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Remembering Rich Trumka

Rich's impact on our union and on organized labor's struggles and achievements will not be forgotten. He was down to earth but bigger than life. He touched millions of workers through his leadership and dogged dedication to labor's causes.

Organized labor lost a beloved and legendary leader with the passing of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka August 5. And the Boilermakers lost a dear friend and an extraordinary ally.

Rich was on a camping trip with his family when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 72 years old.

Our hearts and prayers go out to Rich's family and to all those who knew, loved and respected this great man, this indomitable champion of working people.

Rich fought valiantly and relentlessly for labor's causes throughout his career. For the past dozen years, he stood at the helm of organized labor. He was the face of labor in the media, on Capitol Hill and on the front lines of numerous struggles against social injustice and worker oppression.

Rich grew up near Pittsburgh, the son of a Polish American coal miner and an Italian American homemaker. His blue-collar roots led him to work in the mines, like his father, while he attended college. He graduated in 1971 from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor of Science degree and received his law degree from Villanova University School of Law three years later. Bright, energetic and articulate, Rich could have one day found himself among the business or political elite. Instead he chose to return to his roots and dedicate his life to working people and unionism.

Rich served as a staff attorney with the United Mine Workers from 1974 to 1979 and went on to become president of the union in 1982, at the young age of 33.

His courage and unswerving leadership during the successful nine-month strike against Pittston Coal Company in 1989 and during the nationwide strike against Peabody Coal in 1993 won him much deserved respect across the labor community.

He was elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 1995 and president in 2009. Rich was a leading advocate and an influential power on some of the key issues of our time, standing up for stronger labor protections as the Trump Administration sought to rewrite the NAFTA trade agreement and leading the charge, during both the Obama and Biden administrations, in labor's push for the PRO Act to make union organizing easier and fairer.

Although his schedule must have been incredibly full, he took time to speak to Boilermakers at consolidated conventions and other events where he was met with enthusiasm and standing ovations. His passionate, powerful voice spoke of labor's trials, opportunities and the need to "walk through the fire together" to achieve justice and fairness.

During our virtual consolidated convention this past July, Rich reached out to our union with a message about the important contributions Boilermakers make to society. He told us, "Without Boilermakers, America can't build the modern marvels to compete against the world, and we certainly won't defeat climate change without the Boilermakers at the table."

It often seemed that Rich was a natural part of our union, and indeed we were proud to have made him an honorary Boilermaker member years ago.

Rich never backed down from powerful corporate and political foes. At a past LEAP conference, he told us, "We're fighting for financial reform. We're looking fundamentally for a different kind of economy, an economy that really does work for the working people and not just those at the top." He lambasted the Wall Street banks and investment firms responsible for the Great Recession, calling them "looters of our economy."

Rich understood the value and promise of the Boilermakers' initiative to recast Brotherhood Bank & Trust as Bank of Labor. He was there to cut the ribbon as we launched Bank of Labor's Washington, D.C., offices in 2016, and he continued to support the bank as it expanded to offer unions an alternative to Wall Street banks that use labor's money against labor.

Rich's impact on our union and on organized labor's struggles and achievements will not be forgotten. He was down to earth but bigger than life. He touched millions of workers through his leadership and dogged dedication to labor's causes.

We miss him and will treasure his memory always. And we will continue the fight he so ably led.

With the historic election of Liz Schuler as AFL-CIO president (the first female to hold that position) and Fred Redmond of the Steelworkers as secretary-treasurer, a new chapter begins for organized labor. Without question, Rich Trumka set the bar very high for all of us.

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Published September 30, 2021

The Boilermaker Reporter

Volume 60, Number 3
Jul 2021 to Sep 2021
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