The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Labor leader remembered as key ally of Democrats

Richard Trumka rose to power through the United Mine Workers and led the AFL-CIO for 11 years.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks during an interview with Reuters in Washington in 2019. Trumka, 72, died unexpectedly on Aug. 5 after a heart attack. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, one of the country’s most powerful labor leaders and an influential voice in many Washington debates, died unexpectedly at 72, according to the federation.

Trumka died on a camping trip with his family after suffering a heart attack, President Biden told reporters, saying Trumka was a close friend of his.

A third-generation coal miner who rose to power through the United Mine Workers, Trumka had become one of the most powerful labor leaders in the country and a key ally of Democrats in Washington, having worked in some capacity with every Democratic White House the last 30 years.

His death comes during a critical moment for the economy and millions of workers.

Washington leaders and governors are locked in a fierce debate about the best way to reopen the economy amid risks posed by the new delta variant of the coronavirus. Many Democrats and White House officials had looked to Trumka for direction on how best to proceed.

Trumka had been president of the AFL-CIO, a group of more than 50 labor unions representing 12.5 million members, since 2009, and active in the fight for labor rights dating back decades before that.

He has played an important part in debates during both Democratic and Republican administrations, playing a key role during the Trump administration’s effort to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement. Democrats only signed onto the pact after Trumka helped negotiate key changes.

As labor issues took center stage in the Biden administration, Trumka’s profile — and sway — was perhaps at its peak. With his blue collar background and working class credibility, he had been a crucial ally and public advocate in the larger discussions about strengthening the country’s labor laws, through legislation like the Pro Act, that remains a top Democratic priority.

“He was a relentless champion of workers’ rights, workplace safety, worker-centered trade, democracy and so much more,” the AFL-CIO said in a statement. “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.”

During the pandemic, Trumka’s positions on complicated issues like workplace safety, and vaccine mandates — which he recently expressed support for — and other policies helped set the tone for the rest of the country.

He had recently been championing the White House’s push to pass an infrastructure package, which he called the biggest infrastructure bill in history. He said it would create the type of strong jobs needed for the country’s recovery.

“This will help us with schools, transit, roads, and make us more competitive, make the U.S. more competitive on the global market,” he said, during a recent appearance on CSPAN. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

The news of his death reverberated instantly through Washington.

“I rise today with some sad, some horrible news about the passing of a great friend, Rich Trumka, who left us this morning,” Sen. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-New York), said on the senate floor, pausing to gather composure. “The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most. Just yesterday, Rich was lending his support to the striking miners in Alabama.”

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) also expressed condolences.

“He never forgot where he came from,” he 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.”

Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, also released a statement.

“We’ve lost one of the nation’s fiercest, most effective advocates for working people ever,” he said. “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 has touched and improved so many lives.”

Last month, Biden nominated Trumka’s son, Richard Trumka Jr., to a seat on the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Richard Trumka Jr. is an attorney on a key committee in the House of Representatives.

Mike DeBonis and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.