The future of the labor movement may very well rest in the hands of a man who was sitting over a paper plate piled with spaghetti, amusing his audience by twirling a napkin in his ear, then hamming it up with a wink and a goofy grin that would make any teenager cringe.
He'd been working for 12 hours already, but AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had every reason to be giddy. Ohioans had just voted down a law that restricted collective bargaining for public workers, and the American labor movement was savoring a rare victory.
"When our members are motivated, when they're united, no one can turn them around," Trumka shouted later that night to the raucous crowd that gathered outside the firefighters union hall where Trumka had wolfed down his spaghetti.
Union membership has been shrinking, down from 20 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1983 to less than 12 percent today. Union leaders are trying to hang on to one of their last remaining strongholds: government. Strapped for cash, many states are looking to cut costs by ending collective-bargaining agreements.
To counter this -- and a 2011 Pew poll that showed just 45 percent of Americans viewed unions favorably -- Trumka is going on the offensive, trying to harness frustration with Wall Street and concerns about income inequality to build broader support for labor.
If he succeeds, he will help pro-union Democrats in the Nov. 6 elections and, perhaps, begin to reverse organized labor's long decline as a political force.
Trumka has "an impossible task," said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at University of California, Santa Barbara. "There's no way in which one leader, no matter how effective, can by themselves alter the structure in which they find themselves. The standard operating procedure of all businesses is to basically do whatever is necessary to avoid unionization."
But Trumka, 62, says the stagnant economy presents an opportunity for change.
"We've been trying to have a debate on inequality for a couple of decades now, and we're finally able to have that debate because it's gotten so bad," he said. "Now it's up to us to change this moment into a movement."
United Mine Workers membership fell to 84,000 in 1995, the year Trumka left as head of the UMW to become secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, from 153,000 in 1985. It's now at 57,000.
Trumka had tried to reverse the membership decline, even though his tactics put off some union leaders, said Richard Hurd, a professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
"He was this very feisty, good-looking young labor leader who really could stir things up. Most union presidents were in their 60s at the time," Hurd said. Trumka is trying to shake up the union's status quo. Since he became the AFL-CIO's president in 2009 after serving 14 years as second in command, he has recruited diverse leadership: The two officers just below him in the AFL-CIO are women; one is African-American.
Last year, Trumka threw the federation's support behind Occupy Wall Street, joining in its cries against income inequality perpetuated by the financial system.
Hurd, the Cornell professor, said that Trumka is an evangelist, while many past AFL-CIO leaders were bureaucrats.
"If he had been president of the AFL-CIO 30 years ago," Hurd said, "who knows what would have happened."