By Don McIntosh
America’s top labor union leader, Richard Trumka, died Aug. 5 of a heart attack at age 72. Trumka was president of the AFL-CIO, the 12.5-million member federation that pools the efforts of 56 affiliated unions.
President Joe Biden called Trumka “a dear friend, a great American, and a good man,” in a statement on his passing.
AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler, the federation’s number two officer, will serve as acting president pending an official appointment by the AFL-CIO executive council of an interim president until the national AFL-CIO convention next year. Shuler, a native Oregonian who got her start at Portland-based IBEW Local 125, becomes the AFL-CIO’s first female president.
Born July 24, 1949, Richard Louis Trumka grew up in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, a small town near Pittsburgh. His father and grandfather worked in the mines, and so did he while he was in college at Penn State, becoming a member of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) 6290. After getting a law degree from Villanova University in Pennsylvania, he worked for the UMWA as a staff attorney from 1974 to 1979. Trumka got involved in a movement to reform the UMWA, and in 1982, at the age of 33, he was elected president of the national union.
As UMWA president, he established a solidarity program with Black mine workers in South Africa, and helped promote a boycott of Shell Oil until the multinational cut business ties to South Africa.
In 1989 and 1990 he helmed one of the most dramatic union showdowns of the era, the strike at Pittston Coal Company. After Pittston canceled the health insurance benefits of 1,500 retired and disabled miners and their widows, miners struck Pittston mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. The strike soon spread, with supporters arriving from around the country. Strikers organized mass pickets, road blockades, and a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience that culminated in a three-day occupation of Pittson’s primary coal processing plant. Pittston settled, and restored miners’ health and retirement benefits.
In 1995, Trumka joined then-SEIU president John Sweeney on a “New Voice” slate running for the leadership of the national AFL-CIO. They beat Thomas Donahue in the first contested convention election in AFL-CIO history, and Trumka served the next 14 years as secretary treasurer — the number two office — until Sweeney retired as AFL-CIO president in 2009. Trumka ran unopposed to succeed Sweeney in 2009.
Trumka presided over the labor movement through the 2009 recession, the election of Barack Obama, and the disappointment that followed when Obama declined to push for labor law reform. He also faced a wave of public employee union-busting that began in Wisconsin in 2010 and culminated in the antiunion Supreme Court ruling in Janus v AFSCME in 2018. And he witnessed the emergence of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and a 2018-2019 teacher strike wave that began in West Virginia.
Trumka could be a powerful orator at times, and a video of his 2008 speech on racism and Obama went viral, garnering almost 600,000 views.
With Obama and later with Donald Trump, Trumka meted out criticism and praise when it was called for. He was critical of Obama for dragging his heels protecting workers from silica dust, and for the Affordable Care Act’s hefty “Cadillac” tax on union health plans. He criticized Trump for antiunion appointments and for cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
Like Sweeney before him, Trumka tried many strategies to revive organized labor, but the union movement continued its gradual slide, and dropped from 14.9% of the workforce in 2009 to 10.8% in 2020.
Trumka was the fifth person to serve as president since the AFL-CIO was formed in 1955, and was the first AFL-CIO president to die in office. Trumka had announced that he would step down at the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention next year.
On Aug. 14, with his family’s permission, Trumka’s body lay in repose at AFL-CIO headquarters to give the public an opportunity to pay respects.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN “For Rich, it was always about doing right by working people —fighting for and protecting their wages, their safety, their pensions, and their ability to build a good, decent, honorable middle-class life. It was about workers improving their own lives and building worker power together. And it was about America itself. It was about the American worker being the heart of our economic might and dynamism.”
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI “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. … Richard Trumka’s life was a testament to the power of organizing and mobilizing for progress, and his leadership leaves a legacy of inspired advocacy for workers.”
WASHINGTON U.S. SENATOR PATTY MURRAY “To say Rich was a champion for workers is an understatement—he dedicated his life to fighting to secure and strengthen workers’ rights and root out systemic inequities and racism, and this country is better because of it. We must honor Rich’s legacy and his lifetime work by continuing the fight for workers, which must start by passing the PRO Act in his name.”
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE PRESIDENT THOMAS DONOHUE “I won’t get carried away and call us friends. But we were cut from the same cloth—raised by modest families, patriots to our core, committed to our Catholic faith, our families and our members. In a town full of fakes, I appreciated how Rich would say it straight to your face and expect the same from you. His words had meaning, all of them. He had a loyalty to his cause that bordered on zeal, as did I, as do many, yet it never dissolved into hatred or contempt for the other side.… tenacious and energetic, an impassioned activist who could switch from ally to adversary in a blink, and be totally genuine in both.”
WASHINGTON GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE “He didn’t just fight for jobs, but for equality for all working people regardless of race, gender, occupation or immigration status. He knew in his core that without solidarity among the working class, there is no defense against the political polarization that continues to plague the nation.”
AFL-CIO SECRETARY-TREASURER LIZ SHULER The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend … and I lost a dear friend. Rich Trumka devoted his life to working people, from his early days as president of the UMWA to his unparalleled leadership as the voice of America’s labor movement. Rich was a relentless champion of workers’ rights, and even as we mourn his passing today, 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.”