Remembering Rich Trumka
Tom Croft, Heartland Capital Strategies
As Steve Sleigh, co-chair of the Heartland Governing Board put it, the world lost an important voice on August 5 with the untimely passing of Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. Rich, as we knew him, spoke with passion and authority on behalf of all workers, not just union members in the AFL-CIO, which he led since 2009. One of Rich’s many enduring legacies was his commitment to developing labor’s capital strategies -- finding ways to put labor’s capital to work.
While president of the UMW, Rich joined with Leo Gerard, then Steelworkers Secretary-Treasurer, in 1995 to explore and promote capital strategies to rebuild America. They brought together a diverse network of unions, labor pension funds, investment consultants, and private asset managers who committed to saving/creating good jobs. Together, with my help (the humble director of the SVA, a small non-profit in Pittsburgh), Leo and Rich co-founded the Heartland Project.
Rich and Leo, having both been raised in coal-mining, labor communities, found great common ground in the issues, and together they began to fashion a more aggressive and long-range strategy for organized labor. Rich had deep roots in Western Pennsylvania’s UMW local unions, and Leo started in the mines at an early age in Sudbury, Ontario with the USW-merged International Mine Mill and Smelter Workers' Union.
Leo brought together a group he called the ‘grievance committee’ and the grievance was simple: financial markets were destroying jobs through the mis-investment of workers’ own pension funds, and it had to stop. The construct of the ‘grievance committee’ allowed each participant to leave their official capacity at the door, and represent only themselves while participating in this initiative. This was back in the day when the Gingrich crowd was attacking the Clinton-Reich Labor Department for establishing the economically-targeted investment (ETI) rule, and pension trustees feared personal lawsuits if they made an investment (even a profitable one) that actually helped working people.
Rich’s ascendancy in the labor federation’s leadership was in no small part due to the industrial union coalition (including USW) that backed him. During the fall of 1995, the AFL-CIO was itself undergoing a major change in direction. John Sweeney of SEIU and Rich challenged the ‘official’ slate and won the Presidency and Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Among several key items in their “New Voice” leadership, they identified capital strategies as an area of future growth for the trade union movement.
Rich set the stage for the emergence of a new international labor-capital movement with a riveting call-to-arms during his 1996 Heartland Forum Keynote address. “There is no more important challenge for the labor movement today than to stop the use of our own money from cutting our own throats”.
This shift in the labor community to become stronger stewards of its retirement assets came at a critical time, within the gravitational pull of the progressive new role of the labor movement in the U.S. Rich and Leo showed that the worker-owners of the world’s pension funds, and their allies, have an unprecedented potential role to play in the economic stabilization and sustainability of the world’s economy, thereby promoting the profile of labor and the democratization of capital on a scale here-to-for unimaginable. With support and engagement from the USW and the Federation, the Heartland Project gained significant momentum and political weight from which to draw together a larger coalition of interests.
Rich went on to pen the Foreward for my co-authored book, The Responsible Investor Handbook (Routledge Publishing: 2016). He said:
“The stewards of workers’ capital have been leading the way by using our rights as owners to encourage companies to address Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues. We have also pioneered investments that create good jobs by providing patient capital. But we cannot rest on our past accomplishments. We need to push forward to address new investment challenges to our pension plans and the economy as a whole.
“We must reinvest in America’s crumbling infrastructure to preserve our economic competitiveness. We need to encourage corporations to allocate capital for new factories, research and development, and workforce training. We should reinvest in our cities, making our housing more affordable and energy efficient for working people. And we must overcome the environmental threat of climate change, create high-wage jobs along the way, while making sure that we don’t leave communities behind.
“Together, workers’ capital can be invested for a sustainable future.”
Thank you, Rich, for all you have done for working families, our communities, and America. We will miss you.
Heartland Capital Strategies (HCS)
(with thanks and a nod to Tessa Hebb)