AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka Dies at 72

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who took U.S. organized labor in a far different and more activist direction, died of a reported heart attack, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer announced on the Senate floor on Aug. 5. Trumka was 72.

“The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today, the AFL-CIO confirmed. 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.

“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. Rich was loved and beloved. 

“Today, the 56 unions and 12.5 million members of the AFL-CIO mourn the passing of our fearless leader and commit to honoring his legacy with action. Standing on Rich’s shoulders, we will pour everything we have into building an economy, society and democracy that lifts up every working family and community.” 

America lost a great leader today,” AFSA President Ernest Logan said. Our country lost a lifelong advocate and organizer for working families. I lost a friend.

“And while we will miss Rich and mourn him, the best way to remember him is to honor his lifelong work. His fight is our fight, and we pledge to continue his journey every day to make sure that working people are paid a fair wage, have a safe working environment, are offered a voice in their workplaces and have respect from their employers."  

The son and grandson of Pennsylvania coal miners, Trumka, a miner himself and a former United Mine Workers president, succeeded John Sweeney in the AFL-CIO’s top job in 2009. The Sweeney-Trumka ticket ousted the federation’s old guard in 1995, first forcing President Lane Kirkland out, then defeating his successor in a contested election, the federation’s first.

Trumka had planned to step down at the federation’s next national convention, which was originally scheduled for this fall. The coronavirus pandemic postponed it until next spring. Under the federation constitution, Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, an Electrical Worker, becomes acting federation president, the first female president in organized labor’s history.

Under first Sweeney and then Trumka, the federation hit the streets more often and concentrated on grassroots organizing and grassroots politics, which it also thought would lead to organizing triumphs. Labor’s record in that latter field was good but not outstanding, with wins in some high-profile campaigns and losses in others, most recently at the giant Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

As AFL-CIO president, Trumka also made clear to politicians they could not take organized labor’s support for granted unless they gave more than lip service to labor’s agenda. 

In one memorable closed-door meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council in Orlando, then-Vice President Joe Biden, having just been re-elected along with his boss, Barack Obama, with labor’s support, started his speech with a standard line: “Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive.” With Trumka looking on, the room erupted in “What have you done for workers?!” demands.

But Biden was and is a long, strong and public friend of organized labor, and the federation hit the hustings for his successful presidential election bid last year.

At Trumka’s death, it was hitting the hustings again, this time for senators to dump the filibuster and then approve the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would be the most wide-ranging, pro-worker labor law reform since the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act.

“The global labor movement has lost a giant,” said Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, Trumka’s ally and successor in the union's top office. “Richard Trumka was more than the leader of the American labor movement, he was an unequaled voice for the workers around the world.

“Richard and I were partners in leadership at the UMWA for many years, but we were more than that. He was my brother, he was my friend, he was my confidant.

“The hearts and prayers of the entire UMWA family are with his wife, his children and his grandchildren. We will miss him terribly, but we know he has joined Mother Jones, John L. Lewis, William Green, Phil Murray and all other UMWA leaders who have gone before him.

"Rest in peace, Brother. I will miss you.”

“If you have to be in a war, you want to be in the trenches with Richard Trumka,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “Our hearts go out to Barbara, Richard Jr. and his entire family. May his memory be a blessing.”