AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has died suddenly at age 72 after leading the nation’s largest labor federation since 2009. Prior to that, Trumka had been the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer since 1995. Trumka came up through the United Mine Workers, having started working as a coal miner in 1968 before graduating from college and then law school and becoming president of the UMWA in 1982.
Trumka was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO on a slate with John Sweeney, who was president of the federation from 1995 to 2009. Their election represented a move toward a broader, more diverse labor movement with a deeper commitment to workers not represented by unions and, often, ties to other areas of the progressive movement.
In 2008, Trumka got widespread attention for his powerful speech to the United Steelworkers taking on racism in the context of Barack Obama’s run for president. In fact, Trumka gave versions of that speech to other groups, bringing the message as widely as he could. In the speech, Trumka told of an encounter with a woman in his hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, on the day of the state’s presidential primary. When she told him she could never vote for Obama, he pressed her through a series of excuses until she admitted it was because Obama was Black.
“And I said, ‘Look around this town. Nemacolin’s a dying town. There’s no jobs here,’” Trumka said. “Our kids are moving away because there's no future here. And here's a man, Barack Obama, who's going to fight for people like us, and you want to tell me that you won't vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind, lady?”
“See, brothers and sisters, we can’t tap-dance around the fact that there’s a lot of folks out there, just like that woman, and a lot of them are good union people—they just can’t get past the idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a Black man. Well, those of us who know better can’t afford to sit silently or look the other way while it’s happening.”
He went on to detail times in U.S. history when organized labor similarly stood for civil rights and against racism. (That is by no means the only racial history of the U.S. labor movement, to be clear.)
Recently, Trumka had spoken out in favor of vaccination mandates.
As news of his death spread, Trumka was also fondly remembered for one of his briefest statements ever:
The U.S. labor movement has been in tough times for decades now, and Trumka decidedly could not stem the losses. But he has been a strong leader who tried to bring unions forward and raise up working people at every turn. This is a serious loss.