On Thursday, Oct. 24, AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka delivered the 27th Annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture, linking the history and future of labor rights and reminding the audience of Rauh’s role in paving the way for union democracy. Trumka’s long-time mentor and friend Joseph “Chip” Yablonski introduced Trumka to the audience, describing the ties between Trumka, Rauh and Yablonski’s father, labor rights activist Joseph “Jock” Yablonski. UDC Law Dean Renée McDonald Hutchins provided opening and closing remarks.
Hutchins thanked the large crowd in the Moot Courtroom before providing a brief overview of the Rauh Lecture’s impact on the UDC Law community. In the audience were UDC Law faculty and students, University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Chief Academic Officer Lawrence Potter, deans and faculty from across UDC, members of the DC School of Law Foundation Board, the leadership of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and guests from the community. Hutchins acknowledged the guests before praising the students, calling them “my guiding star in terms of my leadership.” She then asked for a moment to recognize the passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings and a beloved member of the UDC Law community, Professor Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke.
Remembering Joe Rauh
In his introduction, Yablonski tied Trumka to his father and to Rauh, calling the latter “the greatest mentor of young lawyers – at least young liberal lawyers – in Washington in my lifetime.” Rauh represented Yablonski’s father when he challenged W.A. “Tony” Boyle for the presidency of United Mine Workers (UMWA) in 1969. Despite losing the election, the elder Yablonski and Joe Rauh fought for union democracy until Jock, his wife and his daughter were murdered on New Year’s Eve in 1969. Yablonski praised Rauh’s impact on the investigation and acknowledged his role in helping the family weather the tragedy. Rauh was instrumental in urging the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate the murders, for which Boyle ultimately served time several years later. “That night [of the murders] is sort of indelible to me in terms of Joe’s humanity and his strategic vision,” Yablonski told the crowd.
Rauh was also influential in reforms that led UMWA to adopt, according to Yablonski, “the most democratic union constitution in the United States, probably the world.” It was around then, as well, that Yablonski and Trumka’s paths crossed. Yablonski hired Trumka – who had been studying in the mines by the light of his helmet lamp through Penn State and Villanova Law – to what he called “probably the most ambitious and bright group of lawyers ever assembled for a labor union.”
Making the ultimate sacrifice for union members
After working for UMWA for a time, Trumka chose to fight the union dysfunction he had observed, first returning to the mines to reach the required number of service years to run for international union office. “You can have all kinds of measures about what a union leader ought to be,” Yablonski remarked, “but somebody that gives up writing briefs and arguing motions in an air-conditioned environment to go to work underground is somebody that is making the ultimate sacrifice for his union members.”
Yablonski concluded his introduction with a summary of Trumka’s leadership before acknowledging that “Joe Rauh would be very, very pleased at our speaker tonight,” calling him “the heir of Joe Rauh’s legacy.”
Creating value out of a hole in the ground
Trumka’s message centered on the importance of unions for today’s worker, connecting the history of union democracy to current issues of labor and democracy. Forming the basis of his career philosophy, Trumka noted that, “if you want to help workers, you first need to know and help people.” Trumka got to know those people and workers by going into the mines, and he took the lessons he learned with him throughout his career. “The education I got in the mines far exceeds anything I got at Penn State or Villanova,” Trumka said. “It’s a job that teaches you the nature of hard work, creating value out of a hole in the ground.”
While Trumka was working and studying in Pennsylvania, the United States faced a number of key moments in its history, chief among them the fight for civil rights. As the public sector grew, Trumka explained, so did the demand for better working conditions. “People were striking to be recognized and have the dignity of a human being,” he explained, as he recounted the events of the 1969 Black Lung Strike in West Virginia and the Memphis Sanitation Strike where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Returning to his own experience, Trumka detailed the dysfunction he observed in the unions. Even as the governor of West Virginia was signing the first piece of legislation to recognize black lung as an occupational hazard, mine workers were fighting for basic rights in the Boyle-led UMWA. Trumka described the difficulty workers faced in understanding their rights; it was not possible for workers to receive copies of union contracts or constitutions, for instance. “If you tried to file a grievance,” Trumka said, “they’d tell you that, ‘we’ll tell you when you have a grievance.’”
Your fight is my fight and my fight is your fight
Trumka then highlighted Rauh and Jock Yablonski’s attempts at battling labor union corruption in the late 1960s. Jock, Trumka noted, “was a symbol of everything we’d been fighting for – a union that has your back, true solidarity – where your fight is my fight and my fight is your fight. And thanks to this evening’s namesake, that all became clear again to us.”
After Jock’s death, Rauh continued to fight for union democracy and did so with more support from mineworkers, many of whom rallied behind the late Yablonski’s cause. About Rauh, Trumka added, “he was your guy. When Joe Rauh was your lawyer, he was your lawyer.” Trumka cited Yablonski and Rauh’s efforts as the catalyst for union momentum in the 1970s and its effect on his own career. Trumka became President of United Mine Workers in 1982, and he fondly recalled being sworn in by his father – “who had given his life to his union” and later died of black lung, “like every man in my family in that generation.”
Connecting those earlier efforts for union democracy to similar issues workers face today, Trumka said that, just as members nearly fifty years ago “stopped looking at their shoes,” today’s workers are also “looking our employers squarely in the eye and delivering a clear message: ‘Enough. Enough.’” He credited Jock Yablonski and Joseph Rauh for making that possible both then and now.
It is the “systems and institutions we’re supposed to rely on” that stand in the way of progress for workers today, he continued. Trumka argued those systems are rigged in favor of corporations and politicians and that democracy itself is in jeopardy. He cited a Harvard Law study that found only 30 percent of Millennials believe it is essential to live in a democracy and 25 percent even said democracy is a bad thing. Trumka contended this is a result of an economy and political system that does not work for them; “young people and workers in general are becoming more disillusioned as they bear the brunt of a broken economy.” Citing flat wages, subpar healthcare and disappearing pensions, Trumka said the threats to union democracy and democracy in general are “startling and heartbreaking” given the efforts of previous generations.
Times are tough, but so are working people
Despite sounding a mild alarm, Trumka offered hope to the audience, saying he has “never been more optimistic” in light of current collective actions – striking teachers in Chicago and auto workers in Michigan, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo – “where people are saying, ‘the only way we’re going to get this done is if we stand together, if we lock arms with the people standing next to us.” He stressed the impact of “ordinary people” effecting “extraordinary” change.
Reminding us that the role of unions is to provide better conditions for working people, Trumka urged the audience to turn to one another and use the momentum of current social action to keep fighting for “a voice and democracy on the job.” He added, “times are tough, but so are working people. We never give up without a fight.”
He closed his talk with advice for the law students in the room. Soon, he told them, “they will send you off into a complicated world with an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility to make a difference.” Then he asked them to consider how they would meet that challenge, urging them to work to advance fairness and freedom, to fight inequality. “Fifty years after Jock died and Joe helped all of us move on,” Trumka said in closing, “you can help strengthen democracy for generations to come. You can. And I truly hope that you will be lawyers for democracy and make Joe Rauh proud of you because he fought every day for that – and for the little guy.”
Trumka then took questions from the audience that built on some of the topics he had discussed and highlighted additional labor concerns like the growing roles of artificial intelligence and automation, the impact of social media on labor organizing and the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement.