- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In April 1991, miners topped the news. One-third of the 1.2 million Soviet coal miners were on strike, hoping to topple communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In the other superpower, miners were reeling from government findings that half of America’s coal-mining companies had cheated on tests designed to ensure that miners breathe clean air.

This was such a hectic time for Rich Trumka, the young president of the United Mine Workers of America, that discussing these and other matters with him found me in his St. Louis hotel room around midnight. He had just addressed 1,000 local labor leaders, and I interviewed him over coffee and a Persian Gulf military MRE (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) of chicken and rice he had been carrying around.

I wasn’t sure why he had the MRE (I later learned he had no room in his schedule for meals, so a buddy had given him some ready-to-eat rations), but I do remember thinking that this was a fellow I’d no more want to face in a debate than in a dark alley.

He was burly and blunt and bright, and it was obvious he would not be pushed around. This straight-talking man had spent 7 1/2 years in the mines of southwestern Pennsylvania sandwiched around law school, had helped lead a risky grass-roots campaign to clean up a miners union run by a murderous autocrat, and eventually was elected the country’s youngest union president at age 33. Young enough that, when I met him in St. Louis in 1991, he was still the youngest.

I mentioned to Mr. Trumka that he was being touted as a possible future AFL-CIO leader - something he didn’t like my saying one bit. “I’m going to tell you something,” he informed me. “I don’t know where that started, where that came from. I know where it didn’t come from. I got the job that I like. I’m going to stay with it.”

Well, now this son and grandson of miners - black lung disease killed his father and a grandfather, which helps explain his unyielding stance on workers’ safety - is president of the AFL-CIO, elected last month to replace the retiring John Sweeney at a time of momentous economic change.

And this much is clear: America’s corporate leaders and business owners are in for an interesting period. They just might want to don their batting helmets and get ready for some high fast ones inside. The ball’s just been handed to someone who’ll brush back his foes - and get right in their faces if they object. This is, after all, a man who took on Pittston and other coal companies with aggressive strikes that saw miners block roads, sparking mass arrests.

More than corporate types will feel the heat. High on Mr. Trumka’s to-do list is to confront politicians who win with labor’s backing, then support free-trade pacts that don’t contain labor or human-rights clauses, or who waffle on the Employee Free Choice Act. Since congressional Democrats gained power largely by running moderate Democrats in red states, a more aggressive labor movement under Mr. Trumka might - counterintuitively - complicate the political calculus for the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Mr. Trumka told me last week that no one will be exempt, including the president. “We’ll be respectful but we’ll hold them accountable,” he said. “We have a single fidelity, and that’s to America’s working people.”

His attention won’t be entirely external. For years, Mr. Trumka has been among a small group of union leaders who every once in a while look in the mirror to find what ails the labor movement, instead of blaming the media, the Republicans, big business or someone else. He has long called for a more active and inclusive labor movement, and one of his themes since taking over has been that labor can’t expect younger workers - who don’t know where the eight-hour workday came from, who change jobs at a dizzying pace and who often don’t regard themselves as workers - to adapt to old-school trade unionism. Rather, Mr. Trumka argues, labor must adapt to their evolving world if it hopes to capture their allegiance.

He also told me that he meant it 18 years ago when he said he had no designs on leading the American labor movement. A few years later, when Mr. Sweeney challenged the incumbent AFL-CIO leadership in 1995 and asked Mr. Trumka to run on the ticket as secretary-treasurer, Mr. Trumka favored change but was reluctant to leave the miners union that had been the focus of his life.

So, he says, he went to the man whose advice always pierced through the confusion when things mattered most - Frank Trumka, a man toughened by 44 years working in the mines.

“I called my dad. He said, ‘It doesn’t seem to me like you have any choice. If you want to change things, then get in the game and change things. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut.’ ”

The path that Mr. Trumka chose that day changed his life; now it will change the labor movement, and perhaps more. Mr. Trumka is not a flawless package. He can be impatient; can draw lines in the sand. But like his approach or not, make no mistake: He will be forceful; he will be loud; he will be visible; he will be in many people’s faces; he will articulate complex ideas in ways that move working people.

And he will make a difference in the economic and political life of this country.

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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