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Richard Trumka, the longtime head of the powerful AFL-CIO and a close ally of Democratic Party leaders, has died. He was 72.
President Biden called Trumka a “very close” friend in brief remarks Thursday to White House reporters. He said Trumka died while on a camping trip with family.
“The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today,” the 12.5 million-member organization said in announcing his passing. “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.”
Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the federation, wrote on Twitter that even as the AFL-CIO mourns Trumka’s death, “we will stand on his shoulders to continue the fight for workers, and for the fair and just society he believed in so passionately. We will honor his legacy with action.”
Trumka had led the AFL-CIO since 2009. He was secretary-treasurer of the organization for more than a decade before then.
Trumka grew up in a coal mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. His father was a miner, and he worked in the mines as well before college and law school. In 1982, at age 33, he was elected the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America.
Trumka was always easy to spot on a picket line or at a political rally. His burly physique and thick moustache always made him stand out.
His passing set off a wave of condolences from unions and Democratic leaders.
“He had in his veins, in every atom of his body, the heart, the thoughts, the needs of the working people of America. He was them,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in emotional remarks on the Senate floor.
Schumer added: “The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most.”
Trumka’s death comes as the pandemic has raised concerns about worker safety and workplace standards, and as Biden and congressional Democrats seek to pass two massive spending plans that would inject funds into many union-heavy sectors. In recent years, Trumka has also been outspoken about trade deals.
Biden has long touted his connections to labor groups, and in mid-February, barely a month into his term, he gathered 10 union leaders in the Oval Office for a meeting that lasted two hours. Trumka was among that group.
“This president really does get it,” Trumka said after that meeting.
During the 2008 election, when Democrat Barack Obama was on the presidential ballot, Trumka started to encounter union members who told him that they had reservations about voting for an African American candidate. In response, he began touring union halls and factory floors, confronting the issue.
“We can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there,” he said at an event in Las Vegas, who “just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a Black man.”