AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the head of the most powerful labor organization in the country and a close ally of the Biden White House, has died. He was 72.
A cause of death was not immediately announced.
Trumka, who had led the AFL-CIO as president since 2009, was known for his fiery rhetoric and his harsh attacks on corporate America. He was also a vocal supporter of Democratic candidates and critic of Republicans, and labor leaders and Democrats rushed to praise him and mourn his passing Thursday.
“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,” AFL-CIO Communications Director Tim Schlittner said in a statement. “He was a relentless champion of workers’ rights, workplace safety, worker-centered trade, democracy and so much more. He was also a devoted father, grandfather, husband, brother, coach, colleague and friend.”
“I rise today with some sad, some horrible, news about the passing of a great friend, Rich Trumka, who left us this morning,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor of the Senate, his voice breaking as he patted the lectern to compose himself. “The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most.”
“Rich Trumka was the working people of America,” he said, adding, “I wanted to inform my colleagues that we have just lost a giant, and we need him so.”
“The arc of history will remember this great man as a beacon of light during this trying time for working men and women,” said Ray Curry, the new president of the United Auto Workers union.
President Joe Biden also addressed Trumka’s passing at the White House on Thursday, calling him a “good, close, personal friend.”
Trumka was a leader in the push not just for economic programs such as the infrastructure bill now before Congress but also the voting rights bills that Democratic leadership has endorsed.
“Without the right to vote, there is no democracy. Without the right to form a union, there is no democracy. Nothing less than our freedom is on the line,” he said in one of his final speeches last month.
His attacks on Republicans could demonstrate his wit as well as his passion. When Scott Walker, who as governor of Wisconsin moved to strip state employees of collective bargaining rights, lost his reelection bid in 2018, Trumka put out a single sentence statement that simply said, “Scott Walker was a national disgrace.”
But Trumka could also be a critic of Democrats and their policies if he believed they hurt workers. He was a fierce and long-time critic of NAFTA, the trade pact with Canada and Mexico passed during the Clinton administration. And he praised the replacement United States Canada Mexico Agreement (USCMA) negotiated by President Donald Trump.
“NAFTA was written for those at the top. It enriched corporations at the expense of working families across North America,” he wrote in an opinion column on CNN in 2019 marking the passage of the USCMA.
The son of a coal miner in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsbugh, Trumka went to work in the mines himself as a teenager. But he also went to college and law school and became a staff attorney with the United Mine Workers of America union’s Washington office soon after graduating law school in 1974.
He became the youngest person elected president of the UMWA in 1982 at the age of 33 and led the union on a series of strikes over the next 13 years.
He became the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 1995, the union organization’s second highest position. And he was often the harsh, public voice for the union rather than the more reserved president of the organization at the time, John Sweeney.
Elizabeth Shuler, who was elected as the group’s secretary-treasurer in 2009 when Trumka was elected president, will assume the duties of the federation’s president under terms of its constitution. The AFL-CIO’s executive council will meet to select a permanent replacement later this month. If Shuler is selected, she would be the first woman to serve as president of the organization.
CORRECTION: This headline on this story has been updated to correctly describe the AFL-CIO. The story has also been updated with additional reaction and background information.
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