May 31, 2023

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks outside the Economic Club of Washington in Washington, DC on April 23, 2019.

Almond Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka died Thursday at the age of 72.

Trumka has been president of the trade union federation, which has 12.5 million members, since 2009.

President Joe Biden called Trumka a close friend after learning of the union leader’s death.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, choked back tears as he spoke in the Senate about Trumka, whose AFL-CIO consists of more than 50 union members and is a major supporter of the Democratic candidates.

“I rise today with some sad, terrible news of the death of a great friend, Rich Trumpka, who left us this morning,” said Schumer, before pausing to rally.

“America’s working people lost a savage warrior when we needed them most.”

Trumka grew up in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, a coal mining town. As a college and law student, Trumka worked as a miner like his father and grandfather had.

At the age of 33, he ran for and won a reform ticket for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America in 1982.

Trumka was a major force in Biden’s selection of Marty Walsh as Secretary of the Department of Labor.

When Biden was putting his cabinet together, Trumka’s lobbying for the then-mayor of Boston was critical to cementing Biden’s election to nominate Walsh over MP Andy Levin, the Michigan Democrat who was the preferred candidate for some of the AFL-CIO affiliates

Trumka was just as influential when the Republicans occupied the White House.

In 2019, Trumka persuaded several skeptical members of the Democratic House of Representatives, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to adopt the revised version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the USMCA, from then President Donald Trump.

Unions have long criticized NAFTA, claiming it sent tens of thousands of unionized jobs in the US across the border into Mexico, where wages are lower and the unions represent the industries rather than the workers in them.

Trumka later said that while USMCA was far from perfect, it was a big step in repairing the damage caused by NAFTA. USMCA passed the House of Representatives in December 2019 with 41 Democrats voting against.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said Trumka’s death was “really heartbreaking”.

“We have lost a larger-than-life character who has spent a career fighting for and defending the Union way of life,” Fetterman, a Democrat, wrote in a tweet.

“It’s up to the rest of us to fill the void and never stop fighting. #UnionStrong. “

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy ordered flags to be flown in that state to mark Trumka’s death.

“The working families of America and New Jersey have lost one of their most staunch and dedicated allies,” Murphy said in a statement. “The organized workforce has lost one of its most powerful voices.”

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