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AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka Dies of Heart Attack at 72

August 6, 2021 by Dan McCue
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka listens to a speaker at the National Press Club in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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.

In a note to staff, Liz Shuler, secretary treasurer for the 12.5 million-member labor union, said Trumka “was doing what he loved, spending time, celebrating his grandson’s birthday” when he suffered an apparent heart attack.

“We are heartbroken,” wrote Shuler, who under the group’s constitution will perform the duties of president until the AFL-CIO’s executive council elects a successor to Trumka.

After learning of the labor leader’s death, President Joe Biden called Trumka a close friend. 

“He was someone I could confide in. And you knew whatever he said he’d do, he would do it,” Biden said.

“It was simple,” he said, as he continued to talk about their relationship. “He was always there.”

Biden, whose 2020 run for the White House was endorsed by the AFL-CIO, went on to speak of Trumka’s work as a union leader.

“He was an American worker. Always fighting for working people, protecting their wages, their safety, their pensions, and their ability to build a middle-class life,” Biden said.

“I’ve also believed that the middle class built America, but I know who built the middle class: unions. Unions built the middle class. There is no doubt that Rich Trumka helped build unions all across this country,” he said.

A large man whose round face was defined by thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, Trumka grew up 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.

He burst onto the national union scene when, at 33, he became the United Mine Workers of America’s president in 1982. 

There, he led a successful strike against the Pittston Coal Company, which tried to avoid paying into an industry-wide 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.”

Trumka led a nationwide strike against Peabody Coal in 1993.

As AFL-CIO president, a position he was elected to in 1995, he vowed to revive unions’ sagging membership rolls and pledged to make the labor movement appeal to a new generation of workers. 

“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 state houses, Trumka said the angry protests it sparked were overdue.

Though he could be tough and combative in arguing for his members, Trumka was also known for his capacity for warmth and easy fellowship, and for engaging total strangers in conversation.

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

“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.”

The last several months appeared to be good one’s for the labor leader who had a contentious relationship with the last administration.

After meeting with former President Donald Trump to discuss trade and health care issues, Trumka called the then-president a “fraud” who had deceived the working class.

Trump hit back by dismissing the union leader as weak.

“No wonder unions are losing so much,” Trump tweeted in 2019.

Despite their personal animosity, Trumka was instrumental in persuading several skeptical Democratic House members, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to pass Trump’s revised version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the USMCA.

Labor unions had long criticized NAFTA, claiming it sent tens of thousands of U.S. union manufacturing jobs over the border to Mexico, where wages are lower and labor unions represent industries, and not the workers.

Trumka later said that while USMCA was far from perfect, it was a large step toward undoing the harm caused by NAFTA. USMCA passed the House in December 2019, with 41 Democrats voting against it.

On Thursday, warm remembrances poured in from Trumka’s Democratic allies.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., choked back tears as he spoke on the Senate floor about his longtime friend.

“I rise today with some sad, horrible news about the passing of a great friend, Rich Trumka, who left us this morning,” Schumer said before pausing to compose himself.

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

Vice President Kamala Harris recalled how as president of the AFL-CIO, Trumka “lived and breathed solidarity.”

“Never afraid of a fight, Rich put the ‘strong’ in ‘union strong,’” she said. “As a young boy, Rich saw firsthand the struggles his father and grandfather faced as they participated in mine workers’ strikes and negotiated for fairer pay and better working conditions. 

“When he first told his grandfather that he’d like to become an attorney to stand up for workers’ rights, his grandfather replied, ‘If you want to help workers, you first need to help people,’” Harris continued. “Rich was dedicated to helping people. He lived his beliefs. That work has dignity. That workers should be respected and have a voice. That justice and equality are hallmarks of a strong nation.”

Pelosi said the Congress and the country were “shocked and heartbroken by the passing of an unsurpassed titan of labor.”

“Personally and officially, I am greatly saddened by his passing, which is a great loss for the men and women of labor, and indeed, for all hard-working Americans,” she said. “Richard’s leadership transcended a single movement, as he fought with principle and persistence to defend the dignity of every person – whether speaking out against apartheid and discrimination abroad or fighting bigotry and racism here at home. 

“His courage in speaking truth to power made a difference for millions and made him a cherished ally in our mission to advance the health, financial security and well-being of working families,” Pelosi added.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., agreed, observing that “few have had as great and as positive an impact on the lives of working Americans over the past four decades as he did, and many of the workers’ rights victories achieved during that time will forever bear his imprint.”

“Not only did he champion access to affordable health care, child care, and retirement savings for American workers, Richard also stood up and spoke out for policies that would improve the lives of millions of working people at home and abroad,” Hoyer said. “Under his direction, the AFL-CIO continued to play a leading role in our national dialogue on core issues central to the ability of our workers and their families to make it in America.” 

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