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Opinion Rich Trumka lived in solidarity

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks on June 27, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Solidarity is a virtue we neither discuss nor practice enough. We hear a lot about compassion and empathy, and certainly need more of both. But solidarity is a deeper commitment, rooted in equality and mutuality.

Pope John Paul II saw solidarity not as a feeling of “shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people” but as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to . . . the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all.”

I don’t think Richard Trumka, the descendant of Polish immigrants, would mind my quoting the Polish pontiff to explain why I will miss his voice.

The president of the AFL-CIO, who died on Thursday at age 72, lived the idea of solidarity when he took the side of reformers in his own mineworkers union and when he stood up to racism.

He never, ever looked down on the White working class in which he was nurtured as the third generation who went into the coal mines. He made the case for racial justice as an old-fashioned trade unionist who understood the costs of racial division — to everyone.

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Trumka had the eloquence of the plain-spoken, one reason that a speech he gave at a steelworkers convention on behalf of Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign went viral.

“We can’t tap-dance around the fact that there’s a lot of folks out there,” Trumka said, “and a lot of them are good union people, they just can’t get past the idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a Black man.”

This was wrong, he said, and deadly to workers’ interests. “There’s no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism, and it’s something that we in the labor movement have a very, very special responsibility to challenge,” he said. “It’s our special responsibility because we know better than anyone else how racism is used to divide working people.”

An important fact about Trumka: He didn’t have to follow his father and grandfather into the mines. This college and law-school graduate could have joined many in his generation who moved up and out. But he saw his future with the union, and to lead it, he had to respect the rules requiring time near the coalface.

“There aren’t many lawyers going underground and breathing as much coal dust as Rich did,” said Don Stillman, who was a strategist for Miners for Democracy, the movement that reformed the autocratic and corrupt mineworkers union. “That’s tough work. It’s dirty. It’s dangerous.”

And Trumka, Stillman added, threw in his lot with “the miners who had the courage to fight the status quo in his own union.”

“Courage” is no empty word here. On New Year’s Eve 1969, Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, who had challenged W.A. “Tony” Boyle, the dictatorial union president, was shot dead at his home, along with his wife and daughter. Boyle had ordered the hiring of the gunmen. Joseph “Chip” Yablonski Jr., a lawyer and the slain leader’s son, told me in an email that Trumka’s early choices, including leaving “the safe and comfortable confines of the union’s legal department,” were “emblematic of his entire career in the labor movement.”

The democracy forces prevailed, and Trumka eventually rose to the mineworkers’ presidency at just 33.

In his nearly 12 years as president of the AFL-CIO, Trumka did not reverse the long decline of America’s labor movement. Legislation to facilitate organizing failed during the Obama years as Democrats refused to reciprocate the support the unions offered them in election after election.

He hoped that President Biden, who on Thursday called him a “dear friend,” might be more responsive. It would be appropriate if the death of this champion of the men and women in the mines and mills, construction sites and retail stores, inspired a new engagement with labor-law reform.

It was Trumka’s vocation as a man rooted in an old industry and in organized labor’s oldest traditions to secure its future by acknowledging the shortcomings of its past.

“We as a movement have not always done our best to support our brothers and sisters of color who face challenges both on and off the job, challenges that you really don’t understand unless you live them, day in and day out,” he told the Missouri AFL-CIO in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

“See, the test of our movement’s commitment to our legacy is not whether we post Dr. King’s picture in our union halls but, rather, do we take up the fight when the going gets tough, when the fight gets real, against the evils that still exist today?” he said. “We can’t afford any longer to have my issues and your issues. We must all stand together and mobilize around our issues.”

That was solidarity speaking.