Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and a champion for worker rights, has died at the age of 72.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., confirmed his death on the Senate floor, fighting back tears as he memoralized the labor leader: “We have just lost a giant, and we need him so.”
“He was a relentless champion of workers’ rights, workplace safety, worker-centered trade, democracy and so much more. He was also a devoted father, grandfather, husband, brother, coach, colleague and friend,” AFL-CIO Communications Director Tim Schlittner said in a statement. “Rich was loved and beloved.”
“Today, the 56 unions and 12.5 million members of the AFL-CIO mourn the passing of our fearless leader and commit to honoring his legacy with action,” Schlittner continued. “Standing on Rich’s shoulders, we will pour everything we have into building an economy, society and democracy that lifts up every working family and community.”
His death comes at a pivotal moment for the American labor movement – President Joe Biden has made the creation of union jobs a key part of his economic plans, including the nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget measure, but, meanwhile, leaders at the local, state and federal level are debating how to safely reopen the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trumka served as president of the AFL-CIO, a group of more than 50 labor unions which represents more than 12.5 million members, since 2009. Trumka was a pivotal voice in both Democratic and Republican administrations, including his key role in negotiating changes to former President Donald Trump’s administration’s North American Free Trade Agreement and convincing Democrats to suport it.
The son and grandson of coal miners, Trumka grew up in the small southeast Pennsylvania town of Nemacolin, where he worked as a coal miner while attending Penn State University.
A longtime labor leader, Trumka was elected in 1982 at age 33 as the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America.
There, he led a successful strike against the Pittston Coal Company, which tried to avoid paying into an industrywide health and pension fund, the union’s website said.
“His memory will, I know , importune all of us to do more, even more, for the working people of America who Rich Trumka so deeply loved,” Schumer said.
“He had in his veins, in every atom of his body, the heart, the thoughts, the needs of the working people of America,” Schumer said. “He was them.”
“The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” Schumer said of his longtime ally.
President Biden also acknowledged the loss of his Trumka, who he called a “close, personal friend.”
“A very close friend passed away,” Biden said at the White House, visibly saddened by the news. “Richard Trumka was more than the head of the AFL-CIO, he was a very close, personal friend.”
Other lawmakers memorialized Trumka, from Congressional leadership to members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet.
“Richard Trumka dedicated his life to the labor movement and the right to organize,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “Richard’s leadership transcended a single movement, as he fought with principle and persistence to defend the dignity of every person.”
“He never forgot where he came from,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said in a statement. “He dedicated the rest of his career to fighting for America’s working men and women. He was a fierce advocate for working people and a truly decent man.”
“Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Richard Trumka, a fierce and effective champion for American workers and an especially important voice in our time,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote on Twitter.
“America’s and New Jersey’s working families have lost one of their most steadfast and dedicated allies,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who ordered the state’s flags lowered to half-staff in honor of Trumka, said in a statement. “Organized labor has lost one of its most powerful voices.”
“We lost a larger than life figure who spent a career fighting for, and defending the Union Way of Life,” Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2022, said of Trumka. “It’s left to the rest of us to pick up the slack and never stop fighting.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.