The news shocked many and left a significant hole to fill in the larger labor-movement.
Last week, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) President Richard Trumka died of a heart attack while on a camping trip with his family. He was 72.
AFL-CIO Communications Director Tim Schlittner let the world know that they lost a legend in the labor and progressive movement.
The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today. 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
His death left other union leaders pondering his legacy.
“Rich always put workers first and he will forever be remembered as a powerful and compassionate leader,” stated Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “Time and again Rich stood with us. In the face of our changing industries, in the wake of the rise of e-commerce and automation, Rich was there to support our members as we took on the systemic workplace issues facing the 21st century labor movement.”
Born on July 24, 1949 in southwestern Pennsylvania, Trumka came from three-generations of coal miners. His union leader career began when he was elected president of the United Mine Workers of America at the age of 33, the youngest to do so. During that period, he also looked to join forces with pro-labor groups, religious leaders and civil rights figures to fight for one common cause forcing Jobs With Justice.
He was elected as the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 1995 and eventually became president of the AFL-CIO in 2009 overseeing 12.5 million members while being a conduit for the concerns of his constituents.
“Rich fought his entire life for dignity and respect for American workers,” stated American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “He practiced what he preached, and he brought the voices of working people to the forefront of our nation’s consciousness with deep humility.”
For National Nurses United and our registered nurse members, President Trumka was a longtime friend. “He stood with us for decades in confronting the attacks on RNs and patient care standards conducted by a corporate health care industry more focused on profits and budget goals than on public health and safety and on the rights of frontline caregivers,” read a statement from National Nurses United (NNU). “Through multiple efforts by hospital corporations to roll back nurses’ standards and patient care protections, NNU could always count on Rich Trumka to be by our side.”
Trumka had the ear of both U.S. President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama looking to shape each one’s politics around the labor and progressive movement. Most recently, Trumka was one of many progressive figures to call for the passing of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which would strengthen laws to ensure employees’ right to organize, and to fix the National Labor Relations Act that union leaders believe to have loopholes that employers can take advantage of.
Under the AFL-CIO constitution, the current secretary-treasurer, Liz Shuler takes over as president for the time being. Shuler and Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson are some of the favorites to be elected president. An election was supposed to be held this year but was pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shuler or Nelson would be the union’s first woman president.
“Richard was a transformational leader within the labor movement,” said 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg. “He spent decades advancing the work of organizing, and took monumental steps to further diversity, equity and inclusion efforts within the AFL-CIO… “Richard Trumka helped to vastly improve the lives of millions of working families.”
American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley, who oversees the largest federal workers union in the country, praised the late Trumka and emphasized his bonafides as a union leader.
“Richard Trumka was a fearless and peerless leader of our movement,” stated Kelley. “He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live forever in the hearts and minds of working people engaged in the struggle for dignity, fairness, and respect to which he dedicated his life.
“On behalf of the 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers we represent, I extend AFGE’s deepest condolences to his family, his union family, everyone at the AFL-CIO, and his many friends and admirers.”