AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in his office, which overlooks the White House. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Here’s the story of how I got where I am. I was about 12 years old at the time, and the miners were on strike, and I was with my maternal grandfather. We were having a conversation, and I asked him, “What can I do to help workers.” He said: “Look around you. Who’s the people who can influence people the most?” And I said, “Politicians.” And he almost backhanded me, because he was real “fond” of politicians. And I said, “Lawyers.” And he said, “That’s right. If you want to help miners, get yourself a law degree and help miners. Stand up for them.” And that sort of set me on the course.

When I got out of high school, I got a job at the mine. It was a bright, sunny day, and I came home. I ran up the steps. And my dad was on the back porch, sitting on the second step up, with his feet on the bottom and his back against the steps against the house. And I said: “I got a job! I got a job, Dad.” And he said: “That’s great, son. Where did you get a job at?” And I said, “At the mine.” And he got this faraway look in his eyes. In the military, they call it the thousand-yard stare. And he said the following words to me: “The day you drop one drop of sweat in that mine, or lose one drop of blood in that mine, it’ll crawl into your soul, and you’ll never get rid of it.” And I thought, That’s a crock. But it was absolutely true. Once you work underground, the camaraderie, the closeness, it’s the way America should be right now, where everybody watches everybody else’s back. I mean, your worst enemy above ground when you were underground would watch your back, and you’d watch his or hers, because everyone’s life depended on everybody else. You faced the common foe, and that was Mother Nature. And there were thousands of ways that you could get killed, crippled or maimed. And there’s something just very powerful about it that draws you back to it.

I went to work in the mines and got elected to the chairman of the safety committee, which is probably the most important committee underground at the mines. And I started speaking up for miners, and I guess they saw something in me that I perhaps did not see or think about. The union helped me go through law school. Back then, the mining town was 70 to 80 miles south of Pittsburgh, and, to us, a major journey for the family was a trip to Pittsburgh. So, back then, no one thought you’d be anywhere other than the mines.

I’m a worker. I think like a worker. I identify with workers. The battle keeps getting tougher, but it’s still the same type of battle.