Richard Trumka, who for 12 years has been president of the AFL-CIO, the country’s most important trade union confederation and an influential voice in democratic politics, died on Thursday. He was 72.
The association confirmed the death during a camping trip with family members. The cause was a heart attack who did not say where Mr Trumka died, according to an AFL-CIO official.
“America’s working people lost a bitter warrior when we needed him most,” said New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, in an emotional tribute to the Senate.
Mr. Trumka was elected head of the association in 2009 after having been secretary-treasurer and secondary functionary since 1995; Prior to that, he was President of the United Mine Workers of America.
With approximately 12 million members, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, as it is officially known, comprises the majority of the country’s unions in both the public and private sectors.
Under the AFL-CIO Constitution, the Association’s Secretary and Treasurer, Liz Shuler, will serve as President until the Executive Board can meet to elect a successor. The association’s next presidential election should take place this year, but has been postponed until next year due to the pandemic.
While the proportion of unionized Americans he observed continued to decline to less than 11 percent over the long term, Mr. Trumka had close ties and influential ties with the two Democratic administrations of Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. during his tenure External voice in shaping President Biden’s ambitious proposals for jobs and infrastructure.
Mr. Trumka took over the AFL-CIO with a reputation as a tactically and strategically ambitious reformer that dates back to his days as a miner.
In 1989 and 1990 the union struck a month-long strike against a company called the Pittston Coal Group, which had cut health insurance benefits for retirees. Striking miners and their allies sometimes tried to prevent trucks from hauling coal out of the mine. Other workers threw stones and other sharp objects at the trucks, despite the union pushing for the strike to be non-violent. The benefits were eventually restored.
Mr Trumka was one of the founders of the Jobs With Justice group in the 1980s, which sought to forge links between organized workers and community groups such as civil rights and religious organizations, with all parties pledging to appear several times a year in support of the protests of the other.
For several years he followed a similar plan as AFL-CIO president, investing in campaigning and helping fund unions that were not traditional unions, such as those representing undocumented immigrants.
But other union leaders and former aides said that Mr. Trumka was becoming less and less concerned about organizing as a priority for the association. Documents received from the Splinter website in 2019 showed that the association had reduced its organizational budget significantly over the past decade.
A former AFL-CIO official, Ana Avendaño, said the association has begun to neglect partnerships with so-called labor centers, which help provide protection and benefits for marginalized workers but are not unions.
“The idea of expanding the labor movement just to build workers’ power is not in the leadership’s DNA,” said Ms. Avendaño, who left the association in 2014, in an interview with the New York Times five years later.
A spokesman for the association said at the time that the shrinking budget due to the decline in union membership had made it difficult to fund such groups, but that it had continued to prioritize organizing and that its organizing budget did not reflect all the resources it devoted to that goal.
As time went on, say the former aides, Mr. Trumka came increasingly to power through relationships he had established in Washington.
While he was sometimes angry at the White House’s stance on President Obama’s workforce – at one point at a White House meeting on immigration he was awkwardly squeezed into a corner of the table and “couldn’t even open his block,” Ms. Avendaño said – he had a strong relationship with Mr. Biden, then Vice President, and other Obama administration officials.
Mr Trumka also had a relationship with President Donald J. Trump, meeting with him shortly before the 2017 inauguration at Trump Tower in Manhattan, and warning aides that, according to an aide, the Federation shouldn’t criticize Trump personally, just his policies. He eventually turned on Mr Trump when he concluded that the efforts were largely in vain.
“I was hoping that we could work together on the few topics that we actually agreed on,” Trumka said in a speech in 2019. “Well, it’s been almost three years and I can tell you one thing for sure say: Donald Trump is one of the most anti-working class presidents in American history. “
After Mr. Biden moved into the White House that year, Mr. Trumka became direct Access to the presidency, which he used to push for top work priorities, including what is known as the Protecting the Right to Organization Act, or PRO Act. The measure would make it easier for workers to organize by banning employers from holding compulsory anti-union meetings and fines employers for breaches of labor law. (There are currently no penalties, only remedial measures such as back payments.)
Mr Biden supported the bill passed by the House of Representatives in March, but faces uncertain prospects in the Senate.
Mr Trumka played a crucial role in allaying concerns among more skeptical union leaders that Mr Biden’s efforts to divorce the country from fossil fuels would destroy their membership. After some construction union leaders were critical of Mr Biden’s decision to terminate an oil pipeline, Mr Trumka helped arrange a meeting between them and the president at the White House to assure them that jobs for their members would remain a top priority to have.
Sean McGarvey, president of North American construction unions, said he was encouraged by the meeting. “I can tell you that we may not agree with every decision he makes, we already have that,” he said in an interview shortly after the meeting. But, he added, “we assured” Mr. Biden that the construction unions would provide support on issues such as infrastructure and Covid-19 security.
Larry Cohen, a past president of Communications Workers of America and a longtime friend of Mr. Trumka, said that while Mr. Trumka considered running again earlier this year, in a conversation about a month ago, it gave the impression that he had decided against it.
“In many ways, it was the highlight of him as an insider,” Cohen said. But, he added, his feeling was that “he clearly wasn’t going to run again”.
Richard Louis Trumka was born on July 24, 1949 in Kohleland in southwestern Pennsylvania to Frank and Eola (Bertugli) Trumka. He grew up in the town of Nemacolin and worked in the area’s coal mines on the way of his father and grandfather. He alternated between mining and studying before graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 1971.
After graduating from Villanova University with a law degree in 1974, Mr. Trumka worked as an attorney for United Mine Workers. In 1982, at the age of 33, he was elected chairman of the mining union with a reform ticket.
He leaves behind his wife, the former Barbara Vidovich; her son Richard Jr., who is General Counsel of the House Oversight Committee and a candidate for the Consumer Product Safety Commission; a sister, Frances Szallar; and two grandchildren.
Emily Cochrane contributed to the coverage. Alain Delaquérière contributed to the research.