Richard Trumka, president of the powerful AFL-CIO labor federation and arguably the most powerful labor leader in the country, has died, according to a spokesperson. He was 72. The unexpected death is a blow both to the AFL-CIO, which he led for over a decade and which represents 12.5 million workers, and to the labor movement to which he dedicated his life. A Pennsylvania native, Trumka worked as a coal miner in his youth and later served as the president of the United Mine Workers of America.
In a statement, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia lauded Trumka, who “never forgot where he came from.”
On the floor of the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the United States has “lost a fierce warrior.”
As president of the AFL-CIO, Trumka used his platform to call for racial justice and an end to the militarization of the police. In 2014, he said the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri must “begin a serious and open-ended conversation about what we can do, about what we should do. That conversation needs to be about racism and some other things as well. Call it classism, call it the blindness of our nation to the poor of all races and nationalities. Call it contempt for the people who do the work in our country. It needs to be addressed.”
Alternatively, he could be pithy. After Scott Walker, that great antagonist of labor, lost his bid for a third term as Wisconsin governor, Trumka released a one-sentence statement: “Scott Walker was a national disgrace.”
Trumka, an ally of President Biden, spent his final days campaigning for the passage of the PRO Act, which would levy harsh fines for employers who violated the National Labor Relations Act and allow unions to override right-to-work laws. Though it’s stalled in the Senate, it would rebuild and restore collective bargaining rights that have been under assault for decades. Trumka’s untimely death may increase pressure on the Senate’s Democratic holdouts, who are blocking passage of the bill.