Richard Trumka, who rose from the Pennsylvania coalmines to become one of the country’s most powerful labor leaders, died on Thursday at the age of 72.
He had been president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO, representing more than 50 unions, since 2009, and was a close ally of the Biden White House.
President Joe Biden, union leaders and Democratic lawmakers were quick to pay tribute.
Biden apologized for arriving late to a White House meeting with Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Asian American civil rights leaders saying he had just learned of Trumka’s death.
He told reporters that Trumka was more than the head of the AFL-CIO, ‘he was a very close personal friend.’
He said the labor leader was on a camping trip with his grandsons before he died.
‘At least he was with people who adore him,’ he added.
Friends said his background as the son and grandson of coalminers marked him out as an authentic voice for the labor movement, and he had worked with every Democratic White House of the past 30 years.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, one of the country’s most powerful labor leaders, died on Thursday at the age of 72. He worked with every Democratic White House of the past 30 years
President Biden described Trumka as a ‘very close personal friend’ after learning of his death. They are seen here hugging in 2010, when Vice President Biden attended the AFL-CIO executive council meeting at Walt Disney World
Trumka (center) was an important ally for the Biden White House in tackling the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic. He is pictured in the Oval Office during a meeting on the administration’s coronavirus response bill
Reports suggested he died after suffering a heart attack.
His death comes at a critical point for millions of workers and a White House plotting a course out of the economic wreckage of the coronavirus pandemic. Trumka had proved himself an important ally as the Biden administration battled Republican governors, supporting vaccine mandates for workers, for example.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer choked back tears as he announced the death on the Senate floor.
‘I rise today with some sad, horrible news about the passing of a great friend Rich Trumka who left us this morning,’ he said, before taking a breath. ‘We lost a fierce warrior.’
After composing himself, he added: ‘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.
Trumka was raised in in the small southeast Pennsylvania town of Nemacolin. He followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by working in a coalmine even as he studied at Penn State University.
He became the youngest ever leader of the United Mine Workers of America at the age of 33 in 1982.
But with his burly figure and thick moustache he always looked every inch the union organizer.
Richard Trumka, a reliable advocate for Democrats, is pictured speaking to the audience before a presidential primary debate on July 30 in Detroit
Trumka forged close relationships with the the last two Democratic administrations. He is pictured here as he introduced President Barack Obama at AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Washington in 2010
In 1993, he demonstrated his uncompromising side when the Union Mine Workers launched a nationwide strike against Peabody Coal, raising the possibility that some mines would hire in permanent replacement staff.
‘I’m saying if you strike a match and you put your finger in it, you’re likely to get burned,’ he said.
He quickly added that he was not threatening violence.
‘Common sense will tell you that in these strikes, that when you inject scabs, a number of things happen,’ he told the Associated Press at the time. ‘And a confrontation is one of the potentials that can happen.
‘Richard Trumka dedicated his life to the labor movement and the right to organize,’ said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
‘Richard’s leadership transcended a single movement, as he fought with principle and persistence to defend the dignity of every person.’
Sen. Joe Manchin said he was heartbroken at news of his friend’s death.
‘Rich’s is the American story – he was the son and grandson of Italian and Polish immigrants and began his career mining coal,’ he said. ‘He never forgot where he came from.’
Democratic lawmakers and labor leaders were quick to pay tribute to a man they said had dedicated his life and career to helping America’s working men and women
Rep. Eric Swalwell said: ‘He dedicated his life to ensuring more Americans could attain the American Dream. He’ll be sorely missed.’
Tim Schlittner, of the ALF-CIO, said the labor movement had lost a legend but promised that it would honor his legacy with action
‘He was a relentless champion of workers’ rights, workplace safety, worker-centered trade, democracy and so much more,’ he said.
‘He was also a devoted father, grandfather, husband, brother, coach, colleague and friend. Rich was loved and beloved.’
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the nation had lost one of its most effective advocates for working people.
‘From his earliest days working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, Rich has lived the values of the labor movement with the greatest passion and purpose,’he said.
‘He has touched and improved so many lives.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka dies at age 72: Schumer pays tribute to ‘fierce’ union leader