‘The labor movement has lost a legend’: union boss Richard Trumka dies at 72

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<span>Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP</span>
Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

Richard Trumka, the powerful president of the AFL-CIO who rose from the coalmines 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 apologised 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.

Trumka with Barack Obama in 2010.
Trumka with Barack Obama in 2010. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

A burly man with thick eyebrows and a bushy moustache, Trumka was the son and grandson of coalminers. He grew up in the small south-east Pennsylvania town of Nemacolin, where he worked as a coalminer while attending Penn State University.

He was elected in 1982 at age 33 as the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America, pledging that the troubled union “shall rise again”.

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

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 union’s annual convention in 2009.

That year, he was a leading proponent during the health care debate for including a public, government-run insurance option, and 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 in August 2009.

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 Governor Scott Walker’s bill to strip public employee unions of their bargaining power, which drew thousands of protesters to the Capitol in Madison, could renew support for unions after decades of decline.

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

Tributes

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

“Richard Trumka dedicated his life to the labor movement and the right to organise,” 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 senator 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.

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