WASHINGTON (AP) – Richard Trumka, the powerful president of the AFL-CIO labor union, has died at age 72, Democratic leaders said Thursday.
News of his death was announced by President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Trumka had been AFL-CIO president since 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years.
“The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.
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.
Further details of Trumka’s death were not immediately available. The AFL-CIO did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Trumka oversaw a union with more than 12.5 million members, according to the AFL-CIO’s website.
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.
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