Published August 5, 2021 in The New York Times
By Noam Scheiber
The New York Times
Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s pre-eminent labor federation, for the last 12 years and an influential voice in Democratic politics, died on Thursday. He was 72.
The federation confirmed the death, on a camping trip with family members. The cause was a heart attack, according to an A.F.L.-C.I.O. official, who did not say where Mr. Trumka died.
“The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said in an emotional tribute on the Senate floor.
Mr. Trumka was elected to lead the federation in 2009 after serving as secretary-treasurer, its second-ranking official, since 1995; before that he was president of the United Mine Workers of America.
With about 12 million members, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, as it is formally known, encompasses the bulk of the nation’s unions in both the public and private sectors.
Under the A.F.L.-C.I.O. constitution, the federation’s secretary-treasurer, Liz Shuler, will take over as president until its executive council can meet to elect a successor. The federation’s next presidential election was scheduled to take place this year, but was delayed until next year because of the pandemic.
While the percentage of Americans represented by unions continued its long-term decline on his watch, to less than 11 percent, Mr. Trumka had close ties to the two Democratic administrations during his tenure, those of Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., and had been an influential outside voice in helping to shape President Biden’s ambitious jobs and infrastructure proposals.
Mr. Trumka took over the A.F.L.-C.I.O. with a reputation as a reformer who was both tactically and strategically ambitious, dating back to his days running the mine workers.
In 1989 and 1990, the union waged a monthslong strike against a company called the Pittston Coal Group, which had cut health care benefits to retirees. Striking miners and their labor allies sometimes tried to block trucks from transporting coal from the mine. Other workers threw rocks and other sharp objects at the trucks, though the union had urged that the strike remain nonviolent. The benefits were ultimately restored.
Mr. Trumka was a founder in the 1980s of the group Jobs With Justice, which sought to forge ties between organized labor and community groups, like civil rights and faith-based organizations, with a commitment by all parties to turn up several times a year in support of one another’s protests.
For several years as A.F.L.-C.I.O. president, he pursued a similar game plan, investing in organizing campaigns and helping to fund labor groups that were not traditional unions, like those representing undocumented immigrant laborers.
But fellow union leaders and former aides said Mr. Trumka became less and less committed to organizing as a priority for the federation. Documents obtained by the website Splinter in 2019 showed that the federation had significantly scaled back its organizing budget as the previous decade wore on.
A former A.F.L.-C.I.O. official, Ana Avendaño, said the federation began to de-emphasize partnerships with so-called worker centers, which help win protections and benefits for marginalized workers but aren’t unions.
“The idea of growing the labor movement just to build worker power is not something that is in the DNA of the leadership,” Ms. Avendaño, who left the federation in 2014, said in an interview with The New York Times five years later.
A spokesman for the federation said at the time that the shrinking budget caused by a decline in union membership had made it more difficult to fund such groups, but that it had continued to prioritize organizing and that its organizing budget did not reflect all the resources it devoted to that objective.
Over time, the former aides said, Mr. Trumka came to wield power increasingly through relationships he had built up in Washington.
While he sometimes chafed at the White House attitude toward labor under President Obama — at one point he was squeezed in awkwardly at the corner of a table for a White House meeting on immigration and “couldn’t even open his pad,” Ms. Avendaño said — he had a strong rapport with Mr. Biden, then vice president, and with other Obama administration officials.
Mr. Trumka also pursued a relationship with President Donald J. Trump, meeting with him at Trump Tower in Manhattan just before the 2017 inauguration and warning aides that the federation should not criticize Mr. Trump personally, only his policies, according to one aide. He eventually turned against Mr. Trump when he concluded that the efforts had largely been futile.
“I was hopeful we could work together on the few issues where we actually agreed,” Mr. Trumka said in a 2019 speech. “Well, it’s been nearly three years, and I can tell you one thing for certain: Donald Trump is one of the most anti-worker presidents in American history.”
After Mr. Biden entered the White House this year, Mr. Trumka gained direct access to the presidency, which he used to push for top labor priorities, including the so-called Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act. The measure would make it easier for workers to unionize by prohibiting employers from holding mandatory anti-union meetings, and by imposing financial penalties on employers for labor law violations. (There are currently no penalties, only make-whole remedies, like back pay.)
Mr. Biden has supported the legislation, which passed the House of Representatives in March, but it faces uncertain prospects in the Senate.
Mr. Trumka played a critical role in easing the concerns of more skeptical labor leaders that Mr. Biden’s efforts to move the country away from fossil fuels would devastate their membership. After some building trades union leaders reacted critically to Mr. Biden’s decision to cancel an oil pipeline, Mr. Trumka helped arrange a White House meeting between them and the president, to reassure them that jobs for their members remained a top priority.
Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, said he was encouraged by the meeting. “I can tell you that we may not agree with every decision he makes, we already haven’t,” he said in an interview shortly after the meeting. But, he added, “we assured” Mr. Biden that the building trade unions would be supportive on issues like infrastructure and Covid-19 safety.
Larry Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America and a longtime friend of Mr. Trumka’s, said that while Mr. Trumka had earlier this year considered running again for re-election, he gave the impression in a conversation about a month ago that he had decided against doing so.
“In many ways it was the high point of him as an insider,” Mr. Cohen said. But, he added, his sense was that “he was clearly not going to run again.”
Richard Louis Trumka was born on July 24, 1949, in the coal country of southwestern Pennsylvania, to Frank and Eola (Bertugli) Trumka. He grew up in the town of Nemacolin and went to work in the area’s coal mines, following the path of his father and his grandfather. He alternated between mine work and his studies before graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 1971.
After getting a law degree from Villanova University in 1974, Mr. Trumka went to work as a staff attorney for the United Mine Workers. In 1982, at 33, he was elected on a reform ticket to head the mine workers’ union.
He is survived by his wife, the former Barbara Vidovich; their son, Richard Jr., who is general counsel of the House Oversight Committee and a nominee for the Consumer Product Safety Commission; a sister, Frances Szallar; and two grandchildren.