Richard Trumka, the powerful president of the AFL-CIO labor union, has died at age 72, Democratic leaders said Thursday. Union leaders said he passed while visiting family for his grandson’s birthday.
“Born the son of a coal miner from Southwestern Pennsylvania, Richard became a giant in the labor movement and in national politics,” AFT (American Federation of Teachers) Pennsylvania President Arthur G. Steinberg said, in a wave of eulogies and remembrances shared Thursday.
“He was a tireless advocate for the working people of America, and much to their benefit, he never forgot his humble beginnings in Greene County, Pennsylvania.”
A burly man with thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, Trumka grew up in the small southwest Pennsylvania town of Nemacolin, where he worked as a coal miner while attending Penn State University.
A longtime labor leader, Trumka was elected in 1982, at age 33, to be the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America.
In that role, he led a successful strike against the Pittston Coal Co., which tried to avoid paying into an industry-wide health and pension fund, the union’s website said.
Trumka had been AFL-CIO president since 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years.
As AFL-CIO president, he ushered in a more aggressive style of leadership, vowed to revive unions’ sagging membership rolls, and pledged to make the labor movement appeal to a new generation of workers that perceived 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.
Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO, remembered Trumka as a “real person,” who guided him 20 years ago when he was first elected to the council.
“He put his arm around my shoulder to make sure initially I had good direction,” said Eiding. “It’s a leader like that that could step down from the pulpit, if you will, and step into an office or into a room and talk to somebody at a level that everybody understood.”
Eiding credited Trumka with helping guide the AFL-CIO through some rocky years that followed the 2005 departure of the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union.
“So here we are in the 21st century, and we’re one solid labor movement,” said Eiding. “We may have different names, but our agendas are the same … that’s his leadership.
News of Trumka’s death was announced by President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.
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.
Further details of Trumka’s death were not immediately available. The AFL-CIO did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Trumka oversaw a union with more than 12.5 million members, according to the AFL-CIO’s website.
Eulogies quickly poured out from Democrats in Congress and other leaders in the Philly region.
“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.
In New Jersey, Trumka served on the Restart and Recovery Commission during the pandemic, which guided state leaders how to reopen and rev up the economy. Gov. Phil Murphy ordered flags to fly at half-staff to honor Trumka and his work.
“America’s and New Jersey’s working families have lost one of their most steadfast and dedicated allies. Organized labor has lost one of its most powerful voices,” said Murphy in a statement.
One of Trumka’s final efforts was lobbying lawmakers to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (also called the PRO) Act.
The bill would make it easier for workers to organize by giving them added protections. The House approved the bill in March, but it was never taken up by the Senate.
“We will show our respect by carrying forward his mission that all workers have the right to be represented by a union,” said Eiding.
WHYY’s Ximena Conde contributed to this report.