- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Jimmy Hoffa was not only one of the most recognizable Americans from the 1950s to the 1970s, he also enjoyed the unyielding loyalty of the truck drivers and warehousemen who made up the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. They knew he would never ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.

Actually, Mr. Hoffa didn’t ask them to do half the things he had done. As a 20-year-old organizer, he’d approach sleeping truck drivers who had parked their rigs off the highways outside Detroit. Often they were company plants armed with clubs. In a single year, Mr. Hoffa got his head split open six times, but he managed to organize the city’s previously resistant truck and car-hauler sector.

Walter Reuther was among the country’s most-prominent figures, from his pre-WWII building of the United Auto Workers to his advocacy for social justice and civil rights in the 1960s.

Yes, Virginia, there really was a time - not so long ago - when everyone knew who labor’s leaders were and who spoke for working people. A time when their words carried weight and their voices evoked respect; sometimes even a bit of fear. A time when reporters flocked to cover them, drawn by the rare combination of eloquence and common touch of a colorful plumber from the Bronx named George Meany who built the modern AFL-CIO and led it until 1979. Or by the unbending militancy of a John L. Lewis, who ruled the miners’ union from 1920 to 1960, through a tumultuous period in history.

Today, the average American would struggle to produce the name of a single union leader, let alone explain what that person stands for. More than a historical curiosity, this has consequences for the survival of the labor movement, its 16 million members, and workers in general. Who is guiding labor though these arduous times, preparing it for an uncertain tomorrow, representing it to the public and within the corridors of power? Who possesses the stature to bridge labor’s divisions?

While this lack of visible leadership - which isn’t to denigrate the many talented men and women running unions, regional councils or federations - partly reflects the general decline of unions in recent decades, it’s also a cause of labor’s doldrums.

It’s true that many of labor’s woes - including the erosion of manufacturing - are systemic in nature, stemming from evolving domestic and global economies. But leadership profoundly affects how any entity responds to challenges. Can it be doubted that the conservative revolution of the 1980s or the civil rights movement of the 1960s benefited from the charisma, insight and oratory of a Ronald Reagan or a Martin Luther King?

At this critical time - politically promising yet economically daunting - who in the labor movement stands poised to offer a powerful voice, a unifying vision and the ability to make people grasp the role labor can play in restoring a balanced industrial relations system and rebuilding the middle class? Here are some candidates:

Rich Trumka: The No. 2 man at the AFL-CIO, set to succeed John J. Sweeney as president next month, Mr. Trumka is a third-generation mineworker and a lawyer who helped clean up the United Mine Workers of America before becoming its youngest president. He can move audiences while tackling complex ideas. Though still youthful, he’s been around long enough to provide critics with some fodder, but he enjoys widespread respect from workers.

Larry Cohen: Head of the Communications Workers of America, Mr. Cohen combines a scholarly demeanor with a commitment to grass-roots mobilization as a way to energize the rank and file. He’s a leading proponent of reinvigorating collective bargaining to boost the middle class. No one outside labor has heard of him, which isn’t all bad.

James P. Hoffa: A no-nonsense approach has enabled him to strengthen the Teamsters through organizing drives and solid contracts. Once discounted by some as the beneficiary of his father’s famous name, Mr. Hoffa has shown himself to be a knowledgeable and forceful advocate for fair trade and worker safety.

Andy Stern: A relentless organizer who engineered labor’s split four years ago, Mr. Stern’s success at expanding his Service Employees International Union is second to none. His willingness to centralize authority to enhance efficiency has won him numerous adversaries - including some in his own union - and made him arguably the most important and certainly the most controversial labor leader.

Terry O’Sullivan: His innovative reign at the Laborers’ International Union of North America has led to rising membership, rank-and-file engagement and renewed respect for LIUNA within the labor movement.

Harold Schaitberger: The head of the International Association of Fire Fighters has masterminded some striking political successes. A former rank-and-file firefighter in Virginia, he evokes fierce loyalty from the members of his disciplined and homogeneous union.

Among others with skills or ideas to share or potential to harness are Leo Gerard of the steelworkers; Randi Weingarten, teachers; Gerald McEntee, government employees; Cecil Roberts, miners; Gregory Junemann, engineers; Tom Buffenbarger, machinists; Ed Hill and Liz Shuler, electricians; John Flynn, bricklayers; Joe Hunt, ironworkers; and Karen Nussbaum, Working America.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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