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Longtime AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka dies: ‘He’s always stood up for labor’

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at an event at the National Press Club in Washington in 2017.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a deeply influential voice in Washington 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.

News of his death was announced by President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and confirmed by the labor group. Trumka had been AFL-CIO president since 2009 after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years.

“The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.

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 Thursday, saying he had just learned Trumka had died.

The New York Times reported that Trumka died of a heart attack. Further details of his death were not immediately available.

In a statement, the AFL-CIO said the nation had lost “a legend.”

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“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,” said Tim Schlittner, communications director of the AFL-CIO. “He was a relentless champion of workers’ rights, workplace safety, worker-centered trade, democracy and so much more.”

Trumka oversaw a labor organization with more than 12.5 million members, according to the AFL-CIO’s website.

Eulogies quickly poured out from Democrats in Congress.

“Richard Trumka dedicated his life to the labor movement and the right to organize,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) 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.

The California Labor Federation described Trumka’s death as “an incalculable loss to the labor movement.”

“From his early days in the coal mines of southwest Pennsylvania, to the power corridors of Washington, D.C., Trumka dedicated every ounce of his being to defending and advancing the rights of workers,” said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the federation. “This loss is felt by every single working person Rich devoted his life to protecting.”

Tony Brnusak, a 66-year-old veteran coal miner in the western Pennsylvania coal region where Trumka was born and raised, served on the United Mine Workers of America International executive board when Trumka was first elected president of the union in 1982, becoming at 33 the youngest person to hold that post.

“He started the strike fund, which is in existence today, and our brothers and sisters down in Alabama are benefiting from that right now,” Brnusak said, referring to the five-month-long strike at two coal mines in Brookwood, Ala.

“It’s going to be hard shoes to fill,” Brnusak said. “He’s always stood up for labor. And he’s good for labor, no matter who it is, whether it’s mine workers, steel workers or electrical workers, whoever.”

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’s political power dwindled. He often focused on making the case for unions to the white working class who had turned away from Democrats.

He met with then-President 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.

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 winning 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. There’s “only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama. And that’s because he’s not white.”

Until his death, he used his power to push for healthcare legislation, expanded workers’ rights and infrastructure spending.

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 ratio and would serve in the role until he became the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer in 1995.

There, he led a successful strike against Pittston Coal Co., 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 said, “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.”

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 perceived 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 healthcare 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 Republican-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, Trumka said, Walker started a national debate about collective bargaining “that this country sorely needed to have.”

Times staff writer Don Lee contributed to this report.


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