Influential US labour leader Richard Trumka dies aged 72

Richard Trumka updates

Richard Trumka, the president of America’s biggest labour union group and a Democratic ally whose support helped secure the White House for Joe Biden, has died aged 72. 

In over a decade as leader of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, Trumka became one of the most powerful labour leaders in the US. His political influence grew after Biden took office and told corporate leaders that unions would have “increased power”. 

“The labour movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today,” the AFL-CIO said. “He was a relentless champion of workers’ rights, workplace safety, worker-centred trade, democracy and so much more.”

Trumka, a third-generation coal miner from southwestern Pennsylvania, began working in mines aged 19 while becoming involved with the United Mine Workers of America union.

After earning a law degree at Villanova University, he returned to coal mining and legal work before being elected president of UMWA in 1982. He led the union in one of its biggest strikes against Pittston Coal Company, before becoming the AFL-CIO’s secretary-general in 1995 and was elected president in 2009.

He died of a heart attack, according to friend Bob Bruno, a labour historian at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Trumka had been an ally for Democrats in Washington as they fought to lure working-class voters away from former president Donald Trump, and backed Biden’s bid to win the White House.

In turn, Biden’s economic platform has received enthusiastic backing from organised labour. Trumka had recently championed Biden’s push for a large infrastructure package, which he said would create jobs and boost the country’s bounceback from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Trumka played a visible role in pressing several White House administrations for changes to US trade policy.

Barack Obama quipped after leaving office that his big mistake was underestimating the power of Trumka and his members to sink the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade deal that failed to pass through Congress. “I smile every time I think about it,” Trumka told the FT of Obama’s remark. 

Over the summer on 2019, Trumka toured rust-belt swing states Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania to persuade workers to reject the US-Mexico-Canada trade deal, revamped under Trump, unless crucial worker protections were strengthened. 

Bruno said that Trumka considered it one of his proudest accomplishments to overcome racial divisions in the labour movement to help elect Obama twice. “He wasn’t afraid to take on an issue that was divisive in the labour movement,” he said.

Bruno, who met Trumka in the mid-1990s in New York, said he was “a warm spirit” who “radiated joy” when he visited Bruno years later in Illinois, and they drove around in the professor’s 1964 Mustang convertible while Trumka smoked a cigar.

Trumka wanted workers to see that working for a living was an identity that they shared, Bruno said, and he thought the movement had the power to transform communities.

“He believed as did I . . . that the labour movement needed to be politically active,” Bruno said. “It needed to be active in the community, and it needed to be OK with being militant. It shouldn’t apologise for using its power and defending the values that were essential to living in a democratic society.”

While US union membership has declined from a peak of 35 per cent of the workforce in 1954 to 10 per cent currently, polls show unions have gained public support, boosted by growing inequality after the financial crisis and concerns over worker health and safety amid the pandemic. 

Trumka’s death leaves empty the role of symbolic head of the US labour movement. The frontrunners for the position, to be decided at the federation’s convention next year, are Liz Shuler, the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, and Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. Either would be the group’s first female president.

On Thursday, Biden called Trumka a “very close” friend and said he was “more than head of AFL-CIO”.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, said Congress was “shocked and heartbroken by the passing of an unsurpassed titan of labour”. Joe Manchin, the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia, said Trumka “never forgot where he came from”.

Suzanne Clark, the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, the American business group that often found itself at odds with Trumka, called him “a fighter, a fierce advocate, and, above all else, a decent man who earned the respect and admiration of anyone who worked with him”.

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