New Leader, Same Leadership For AFL-CIO

Experts say the death of Richard Trumka will have little impact on the nation's largest federation of unions

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, Sr. / Getty Images
August 15, 2021

The AFL-CIO has a new leader after the sudden death of longtime president Richard Trumka, but the group's establishment will ensure its close alliance with the Democratic Party continues, according to experts.

Trumka, who passed away in August, was unable to slow the continual decline in union membership across the nation during his more than decade-long reign. The third-generation coal miner from Pennsylvania focused on further aligning the AFL-CIO with the Democratic Party to push through pro-union legislation—spending more than $60 million on lobbying since his election in 2009. Some smaller unions have criticized this approach, preferring to allocate more resources toward grassroots organizing, but experts said the politically driven AFL-CIO approach is unlikely to change under new leadership.

Frank Ricci, a fellow at the Yankee Institute, said the structure of the AFL-CIO is centered on empowering labor leaders rather than labor members. Delegates, not members themselves, cast a vote for president—and many of those delegates are appointed by union executives rather than union members.

"Unfortunately, the delegate system for elections limits the ability for any outside candidate to run on a true reform platform," Ricci told the Washington Free Beacon. "No matter who gets there, I honestly believe it will be 'meet the new boss same as the old boss.'"

Liz Shuler, the secretary-treasurer of the federation, assumed the presidency after the sudden death of Trumka. Experts said Shuler, a close friend of Trumka, is all but guaranteed to be appointed to finish his term, which expires in June 2022, when the union executive council convenes on Aug. 20. Trumka also served as secretary-treasurer before being elected president.

Ricci, who served as the union president for the New Haven Fire Department, expressed concern with the executive council appointing the new AFL-CIO president, as it only represents the largest unions in the federation. Elections under normal circumstances are determined by a proportional number of delegates from each union in the federation.

"The larger the bureaucracy gets, the more it becomes about protecting the bureaucracy and not speaking for the people or their members," Ricci told the Free Beacon.

The AFL-CIO has made passing the PRO Act, which has been touted as the most pro-union legislation since the New Deal, its top priority since Joe Biden took office. The bill would put an end to right-to-work laws, which have been adopted in 27 states to ensure union dues are not required as a term of employment. Other pro-union measures lessen employer influence in union organizing elections, as well as increase penalties for labor law violations. The legislation passed in the House in March and now sits in subcommittee in the Senate.

Ileen DeVault, a professor of labor history at Cornell University, said the legislative progress labor has made, particularly with the infrastructure bill and PRO Act, could embolden union leaders to invest even more heavily in politics. The new AFL-CIO president will take power amid the most crucial political fight for unions in decades. This, she said, leaves little room for debate on the necessity of increased political activity for unions.

"In some ways, I would argue that Biden's election and the passage of key pieces of legislation dampen the debate, as this shows the usefulness of money spent on lobbying," DeVault told the Free Beacon.

A July study found that unions may be hiding additional millions in political spending by misclassifying it on annual spending reports.

There is another potential candidate who could replace Trumka. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has received fawning media coverage for her more progressive approach as a labor leader. The AFL-CIO under Nelson would likely be more radical policy-wise than under Shuler, but not as politically engaged. John P. Beck, an associate professor at Michigan State University specializing in labor relations, said these two candidates have to focus on both organizing and political influence if they want to put an end to the decades-long decline in union membership, which sits at 6 percent in the private sector.

"Organizing and legislative work are not an either/or, but a both/and," Beck told the Free Beacon. "It is a long-standing dictum of the labor movement that what can be won at the bargaining table can be taken away at the ballot box. Labor will continue to look to the halls of Congress and to Biden for progressive labor law reform to make it easier to organize and strengthen labor-leaning appointments to the Labor Board and the courts."

The AFL-CIO did not return a request for comment.