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.”
President Joe Biden eulogized Trumka from the White House and said the labor leader had died of a heart attack while on a camping trip with his son and grandkids. He said he spoke with Trumka’s widow and son earlier in the day.
“He wasn’t just a great labor leader. He was a friend,” Biden told reporters Thursday. “He was someone I could confide in, and you knew, whatever he said he would do, he would do.”
A burly man with thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, Trumka was the son and grandson of coal miners. He was born in 1949 in the small southwest Pennsylvania town of Nemacolin and worked for seven years in the mines before earning an accounting degree from Penn State and then a law degree from Villanova 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 union membership declined and labor struggled to retain political power. He often focused on making the case for unions to the white, blue-collar workers who had turned away from Democrats – and speaking bluntly to them.
Trumka met with President Donald Trump on trade and health care issues, but their relationship remained contentious. He called Trump a “fraud” who had deceived the working class. Trump criticized Trumka as ineffectual. “No wonder unions are losing so much,” Trump tweeted in 2019.
At times, Trumka challenged blue-collar workers to confront their own prejudices, including a forceful denunciation of racism in the union ranks during Barack Obama’s first campaign for the White House.
“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.
Until his death, he used his power to push for health care legislation, expanded workers rights and infrastructure spending.
Trumka was focused on the future, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said, in the form of the proposed $1 trillion infrastructure bill that he believed would propel organized labor forward.
“He saw that if we were using the breadth and power of the labor movement and training it on a single goal that no one could stop us,” Shuler said.
Larry Cohen, a longtime labor activist and former president of the Communications Workers of America, said Trumka’s death was a “devastating” loss for labor, in part because of his long-standing relationship with Biden.
“His ability to talk to the president of the United States will be very hard to replace. It’s a long history, based on personal trust. It’s remarkable,” said Cohen, who had known Trumka since the early 1980s.
Trumka burst into national union politics as a youthful 33-year-old lawyer 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.
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 said.
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.”
Remembrances poured in Thursday from Trumka’s Democratic allies in Washington.
“The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in announcing Trumka’s death from the Senate floor.
“Richard Trumka dedicated his life to the labor movement and the right to organize,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, perhaps Trumka’s closest ally during Obama’s presidency, remembered Trumka as the “son and grandson of a miner,” who brought that family history to the halls of power in Washington.
“You know, Rich had a view of the White House from his office,” Perez said, recalling that Trumka displayed one of father’s mining helmets in his office. “His father and grandfather never could have imagined their son and grandson ascending to such a high level. But what they’d be even more proud of is that he didn’t allow it to go to his head. He never forgot his roots.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.