Until he became an unwitting flash point in the nation’s culture wars, Richard Trumka Jr. was little known to most Americans, despite being the son of a famous labor leader.
Ban gas stoves? Totalitarian, declared Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands,” tweeted Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.).
Trumka never imagined his offhand comments would ignite such a viral furor, which partly explains why he is now clearly uncomfortable talking about himself. At the beginning of an hour-long interview with The Washington Post, he fidgeted with his hands and looked at the floor. He was reluctant, he said, to become part of the story.
“We work on incredibly important safety issues here,” Trumka said, referring to the commission’s work protecting the public from dangerous household products. “And I always want the story to be about that, not about me.”
Of course, many stories have been written about Trumka’s father, the late Richard Trumka Sr., who presided over the nation’s largest federation of unions for more than a decade before his death in 2021. As president of the AFL-CIO, he was known for his aggressive style of leadership, thick mustache and confrontational manner.
His son has the same thick mustache, but that’s where many of the similarities end. The younger Trumka is more soft-spoken and has granted few interviews since joining the CPSC in October 2021. He doesn’t project the image of a power-obsessed bureaucrat bent on taking away people’s freedoms, as defenders of gas stoves have sought to depict his comments.
Indeed, if there are recurrent themes in Trumka’s career, protecting young people would be a big one. He’s the father of two young children and is highly attentive to the risks they face in everyday life. To that end, the commission recently passed a rule to prevent cords in window coverings from accidentally strangling kids. Another recent rule seeks to prevent kids from swallowing magnets and suffering serious internal injuries.
In agreeing to talk to The Post, Trumka said he wanted to discuss topics other than gas stoves. Still, he acknowledged that there is a reason he cooks with an electric range at home: He wants to protect the lungs and health of his 3-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
“I won’t pretend that I do all the cooking in my house,” Trumka said. “But I pitch in, and I help. And so do my kids. And so if I didn’t have an electric stove, I might be thinking about a switch right now.”
On the wall of Trumka’s office, to the right of his desk, hangs a striking photo of discarded vape cartridges. They were collected, he said, at a New Jersey high school the day after Juul stopped selling fruit-flavored pods. Most of the cartridges in the photo are green, not orange, meaning the students quickly moved on from mango to menthol.
“If you leave any flavor on the market, kids are going to use it,” Trumka said. “It’s one of those examples of how terrifying it can be for a product to be unleashed on the market with no knowledge of how dangerous it can be.”
As a staffer on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Trumka investigated the e-cigarette industry’s efforts to hook teenagers on vaping. Following his probe, the Food and Drug Administration banned fruit-flavored vape cartridges that appeal to teens, citing a lack of data on their potential health risks.
As a congressional staffer, he also probed the presence of lead and other toxic heavy metals in baby foods. Exposure to lead, even at low levels, can harm children’s health and development, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trumka’s reports for Congress prompted the FDA to create a new program to address the issue. (The agency Tuesday also proposed new limits on lead in food products intended for babies and young kids, including most fruits, vegetables and yogurts.)
“Parents were very justifiably outraged,” Trumka recalled of his work on the committee. “They assumed that things that were sold for babies would be safe for babies.”
When most people think about window coverings, magnets or yogurt, they don’t immediately think of the potential risks. But Trumka sees danger lurking everywhere he looks, even inside his own home.
“It’s very easy to see how everyday things can be hazardous,” Trumka said, adding later, “I’m much more paranoid than the average person.”
Some parents lie awake at night with fears of what might happen to their children. When asked whether he has trouble sleeping, Trumka laughed and pointed to two wooden bowls on the table and a wooden pencil holder on his desk. He carved them himself in the middle of the night.
“I don’t sleep,” he said. “I never have. I go into my workshop after my kids and my wife are asleep, and I do my second shift.”
Son of a coal miner
On the bookshelf behind his desk, Trumka keeps several photos of his father. A visitor could be excused if they mistook father for son — same push-broom ’stache, same dark eyes, same serious expression with the flicker of a smile.
When he was 5 years old, Trumka accompanied his father to the picket lines during a strike against the Pittston Coal Company. At the time, his father was the president of the United Mine Workers of America, and he was encouraging miners to confront Pittston over its decision to take away retirement and health benefits.
“As a 5-year-old, I didn’t really understand what I was looking at,” Trumka recalled. “But the image of everyone sacrificing everything, for a cause they believed in, has always stuck with me.”
After graduating from Cornell and Georgetown University’s law school, Trumka could have followed in his father’s footsteps. But he has “gone to great lengths to forge his own path,” said Bob Starin, a friend of Trumka’s since childhood.
“I think it’s safe to say he could’ve had opportunities in the labor movement, had he so desired,” Starin said in a phone interview. “But nothing was pushed on him in that regard.”
While gas stove supporters have painted Trumka as an enemy of fossil fuels, he comes from a family with deep roots in the coal industry.
Both of Trumka’s grandfathers were miners from southwestern Pennsylvania, and both men died of black-lung disease, which is caused by inhaling toxic coal and silica dust in underground mines. No one had warned them about the dangers of black lung, much less taught them how to protect themselves.
“They could have been bitter and complained about the years of their life that they lost or the pain that they went through,” Trumka said. “But they weren’t. They were hopeful, and they cared about the power of information. They knew that if they talked about this [disease], they could help the next generation of miners be safer and healthier.”
When asked about some people’s anger over talk of regulating gas stoves, Trumka returned to the idea of information reverberating in unexpected ways.
“When you learn upsetting new information about something you’ve been around for a long time — maybe your whole life — you can never predict people’s reactions,” he said. “And there is going to be justifiable anger, and sometimes it’s misdirected.”
Some conservatives see Trumka’s comments on gas stoves as a glaring example of government overreach. “Liberals often accuse conservatives of wanting the government in the bedroom, while they themselves are hard at work padding every other room in the house with layers of regulatory Bubble Wrap,” analysts with the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, wrote in a recent blog post.
Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, went on Fox News and accused President Biden and Democrats of seeking to ban gas stoves to flex their political power. “Banning things other people like and enjoy is the purest expression of power,” Carlson said. “When you can snatch someone’s pleasure away, you feel like God.”
Carlson didn’t mention Trumka, nor did he mention that the CPSC is in the very early stages of weighing regulations on new gas stoves. Years of research — not just a recent study under attack by the gas industry — has found that gas stoves emit nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant linked to childhood asthma and other respiratory problems. The commission plans to solicit information on the possible health risks of gas stoves in March; any rules would not be finalized for at least a year.
If there is any upshot to the gas stove debate, Trumka said, at least more people are talking about the potential health risks caused by indoor air pollution from the appliances.
“People have that information and can make choices for themselves at this point,” Trumka said. “That’s fantastic.”