Opinion | The Labor Movement Can’t Rest on Its Laurels

In many ways, A.F.L.-C.I.O. President Richard Trumka, who died of a heart attack on Thursday, was an old-line union leader. His grandfather and father were coal miners. And he, too, worked in the mines before going to law school. He once led one of the nation’s oldest and most tradition-bound unions, the United Mine Workers. He had another old-line attribute — he was a truculent fighter who didn’t give up easily, once leading a ten-month strike by 1,700 miners against Pittston Coal.

Mr. Trumka, a stocky man with a thick mustache who resembled Lech Walesa, brought the old-time religion to unionism. He talked eloquently about unsafe conditions, about miners who died underground or died of black lung. He was a powerful orator who knew how to mobilize workers: During the Pittston strike, he inspired 3,000 miners and their supporters to get arrested doing civil disobedience.

Mr. Trumka died at a hopeful moment for unions. They mobilized their troops to help Joe Biden win in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, helping vault him to the White House. Now they rejoice as Mr. Biden hails unions in speech after speech. Congress is on the cusp of enacting a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan as well as Mr. Biden’s $3.5 trillion American Jobs Plan, and may well follow that up with two additional policies beloved by labor: paid parental and family leave and improved child care.

But Mr. Trumka’s, and organized labor’s, successes can go only so far. Unions don’t have nearly the political or economic clout they had decades ago. Just 10.8 percent of American workers are in unions, half the percentage of the early 1980s and down two-thirds since the 1950s. Most U.S. businesses bitterly oppose unions, far more than companies in other Western nations, as corporate America complains that unionization undercuts profits and management’s flexibility. Mr. Trumka’s high hopes for expanding union membership and reviving the American labor movement, then, hang in doubt.

Under Mr. Trumka’s 12-year run as leader of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s main worker federation, there was more excitement within labor. Not only did huge teachers’ strikes shake up numerous cities and states, but many young workers, especially white-collar ones — graduate students, Google employees, digital-news workers, registered nurses, adjunct professors — increasingly saw unions as a valuable way to improve their lot.

Seeing that workers had less power than in decades past, Mr. Trumka worked hard to forge alliances with African American groups, immigrant groups and environmental groups to achieve their shared progressive goals. In perhaps his most famous speech, he told white union members in 2008 that it would be a huge mistake not to vote for Barack Obama — whom he called a good friend of workers — just because he was Black.

Mr. Trumka also used labor’s growing leverage to get the Trump administration to make the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal more pro-labor and to add teeth to enforce its labor provisions. Mr. Trumka’s victory in that fight showed that trade agreements need not always be corporate-blessed, anti-worker mechanisms.

Some experts say divisions within the house of labor held back Mr. Trumka and the labor movement writ large. For instance, there has been a feud over how vigorously the A.F.L.-C.I.O. should fight for immigrant workers and help them become citizens. Some conservative unions urged the federation to downplay those issues, arguing that it would anger many union members and push them toward Donald Trump, while more progressive unions pressed the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to wholeheartedly back immigrant workers, seeing them as key to the union movement’s future. Mr. Trumka sought awkwardly to satisfy both sides.

Mr. Biden has thrown his weight behind Mr. Trumka’s top priority, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, the most comprehensive pro-union legislation since the New Deal. The House of Representatives has passed this measure, and nearly every Democratic senator backs it.

To Mr. Trumka’s mind, the PRO Act was an essential tool for adding millions of workers to union rolls. It would make it easier for workers to join unions. It would limit management’s ability to propagandize workers and would create hefty fines for when corporations break the law in battling union drives, for instance, by firing outspoken union supporters.

Even though Mr. Trumka managed to get the PRO Act on the runway, ready to take off, it is unlikely to be enacted so long as the filibuster exists. Senate Republicans are implacably opposed to unions getting bigger or stronger, so attracting 10 G.O.P. votes to overcome a filibuster against the PRO Act seems impossible.

Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, has had nothing but lovely things to say about his friend, Mr. Trumka. “He never forgot where he came from,” Mr. Manchin said. “He dedicated the rest of his career to fighting for America’s working men and women.” Yet he won’t budge from his refusal to eliminate the filibuster, a procedural perversity preventing the fulfillment of Mr. Trumka’s legacy.

Failing to pass the PRO Act will make it harder for unions to organize ambitious targets like Amazon and to make major inroads in organizing Big Tech. It’ll also make it harder for essential workers — many of them dismayed with how their employers treated them during the pandemic — to unionize.

Mr. Trumka could certainly be proud that public approval of unions is tied with its highest level over the last 50 years. According to a Gallup poll, nearly 50 percent of nonunion workers told M.I.T. researchers that they would join a union if given the opportunity.

Mr. Trumka’s No. 1 goal — and challenge — was how to get these 60 million workers who want a union into a union, despite intense corporate opposition. The question now becomes whether his successor, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s acting president, Liz Shuler, will have more success in meeting that formidable goal.

Steven Greenhouse, who was the labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times for 19 years, is the author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.”

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