Powerful U.S. Labor Leader Richard Trumka Dies

Aug 5, 2021
Originally published on August 5, 2021 6:22 pm

Updated August 5, 2021 at 5:27 PM ET

Richard Trumka, the longtime head of the powerful AFL-CIO and a close ally of Democratic Party leaders, has died. He was 72.

Speaking before a White House event Thursday, President Biden said that Trumka died of a heart attack while on a camping trip with family.

"He wasn't just a great labor leader, he was a friend," Biden said. "He was someone I could confide in. You knew whatever he said he'd do, he would do."

"The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today," the 12.5 million-member organization said in announcing his passing. "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."

Liz Shuler, the federation's secretary-treasurer, wrote on Twitter that even as the AFL-CIO mourns Trumka's death, "we will stand on his shoulders to continue the fight for workers, and for the fair and just society he believed in so passionately. We will honor his legacy with action."

Trumka had led the AFL-CIO since 2009. He was secretary-treasurer of the organization for more than a decade before then.

"A fierce warrior"

Trumka grew up in a coal mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. His father was a miner, and he worked in the mines as well before college and law school. In 1982, at age 33, he was elected the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America.

Trumka was always easy to spot on a picket line or at a political rally. His burly physique and thick mustache made him stand out.

His death set off a wave of condolences from unions and Democratic leaders.

"He had in his veins, in every atom of his body, the heart, the thoughts, the needs of the working people of America. He was them," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in emotional remarks on the Senate floor.

Schumer added: "The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most."

Trumka's death comes as the pandemic has raised concerns about worker safety and workplace standards, and as Biden and congressional Democrats seek to pass two massive spending plans that would inject funds into many union-heavy sectors.

Biden has long touted his connections to labor groups, and in mid-February, barely a month into his term, he gathered 10 union leaders in the Oval Office for a meeting that lasted two hours. Trumka was among that group.

"This president really does get it," he said after the meeting.

"Are you out of your ever-loving mind?"

During the 2008 election, when Democrat Barack Obama was on the presidential ballot, Trumka started to encounter union members who told him they had reservations about voting for an African American candidate. In response, he began touring union halls and factory floors, confronting the issue.

"Our kids are moving away because there's no future here," Trumka said at a convention for steelworkers. "And here's a man, Barack Obama, who's going to fight for people like us, and you won't vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?"

In the late 1990s, there was a blemish on Trumka's tenure as the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer when he was linked to a campaign fundraising scheme on behalf of a fellow union leader at the Teamsters. He denied any wrongdoing. It did not set a pattern or derail his career.

In recent years, Trumka was a strong critic of former President Donald Trump. He supported Trump's plan to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, but he said Trump's substitute fell far short. It was all talk, he said.

"Here's the problem," he said. "You can't enforce it. There's no way to enforce the agreement, and therefore it becomes useless."

Trumka said having labor at the negotiating table much improved the initial proposal to replace NAFTA, helping to bring Democrats on board.

Trumka backed Biden's infrastructure plan and efforts to deal with climate change. He insisted that workers not be left behind and was adamant that confronting climate change could also benefit workers.

"People want to make everybody believe it's an either/or," Trumka said earlier this year, "that you have to [fix] climate change and [have] no jobs, or you can have good jobs and no climate change [solution]. That's just not true. There's a path to navigate where you can fix climate change and get good jobs."

Trumka's current term as AFL-CIO president was set to expire this year. His retirement was widely expected, but he had not announced his plans.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A leading figure in the U.S. labor movement has died - Richard Trumka, longtime president of the AFL-CIO. He was 72 years old. He died of a heart attack. NPR's Don Gonyea has more on Trumka's life and legacy.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Richard Trumka was always easy to spot on the picket line. His burly physique and his thick, black mustache always made him stand out. There, he would work the crowd, making the case for union members. Those traits were on display in this clip from C-SPAN back in 1991. Trumka was at the time president of the United Mine Workers Union and was arguing for greater safety standards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD TRUMKA: We see in small mines they get away with a whole lot more. For instance, they have 15% of the workforce in the country, but they're responsible for 60% of the fatalities in the industry.

GONYEA: He also worked hard on behalf of candidates who supported union causes. Overwhelmingly, that meant Democrats. And on the U.S. Senate floor today, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer paid emotional tribute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: He had in his veins, in every atom of his body the heart, the thoughts, the needs of the working people of America. He was them.

GONYEA: Richard Trumka grew up in the coal mining town of Nemacolin, Pa. His father was a miner. He worked in the mines as well before college and law school. He started work as a staffer at the mine workers union and, at age 33, became its president. That led to a position as secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO. During the 2008 election, when Barack Obama was on the ballot, Trumka started to encounter union members who told him they had reservations about voting for an African American. In response, he began touring union halls and giving speeches confronting the issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMKA: Our kids are moving away because there's no future here. And here is a man, Barack Obama, who's going to fight for people like us. And you want to tell me that you won't vote for him because of the color of his skin. Are you out of your ever-loving mind?

GONYEA: In the late 1990s, there was a blemish on Trumka's tenure as then-secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO. It involved improper campaign fundraising on behalf of a fellow union leader at the Teamsters. It did not set a pattern or derail his career. Trumka was a strong critic of President Trump. He supported Trump's plans to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement but said Trump's substitute fell far short. It was all talk, he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMKA: But here's the problem. You can't enforce it. There's no way to enforce the agreement, and therefore, it becomes useless.

GONYEA: He campaigned for Joe Biden's election. The two men have known one another for decades. President Biden referenced that in an Oval Office meeting with labor leaders in February.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Every once in a while as president, you get to invite close friends into the Oval.

GONYEA: Trumka supported Biden's infrastructure plan and efforts to deal with climate change, but he insisted workers not be left behind and was adamant that confronting climate change could benefit workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMKA: People want to make everybody believe it's an either-or. That's just not true. There's a path to navigate where you can fix climate change and get good jobs.

GONYEA: Richard Trumka's current term as AFL-CIO president was set to expire later this year. His retirement was widely expected, but he had not announced his plans. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.