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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka Dies At 72

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

One of the nation's most powerful and influential leaders in the labor movement died yesterday. President Biden called union leader Richard Trumka a very close friend. The labor federation AFL-CIO called its president a relentless champion of workers' rights. Trumka was a giant of the labor movement. NPR's Andrea Hsu has this remembrance.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: At 19, Richard Trumka followed his father and grandfather into the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania. And he kept going back even though he had other ambitions.

CHIP YABLONSKI: Well, in 1974, I learned that there was a coal miner that was going to law school.

HSU: That's Chip Jablonski, then general counsel for the United Mine Workers. He interviewed Trumka and hired him on the spot. In the years that followed, Trumka worked to negotiate big contracts for the miners. He went to court and participated in trials. And then, Jablonski says, Trumka went back to the coal mines.

YABLONSKI: He went to work underground again for another couple years to get his full five years of service in so that he could run for international union office. That is, to me, the most remarkable thing about him.

HSU: At 33, Trumka was elected the youngest president of the United Mine Workers and served until he became secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 1995 and then president in 2009. Throughout those years, he aligned himself closely with the Democratic Party. He spoke at the 2012 Democratic convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD TRUMKA: We have to rebuild the middle class together. Our economy works best when it works for everyone, not just the select few.

HSU: Trumka also played a pivotal role during the Trump administration, pressing for changes in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal that eventually brought Democrats on board. On Thursday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke about Trumka on the Senate floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: He had in his veins, in every atom of his body, the heart, the thoughts, the needs of the working people of America.

HSU: Trumka's former chief of staff Jon Hiatt says his boss was...

JON HIATT: Somebody who genuinely believed in the power of collective action.

HSU: And he was combative. Here he was protesting the government shutdown in 2019, calling it a lockout.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMKA: Shame on the Senate. Shame on the White House. This lockout has to end. And it has to end now.

(CHEERING)

HSU: But his decades in the labor movement tracked with a decline in union membership. And so in recent months, Trumka was pleased to be working with the Biden administration on the PRO Act, a bill that would protect the right to organize. Trumka talked up the legislation on C-SPAN just last week. He said corporations are too strong, and workers are too weak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMKA: This would balance that out. It would give the workers the power to come together as one to negotiate with their employer for better wages, better conditions on the job and better retirement benefits. I think that's what's needed in this country.

HSU: In one of his final acts, he appeared on video at a rally this week in support of striking coal miners in Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMKA: I stand with my brothers and sisters at Warrior Met. I stand with you today. I stand with you tomorrow. And I'll stand with you for as long as it takes to win a fair contract.

HSU: That was Richard Trumka appearing in a video just two days ago. He was 72.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YANN TIERSEN'S "PERN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.