Over the past week, a leadership dispute atop the AFL-CIO—America’s biggest coalition of labor unions—has spilled out into the open, exposing bitter divisions. Now, former AFL-CIO officials have decided to go public with serious criticisms of the reign of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.
In general, organized labor, which faces constant outside political attack as a matter of course, is reluctant to air its grievances widely. But Trumka, who has been the president of the 12.5 million-member federation of more than 50 unions since 2009, has inspired so much loathing among current and former AFL-CIO employees that it was only a matter of time before it came out. The precipitating event for the outpouring of criticism was Trumka’s recent attempt to unilaterally suspend his executive vice president, Tefere Gebre, over a six-month-old receipt for $117 from a Miami strip club that Gebre mistakenly filed for reimbursement, and then withdrew. Gebre’s suspension was lifted this week; but many insiders saw the episode as an attempt by Trumka to neutralize an opponent in the leadership suite, rather than a legitimate disciplinary action. Amid our reporting on the Gebre incident and the bile that it raised, a number of former AFL-CIO officials have told us that Richard Trumka is a poor leader, and that his tenure atop the federation has inspired a wave of ill will inside the labor movement.
Stewart Acuff was the AFL-CIO’s national organizing director from 2001-2010. He says flat-out that Trumka never supported union organizing—a necessity in a nation where, after a half-century of steady decline, barely one in ten workers are now union members. “He just showed no interest in organizing,” Acuff says. As soon as Trumka assumed control, he says, he let the federation’s aggressive campaign to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a long-wished-for labor law reform that would have made it much easier for working people to unionize, wither away. Acuff characterizes Trumka as a “jealous and controlling” leader, and says he was effectively pushed out of the federation under him.
Even more concerning to Acuff is what he sees as Trumka’s failure to effectively confront the Trump administration. “America is struggling with a fascist right now,” he says. “The labor movement under the AFL-CIO has been eerily quiet, when it should be leading the effort against Trump.” Trumka, he says, is too eager to make deals with a racist and fascist White House. “He wants to make nice with Trump.”
Acuff’s concerns are echoed by David Eckstein, another former organizing official at the AFL-CIO. Eckstein, the former deputy director and field manager of the organizing department, worked at the federation from 1999 until 2014. When Trumka started, “I had high hopes,” he says. “But it didn’t take long for any of us to see what was happening.”
Eckstein says that Trumka is an “arrogant” boss who showed a lack of interest in new organizing—“The overall AFL-CIO wasn’t organizing anything”—and whose tenure quickly had a detrimental effect on the federation’s staff, and on women in particular. He says that many women left the AFL-CIO in the ensuing years, tired of being “browbeaten,” passed over for promotions, and treated with disrespect. “They never tried to make it family-friendly for women with children to be field organizers,” he says, pushing organizing staff with a strenuous schedule that demanded two weeks of travel followed by just three days at home. “They felt beat down.”
Over time, Eckstein says, the AFL-CIO has lost diversity in its staff, even as Trumka has surrounded himself with a group of close advisers who are mostly older men. “Why wouldn’t you as a union leader find some young, aggressive people and put them in these positions?” Eckstein asks. “Why would you get these old guys?” The organization’s overall failure to present a diverse face to the country has been pointed out both internally and externally as a stumbling block for the ongoing attempt to broaden the appeal of unions across America. The AFL-CIO’s executive council (which is elected, not appointed by Trumka) “looks like the front porch of an all-white-male nursing home,” Eckstein says. Currently, more than 80% of executive council members are men.
Ana Avendaño, the former assistant general counsel and assistant to the president for immigration at the AFL-CIO, says that the insularity of Trumka and his closest aides has made the situation worse in recent years. She recalls the hope she felt at the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention, which was marked by a conscious decision to prominently feature what she called “a vision of a broad and inclusive labor movement that was going to fight to make sure all workers had a voice... not just the white working class.” That was the convention at which Tefere Gebre, an immigrant from Ethiopia, was elected to his leadership position in the federation. Avendaño characterizes the ascent of Gebre—the only person of color among the AFL-CIO’s three top executives—as the product of a years-long push to diversify the federation’s ranks and to broaden its public focus. “It was a sign at the leadership level that there was a recognition that people of color were important,” she says.
Things took a turn for the worse, both inside and outside the federation, when Donald Trump became president. “The political winds clearly shifted in 2016,” Avendaño says, causing Trumka to move towards “a completely different vision of the labor movement... the notion that the membership of the AFL-CIO is the white working class.” She calls this shift in focus “offensive,” and says that it has demoralized people of color working at the AFL-CIO. In the Trump era, according to Avendaño, there has been “no visible commitment to immigrant worker rights, other than speeches.”
Neither the AFL-CIO nor Tefere Gebre have commented publicly on last week’s expense account dispute that sparked Trumka’s suspension of Gebre. But many inside the labor movement have questioned whether the strip club receipt that Gebre says he submitted in error is being used as a convenient pretext for Trumka to push out a man who has become a political stumbling block. “Why in hell,” asks Stewart Acuff, “would any trade unionist try to destroy a man over $117?”
Multiple current and former AFL-CIO employees say that Trumka’s management flaws and perceived insularity have been exacerbated by the growing influence of his closest assistant, Paul Lemmon, who became chief of staff in 2017 after an internal power struggle. David Eckstein describes Lemmon’s approach to staff management as “The Walmart style of churn ‘em and burn ‘em.” Trumka and Lemmon—who are both white male Pennsylvania natives who came up with the United Mine Workers—seemed to value political donations and lobbying over new organizing. Unlike organizing, Eckstein says, “Politics is easy. You just throw money at it and hope something sticks.”
Asked if the AFL-CIO or Trumka wanted to comment on the broad criticisms raised in this story, AFL-CIO communications director Josh Goldstein replied via email, “No.”
A dark irony of the Richard Trumka era is the fact that the AFL-CIO’s relationship with its own unionized employees has become incredibly bitter. “I have never in my life seen union staff so upset with their leadership and management as they are now,” David Eckstein says. Those staff unions have publicly charged Trumka with hypocrisy, saying that the AFL-CIO treats its own staff in ways that it objects to in other union fights across the country.
Dan Gabor, the unit chair for the AFL-CIO’s staff union with the News Guild, puts a finer point on it. Trumka “wastes union dollars to build loyalty instead of building unions,” he says. “We could be doing so much more in terms of organizing. But we don’t because it would upset his power.”
My colleagues and I are members of the Writers Guild of America, East, which is a member of the AFL-CIO.