WASHINGTON (AP) — Richard Trumka, the powerful president of the AFL-CIO who rose from the coal mines of Pennsylvania to preside over one of the largest labor organizations in the world, died Thursday. He was 72.
The federation confirmed Trumka’s death in a statement. He had been AFL-CIO president since 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years. From his perch, he oversaw a federation with more than 12.5 million members and ushered in a more aggressive style of leadership.
“The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today,” the AFL-CIO said. “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.”
President Joe Biden eulogized Trumka from the White House and said the labor leader had died of a heart attack while on a camping trip with his son and grandkids. He said he spoke with Trumka’s widow and son earlier in the day.
“He wasn’t just a great labor leader. He was a friend,“ Biden told reporters Thursday. “He was someone I could confide in, and you knew, whatever he said he would do, he would do.”
Trumka was tough and combative, a throwback to an old guard of union leaders from the labor movement’s heyday. But he rose in a distinctly different era, as union membership declined and labor struggled to retain political power. He often focused on making the case for unions to the white, blue collar workers who had turned away from Democrats — and speaking bluntly to them.
“This is a major loss for the labor movement, and he will be greatly missed,” United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 7, the largest union in Colorado said in a release. “Every working-class American today, union or not, benefited from Richard’s work. He never minced words and he never backed down from a fight.”
Until his death, he used his power to push for health care legislation, expanded workers rights and infrastructure spending.
“Today, our country has lost a towering advocate for working men and women,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis. “I’m saddened to hear about the passing of Richard Trumka and send my condolences to his entire family, as well as his brothers and sisters in the labor movement.”
Larry Cohen, a longtime labor activist and former president of the Communications Workers of America, said Trumka’s death was a “devastating” loss for labor, in part because of his long-standing relationship with Biden.
“His ability to talk to the president of the United States will be very hard to replace. It’s a long history, based on personal trust. It’s remarkable,” said Cohen, who had known Trumka since the early 1980s.
As AFL-CIO president, he vowed to revive unions’ sagging membership rolls and pledged to make the labor movement appeal to a new generation of workers who perceive unions as “only a grainy, faded picture from another time.”
Remembrances poured in Thursday from Trumka’s Democratic allies in Washington and in Colorado
“The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in announcing Trumka’s death from the Senate floor.
“In Richard Trumka, our union brothers and sisters here in Colorado and across the country had a fearless fighter leading them in the struggle for the right to collectively bargain for living wages, safe working conditions, and better benefits,” said Morgan Carroll, Chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. “We at the Colorado Democratic Party vow to continue the fight alongside our union brothers and sisters for a better future that uplifts every working family and community, and ensures that workers always have a seat at the table.”