The AFL-CIO Executive Council mourns the passing of Richard L. Trumka, the longtime legendary president of the AFL-CIO.
Trumka dedicated his entire life to making sure every institution he touched—the Mine Workers (UMWA), the AFL-CIO, the U.S. government and the world community—served working people and the public interest, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
Trumka was born on July 24, 1949, and raised in the coal country of southwestern Pennsylvania. He grew up in Nemacolin and followed his father and grandfather to work in the area’s coal mines while he completed his studies at the Pennsylvania State University. After getting a law degree from Villanova University in 1974, Trumka worked as a staff attorney for the Mine Workers and was elected president of the union in 1982, at the age of 33.
As UMWA president, Trumka led one of the most substantial strikes in American history against the Pittston Coal Co. between 1989 and 1990. At stake was the health care of nearly 2,000 retirees, widows and miners with disabilities. It was a tactical masterpiece centered on nonviolent disobedience. In the course of the strike, the members of the Mine Workers risked their lives occupying the plant—facing down armed company guards and state police who tried to provoke violence. After nearly a year on strike, the Pittston workers achieved victory at a time when working people desperately needed a win.
Trumka was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 1995 on the New Voice ticket, with John Sweeney as president and Linda Chavez-Thompson as executive vice president. Upon Sweeney’s retirement in 2009, Trumka promised to forge a more inclusive labor movement centered on racial, social and economic justice, and he was elected president of the federation at the 26th Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO.
Trumka believed economic policy should benefit working people—full employment, rising wages, economic security and, most of all, bargaining power. As UMWA president, he helped found two organizations to help advance economic justice for working people: the Economic Policy Institute and Jobs With Justice. As president of AFL-CIO, he was an insistent voice in the ears of presidents of both parties and Federal Reserve chairs of all stripes.
He wanted all working people to understand how economic policies affect our livelihoods. As federation president, Trumka developed Common Sense Economics®, a comprehensive education program on the economic challenges faced by workers in our country and around the world.
Trumka was an influential voice in the global labor movement and he brought vision to the world stage—from his youth organizing coal miners in Alabama to go on sympathy strike with South African miners protesting apartheid to, most recently, his fight for imprisoned Uyghurs in China. For the right of working people in the United Kingdom to have a voice in trade negotiations to his support for imprisoned trade unionists in Burma.
For Richard Trumka, the labor movement was about making sure workers were safe at work, treated fairly and with dignity, and shared in the prosperity of the wealth workers create.
From his chairmanship of the mine safety committee in Nemacolin to his advocacy for OSHA standards that protect workers from asbestos, lead and hazardous chemicals to his fight for a COVID-19 workplace safety standard, Trumka worked to make sure the health and safety of workers were always protected.
He pushed constantly for legislation that would remove barriers to forming a union and allow more workers the opportunity to have a collective voice at work. He fought for fair and just trade policies, and one of his proudest moments was the passage of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, which, through his insistence, contains labor rights enforcement language being used successfully today to advance the freedom to organize.
Trumka’s legacy above all was his fight for a strong and vibrant democracy. He believed democracy cannot function unless all people living and working within its borders have full rights and equal protections. And in 2020, he led working people into battle to defend our democracy; through his leadership, the labor movement helped make sure that the votes were counted, the results honored and our democracy preserved.
He hated racism and sexism and other bigotry, something he referred to as the “isms.” In 2015, the AFL-CIO launched the Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice to address the racial and economic issues impacting the labor movement and offer recommendations for change. In 2020, Trumka created the AFL-CIO Task Force on Racial Justice to recommend concrete actions to address America’s long history of racism and police violence against Black people.
Every day of his career, Trumka fought for the right of working people to be heard everywhere it mattered and he always pushed to make the labor movement better. He loved people, loved a fight, hated injustice and cruelty, and strived for self-knowledge. He leaves a lifelong legacy of understanding the labor movement as both a thing in itself—a place of solidarity—and as the most singular, powerful tool for racial, social and economic justice.
Rich Trumka lived and breathed the labor movement every moment of his life, and workers around the world are better for it.