WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — Richard Trumka, the powerful president of the AFL-CIO labor union, has died.
“The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today,” the AFL-CIO said in a statement. “Rich Trumka devoted his life to working people, from his early days as president of the United Mine Workers of America to his unparalleled leadership as the voice of America’s labor movement.”
Schumer, an ally of the union boss, announced Trumka’s death from the Senate floor Thursday.
“The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” Schumer said.
President Joe Biden called Trumka “a close friend” who was “more than the head of AFL-CIO.” He apologized for showing up late to a meeting with Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander civil rights leaders, saying he had just learned Trumka had died.
Trumka, 72, represented the AFL-CIO since 2009 and was seen as a giant of the labor movement. He oversaw a union with more than 12.5 million members, according to the AFL-CIO’s website.
A burly man with thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, Trumka was the son and grandson of coal miners. He grew up in the small southeast Pennsylvania town of Nemacolin, where he worked as a coal miner while attending Penn State University.
A longtime labor leader, Trumka was elected in 1982 at age 33 as the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America.
There, he led a successful strike against the Pittston Coal Company, which tried to avoid paying into an industrywide health and pension fund, the union’s website said.
As AFL-CIO president, he ushered in a more aggressive style of leadership and vowed to revive unions’ sagging membership rolls and pledged to make the labor movement appeal to a new generation of workers who perceive unions as “only a grainy, faded picture from another time.”
“We need a unionism that makes sense to the next generation of young women and men who either don’t have the money to go to college or are almost penniless by the time they come out,” Trumka told hundreds of cheering delegates in a speech at the union’s annual convention in 2009.
Eulogies quickly poured out from Democrats in Congress.
“Richard Trumka dedicated his life to the labor movement and the right to organize,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “Richard’s leadership transcended a single movement, as he fought with principle and persistence to defend the dignity of every person.”
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he was “heartbroken” to learn of the death of his friend.
“Rich’s story is the American story — he was the son and grandson of Italian and Polish immigrants and began his career mining coal. He never forgot where he came from. He dedicated the rest of his career to fighting for America’s working men and women,” Manchin said in a statement.
An official for the labor organization and another major union president speaking on the condition of anonymity also confirmed the death to Reuters. A union spokeswoman did not immediately comment.
Further details of Trumka’s death were not immediately available.
Condolences also poured in from local chapters of the AFLCIO.
“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 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 Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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