Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Nation & World

Longtime AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka dies at age 72

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the labor leader’s death from the Senate floor.

WASHINGTON — Richard Trumka, the powerful president of the AFL-CIO who rose from the coal mines of Pennsylvania to preside over one of the largest labor organizations in the world, died Thursday. He was 72.

The federation confirmed Trumka’s death in a statement. He had been AFL-CIO president since 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years. From his perch, he oversaw a federation with more than 12.5 million members and ushered in a more aggressive style of leadership.

“The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today,” the AFL-CIO said. “Rich Trumka devoted his life to working people, from his early days as president of the United Mine Workers of America to his unparalleled leadership as the voice of America’s labor movement.”

Further details of Trumka’s death, including the cause and where he died, were not immediately available.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Trumka’s death from the Senate floor. “The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” he said.

President Joe Biden called Trumka a close friend who was “more than the head of AFL-CIO.” He apologized for showing up late to a meeting with Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander civil rights leaders, saying he had just learned Trumka had died.

A burly man with thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, Trumka was the son and grandson of coal miners. He grew up in the small southwest Pennsylvania town of Nemacolin. He worked as a coal miner while attending Penn State University.

Trumka was tough and combative, a throwback to an old guard of union leaders from the labor movement’s heyday. But he rose in a distinctly different era, as trade union membership declined and labor’s political power dwindled. He often focused on making the case for unions to the white working class who have turned away from Democrats.

In this Sept. 9, 2013, file photo, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks in Los Angeles.  The longtime president of the AFL-CIO labor union has died. News of Richard Trumka’s death was announced Thursday by President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Trumka was 72 and had been AFL-CIO president since 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years.
In this Sept. 9, 2013, file photo, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks in Los Angeles. The longtime president of the AFL-CIO labor union has died. News of Richard Trumka’s death was announced Thursday by President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Trumka was 72 and had been AFL-CIO president since 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years. [ NICK UT | AP ]

He met with then-President Donald Trump but also forcefully criticized him, calling Trump a “fraud” who had “deceived” the working class.

Trump shot back, criticizing Trumka as ineffectual. “No wonder unions are losing so much,” Trump tweeted.

Trumka was also a forceful voice in the labor movement who at times challenged blue-collar workers to confront their own racism. During then-Sen. Barack Obama’s first winning campaign for the White House, Trumka forcefully denounced racism in the union ranks.

“We can’t tap dance around the fact that there’s a lot of white folks out there ... and a lot of them are good union people, they just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a Black man,” he said during an impassioned 2008 speech in which he exhorted them to vote for Obama.

Until his sudden death, he used his power to push for health care legislation, expanded workers rights and infrastructure spending.

Trumka burst into national union politics as a youthful 33-year-old lawyer and former coal miner when he became the United Mine Workers of America’s president in 1982. Pledging the economically troubled union “shall rise again,” Trumka beat sitting president Sam Church by a 2-to-1 margin and would serve in the role until he became the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer in 1995.

In this May 18, 2015, file photo, National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks in Portland, Ore. The longtime president of the AFL-CIO labor union has died. News of Richard Trumka’s death was announced Thursday by President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Trumka was 72 and had been AFL-CIO president since 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years.
In this May 18, 2015, file photo, National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks in Portland, Ore. The longtime president of the AFL-CIO labor union has died. News of Richard Trumka’s death was announced Thursday by President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Trumka was 72 and had been AFL-CIO president since 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years. [ DON RYAN | AP ]

There, he led a successful strike against the Pittston Coal Company, which tried to avoid paying into an industrywide health and pension fund.

“I’d like to retire at this job,” Trumka said in 1987. “If I could write my job description for the rest of my life, this would be it.”

At age 43, Trumka led a nationwide strike against Peabody Coal in 1993. During the walk-off, he stirred controversy.

Asked about the possibility the company would hire permanent replacement workers, Trumka told The Associated Press, “I’m saying if you strike a match and you put your finger on it, you’re likely to get burned.” Trumka insisted he wasn’t threatening violence against the replacements. “Do I want it to happen? Absolutely not. Do I think it can happen? Yes, I think it can happen,” he told the AP.

As AFL-CIO president, he vowed to revive unions’ sagging membership rolls and pledged to make the labor movement appeal to a new generation of workers who perceive unions as “only a grainy, faded picture from another time.”

“We need a unionism that makes sense to the next generation of young women and men who either don’t have the money to go to college or are almost penniless by the time they come out,” Trumka told hundreds of cheering delegates in a speech at the federation’s annual convention in 2009.

That year, he was also a leading proponent during the health care debate for including a public, government-run insurance option, and he threatened Democrats who opposed one.

“We need to be a labor movement that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies and challenges those who, well, can’t seem to decide which side they’re on,” he said.

During the 2011 debate over public employee union rights in GOP-controlled statehouses, Trumka said the angry protests it sparked were overdue.

Trumka said he hoped then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to strip public employee unions of their bargaining power could renew support for unions after decades of decline. The move drew thousands of protesters to the Capitol in Madison.

Whether he meant to or not, Trumka said, Walker started a national debate about collective bargaining “that this country sorely needed to have.”

Eulogies poured in from Trumka’s Democratic allies in Washington.

“Richard Trumka dedicated his life to the labor movement and the right to organize,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “Richard’s leadership transcended a single movement, as he fought with principle and persistence to defend the dignity of every person.”

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he was “heartbroken” to learn of the death of his friend.

“Rich’s story is the American story — he was the son and grandson of Italian and Polish immigrants and began his career mining coal. He never forgot where he came from. He dedicated the rest of his career to fighting for America’s working men and women,” Manchin said in a statement.

By BRIAN SLODYSKO and THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press. Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement