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Western Pennsylvanians React To The Death Of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

Richard Trumka
Alex Brandon
FILE - In this April 4, 2017 file photo, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka listens at the National Press Club in Washington. Richard Trumka, the powerful president of the AFL-CIO labor union, has died, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Schumer, an ally of the union boss, announced Trumka’s death from the Senate floor Thursday.

Richard Trumka, the powerful president of the AFL-CIO who rose from the coal mines of Pennsylvania to preside over one of the largest labor organizations in the world, died Thursday. He was 72.

The federation confirmed Trumka’s death in a statement. He had been AFL-CIO president since 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer for 14 years. From his perch, he oversaw a federation with more than 12.5 million members and ushered in a more aggressive style of leadership.

“The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today," the AFL-CIO said. “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.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Trumka's death from the Senate floor. “The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most," he said.

President Joe Biden eulogized Trumka from the White House and said the labor leader had died of a heart attack while on a camping trip with his son and grandkids. He said he spoke with Trumka’s widow and son earlier in the day.

“He wasn’t just a great labor leader. He was a friend,“ Biden told reporters Thursday. “He was someone I could confide in, and you knew, whatever he said he would do, he would do.”

A burly man with thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, Trumka was the son and grandson of coal miners. He grew up in Nemacolin, a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, where he worked as a coal miner while attending Penn State University.

In 1982, he was elected at age 33 as the youngest president of the United Mine Workers of America, pledging that the then-troubled union “shall rise again.”

There, he led a successful strike against the Pittston Coal Company, which tried to avoid paying into an industry-wide health and pension fund, the union’s website said.

Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, said he was "devastated" when he heard about Trumka's death. He praised Trumka's leadership, saying he made sure workers in western Pennsylvania voices were always included in labor conversations.

"The one thing I can say about Rich is no matter where he went, no matter what school you went to, no matter what office he held, he never forgot about his roots," Kelly said.

In a statement, United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway expressed his gratitude for Trumka's work over the decades, and offered condolences to his family.

"Rich's was always one of the loudest voices in calling for not only fair wages and working conditions but also for an economic system in which all workers have a seat at the table."

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, in a statement Thursday afternoon, praised Trumka's contributions to the region.

"Richard Trumka has been a champion for working people his entire life," the statement read. "His death is a loss for working people, and the loss of a clear voice for working rights in America.

Democratic state Sen. Jay Costa also expressed his condolences to Trumka's family, saying the former labor leader "embodied the ideals of this commonwealth through his hard work as a coal miner in Nemacolin," and his union leadership.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey call Trumka a leader who worked to "advance the cause of justice." Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Trumka "stood for the working class people who built our nation."

At age 43, Trumka led a nationwide strike against Peabody Coal in 1993. During the walk-out, he stirred controversy.

Asked about the possibility the company would hire permanent replacement workers, Trumka told The Associated Press: “I’m saying if you strike a match and you put your finger on it, you’re likely to get burned.” Trumka insisted he wasn’t threatening violence against the replacements. “Do I want it to happen? Absolutely not. Do I think it can happen? Yes, I think it can happen,” he told the AP.

As AFL-CIO president, he 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.

That year, he was also a leading proponent during the health care debate for including a public, government-run insurance option, and he threatened Democrats who opposed one.

“We need to be a labor movement that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies and challenges those who, well, can’t seem to decide which side they’re on,” he said in August 2009.

During the 2011 debate about public employee union rights in GOP-controlled statehouses, Trumka said the angry protests it sparked were overdue.

He said he hoped then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to strip public employee unions of their bargaining power, which drew thousands of protesters to the Capitol in Madison, could renew support for unions after decades of decline. Whether he meant to or not, Trumka said, Walker started a national debate about collective bargaining “that this country sorely needed to have.”

Eulogies poured in Thursday from Trumka's Democratic allies in Washington.

“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.

Gabe Morgan is Vice President of 32BJ SEIU, the largest property service workers union in the country. He said Trumka was "a great labor leader".

“Richard Trumka made the lives of millions of working families better," Morgan said in a written statement. "His legacy will live on through the power of the labor movement he leaves behind.”

The Associated Press' Brian Slodysko and Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm