the Frito-Lay strike in Topeka.
When talking about trade unions in the US, it is important to divide the issue into two. On the one hand, it is always a good thing when workers shut down production and fight against their bosses for better conditions, wages, hours, etc. This activity objectively hurts the capitalist class regardless of whether it is done inside or outside of a union. On the other hand, however, while unions do raise funds to support workers during strikes, their bureaucratic leaders like Trumka also act against the interests of workers during negotiations, dealing with the bosses directly while trying to find a middle ground that satisfies the capitalists. These unions also use the authorization process that allows them to control strikes to tell the workers when it’s alright to stop work, as well as create rules for strikes, keeping workers within ‘peaceful’ bounds and ultimately limiting the actions they can take in the struggle.
With ruling class lackeys like Trumka at the helm, trade unions in the US have been converted from tools of class struggle to organizations that actively stifle it. Their inherent limitation is that they promote what Vladimir Lenin called “trade union consciousness,” which condemns the working class to focus only on immediate gains. This must be developed into class consciousness, which prioritizes above all else the broader struggle for political power for the proletariat and the abolition of the private property at the root of workers’ exploitation.
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