PITTSBURGH — Richard Trumka needed to come home.
Walking into the union hall at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers building along the Monongahela River, the AFL-CIO president shed the twisted expression on his face as he shook hands with his rank-and-file organizers. With the older union hands, there were no handshakes but instead familiar hugs.
Trumka, the son and son-in-law of coal miners, grew up in this region, working the coal mines himself, in the hollers of the mountains before heading off to college.
He rose up the ranks of the United Mine Workers of America union during the bloody strikes in the 1980s and eventually became the head of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor union.
His passionate speech on race and labor in support of Barack Obama in 2008 is legend around these parts.
Trumka seems to recognize the men and women in the room here are the men and women who were ignored in the last presidential election. Hillary Clinton ignored them, not because she didn't want their vote but because she took it for granted. Clinton's campaign even persuaded union leadership that microtargeting voters on gender issues was more important than peer-to-peer communication among union families on the issues of jobs and opportunities.
Clearly, it wasn't. The blue wall of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin crumbled in 2016. Exit polls showed Clinton did win union households, but her shortfall among these households, compared with Obama's numbers, was her downfall in Michigan, at least.
Democrats had lost sight of what mattered to working people, and they had made the union bosses forget as well.
During the 2016 election, labor leaders got caught in the middle of several transitions, explained Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University: "For years they walked lockstep with the Democratic Party. This made sense, because most Republicans were tone-deaf to the concerns of labor, and the Democratic Party still had enough social conservatives in it to allow union members, many of whom were very socially conservative, to not feel out of place."
As the Democrats rapidly moved to the left on social issues and embraced identity politics, rank-and-file union members began to feel alienated from their own party. Economic interests, including trade, kept many of them in the party, but they were leaving even before Donald Trump.
When Trump went after trade, however, they got the push that they needed to join Trump's party, explained Sracic. "Leadership, however, was busy in Washington D.C. and had longstanding relationships with Democratic politicians," he said. "Hanging out with Republicans seemed unnatural, and in fairness, most of the Republicans in Congress, especially the Senate, wouldn't have much to talk about with someone like Richard Trumka."
In a way, though, the union leaders got co-opted and just went along with the leftward shift on social issues.
And as the Democratic Party became more coastal, its core voters became increasingly internationalist, including on trade.
Obama papered over these differences, running on anti-trade rhetoric to please people like Trumka and then governing as a free trader.
"The rank-and-file union members lost faith in the Democrats, and now leaders like Trumka are in a difficult position," Sracic said.
Trumka kicked off a three-day tour, beginning in Pittsburgh Monday and followed with stops in Youngstown, Akron, Cleveland and Toledo in Ohio, as well as Detroit, in the following days. Why? To reconnect with "the people." He wanted to hear what workers think about the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a trade agreement to replace the hated NAFTA.
"This tour is the people purpose. One it is to inform our members of the state of the negotiations we're at with the trade agreement. And two, it's to hear from them — get some instructions back from them," he said.
Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, said the AFL-CIO affiliate was pleased by Trumka's visit. "It is important that we are heard. And we want everybody to know that the Rust Belt still has a strong voice in organized labor," he said.
Dave Green was at Trumka's roundtable visit in Youngstown. Green is the president of UAW Local 1112 and one of the final seven UAW workers to turn out the lights at the now shuttered General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant. He does not think labor failed the workers in his area in the last election. "I think the Democratic Party failed labor," he said. "They did not talk about jobs, or opportunity, or the dignity of work."
"And that's why Trump won in my hometown, because that's all he wanted to talk about: jobs and opportunity," said Green, who himself did not vote for Trump.
It's unclear who will earn labor's support in 2020, but it's crystal clear to Trumka what union leadership has to do, and he tells me his plan before he approaches the podium: "Listen."
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