AFL-CIO President Trumka, prominent US labour leader, dies at 72

Former coal miner and campaigner for workers’ rights led a federation of labour unions representing 12.5 million US workers.

President of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka, a champion of labour rights in the United States and worldwide, has died [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

Richard Trumka, the president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), has died at age 72, representatives for the United States-based group said on Thursday.

Local chapters of the labour group in Philadelphia and Ohio posted condolences on Twitter announcing his death. US lawmakers posted messages of condolences about Trumka.

Trumka died unexpectedly of a likely heart attack, one unnamed source told the Politico news organisation.

“It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that we have learned @AFLCIO President Richard Trumka has passed away. You have been a champion for workers and an incredible pillar in the fight for workers’ rights,” the Philadelphia AFL-CIO unit tweeted.

“We will continue your never-ending fight for social and economic justice for every working person,” the Ohio chapter also said on Twitter.

“The Congress and Country are shocked and heartbroken by the passing of an unsurpassed titan of labour,” House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

“Personally and officially, I am greatly saddened by his passing, which is a great loss for the men and women of labor, and indeed, for all hard-working Americans,” Speaker Pelosi said.

President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House that Trumka was a close personal friend. A teary-eyed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced news of Trumka’s passing on the Senate floor.

Trumka, a third-generation coal miner from Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, began working in the mines at age 19, and became president of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 55 unions representing 12.5 million workers, in 2009.

He presided over the AFL-CIO at a time of increasing challenges for the US labour movement.

Trumka had pushed US lawmakers to revise trade deals and make it easier for unions to organise new members and had secured new labour protections in revisions to the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement under the administration of former US President Donald Trump.

“What a loss. Whether you knew Richard Trumka or not, you likely benefited from his decades of leadership and labour organizing,” tweeted Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, whom Trumka had backed strongly.

As a candidate, pushed by Trumka, Clinton opposed US ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement negotiated under US leadership by the Obama administration.

A descendant of Polish and Italian immigrants, Trumka was an advocate for immigration reform in the US as a way to raise wages and living standards for all workers [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

US withdrawal from the TPP under Trump became a major turning point in US policy, turning away from expanding world trade through large-scale, multi-lateral tariff reductions.

Trumka saw the damage trade liberalisation was doing to American jobs in the mid-1990s and spoke out early against corporations shifting their production to low-wage countries.

In 1995, with former AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney, Trumka campaigned to shift the labour federation’s focus to address globalisation and the impact on workers.

“We want to refocus international campaigns, make them relevant to winning campaigns for workers here and creating cross-border solidarity,” Trumka told the Journal of Commerce newspaper.

In 1982 at age 33, Trumka was the youngest person elected president of the United Mine Workers union.

Seven years later a fiery Trumka led mine workers in a 15-month strike over pensions and health benefits against the Pittston Coal Company in the Appalachian region of the US state of Virginia.

The strike was bitter and violent; more than 4,000 workers were arrested in civil disobedience incidents. But the union won reinstatement of pension and health benefits.

“Pittston was a very, very profitable company that wanted to make more money by welching on promises it made to its workers,” Trumka recalled in a 2010 television interview on The Laura Flanders Show. “We saved health care in the industry.”

In 1992, Congress mandated US coal companies provide miners with retirement and health care benefits.

“He was a relentless champion of workers’ rights, workplace safety, worker-centred trade, democracy and so much more,” AFL-CIO spokesman Tim Schlittner said in a statement on Trumka’s passing on Thursday.

Trumka will likely be replaced by Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the highest ranking woman ever to hold office in the US labour federation. Shuler was a close ally of Trumka within the organisation and has led its outreach to younger workers.

She is likely to face a challenge by Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants in the AFL-CIO’s next leadership elections in June 2022 as US labour groups confront the gig economy and pursue organising drives at e-commerce giant Inc.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies