Richard Trumka, 1949-2021

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  • Richard Trumka
    American labor union leader

Richard Trumka, the longtime head of the AFL-CIO and the man who forged labor’s modern relationship with political activism, died Aug. 5 at the age of 72.

Although Trumka was hardly the first labor leader with a symbiotic relationship with the Democratic Party, under his influence, the AFL-CIO went from a group designed to exert influence on those in power to a kingmaking, essential force in grassroots-level politics that likely reshaped the landscape of domestic policy, and perhaps even the future of the Democratic Party.

Trumka was born into union labor. In the mining town of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, he followed both his father and his grandfather into the mines, beginning at age 19. He used the backbreaking job to put himself through college and then law school, always with an eye toward improving conditions in the industry that had become practically a family tradition.

He joined the United Mine Workers in the early 1980s, quickly rising through the ranks to become the union’s leader and then solidifying himself as a national force for labor rights in 1989, when he orchestrated a strike that grabbed headlines. Trumka, the Washington Post noted in his obituary, stood shoulder to shoulder “with miners and their allies, staging mass sit-ins to block coal trucks. Some 4,000 workers were arrested at demonstrations that turned violent at times, although Mr. Trumka said he advocated tactics that were peaceful, if nonetheless aggressive.” One example: “bent nails were used on roads to block replacement workers from arriving.”

He justified the aggressive approach by suggesting that what the coal companies were doing by allowing workers to breathe in the coal dust that caused “black lung” was itself violent. The experimental tactic quickly proved its efficacy.

He joined the AFL-CIO in the 1990s, bringing his aggressive “bulldog” approach to bear for about 12 million workers amid a difficult, declining moment in union history that many felt was the beginning of the end of organized labor.

That’s when Trumka started laying the groundwork for labor’s more modern political approach: partnering with community groups pursuing parallel goals to form a massive, patchwork association of liberal political leaders from a hodgepodge collection of organizations that had previously been at odds with each other, or, at least, apathetic to one another’s plights.

“The labor movement is the best vehicle out there to make broad social change that creates an America where everyone gets a chance to win once in a while, not just the people on Wall Street but every American out there,” he had said shortly after being elected to head the AFL-CIO in 2009. He convinced Democratic leaders and longtime Democratic voters of that fact, meshing racial and social justice campaigns with his own pursuit of greater numbers of unionized workers, and that union pressure should be brought to bear not just in times of contract negotiation.

“The lack of jobs is the first issue,” Trumka said in 2010. “The second issue is just like it: How do you make a job a good job? You make it a good job by unionizing and having collective bargaining so that the profits made from those workers is actually shared more equitably.”

Trumka, from the beginning of his career, “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,” the New York Times said.

Under Trumka’s watch, the AFL-CIO itself evolved from a workers rights organization to a political one, a shift that earned Trumka criticism from other labor leaders, particularly those who represented the underprivileged and the undocumented, who were often shut out of AFL-CIO membership. Trumka stumped aggressively for Barack Obama in 2008, forming a lasting kinship with Joe Biden.

Before he died, Trumka had been working closely with Biden on all aspects of domestic policy, helping to craft the pro-union Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, designed to facilitate labor organization in growing workplaces, and shaping the Biden American Jobs Plan, steering the White House toward ideas that ultimately benefited unions. He marshaled union support behind the White House’s infrastructure bills, wielding the power he’d accumulated, finally, at the highest levels, even though unions are seeing some of their lowest levels of membership.

Trumka died from a heart attack while on a camping trip with his family. He was, at the time, considering another term as AFL-CIO head.

Emily Zanotti is the director of editorial at the Daily Wire.

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