Longtime AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka remembered by Chicago-based union leader as ‘blue collar guy’ with gift for energizing union members

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In this April 4, 2017 file photo, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka listens at the National Press Club in Washington.
In this April 4, 2017 file photo, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka listens at the National Press Club in Washington. | AP

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.

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.”

Further details of Trumka’s death, including the cause and where he died, were not immediately available.

Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said Trumka was “a blue collar guy” with a gift for energizing union members. For those in corporate suites or political office, that gift would translate into an ability to bluntly speak truth to power, Reiter said.

Reiter recalled taking Trumka to work sites and phone banks during the 2010 election season. “He had no problem communicating with people,” Reiter said, including asking them about their favorite pizza joints and using Reiter’s pick, Aurelio’s, to start a debate. “I was happy to be the object of his joke,” Reiter said,

He said Trumka worked closely with the CFL, which covers about 300 labor groups and is an investor in the Chicago Sun-Times. The efforts include getting unions to collaborate on organizing across more workplaces. “Rich knew we were a great union town. He loved coming here and being part of the culture,” Reiter said.

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 apologized 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.

A burly man with thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, Trumka was the son and grandson of coal miners. He grew up in the small southeast Pennsylvania town of Nemacolin, where he worked as a coal miner 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 then-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.

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 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 also a leading proponent during the 2009 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 Gov. 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.”

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

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

___

Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.

Contributing: David Roeder, Sun-Times business and labor reporter

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August 5, 2021 at 01:57PM

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