Updated Aug 6, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Top labor leader Richard Trumka dies unexpectedly at 72

Richard Trumka
Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who led the largest federation of unions in the country for over a decade, has died at 72.

The big picture: Trumka began working as a coal miner in 1968 and would go on to dedicate his life to the labor movement, including as president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO beginning in 2009.

  • Trumka was an important ally to President Biden, who called him a "very close personal friend" upon hearing the news of his death on Thursday.
  • The AFL-CIO endorsed Biden in May 2020, providing a critical boost from Trumka's powerful coalition as Biden competed with former President Trump for the support of working-class voters in November.

What they're saying: "For Rich, work was synonymous with a word that defined his life: dignity. In the more than thirty years of our friendship, he was a fierce and forceful champion for the dignity of the American worker," Biden said in a statement, noting that he had just spoken with Trumka in an unscheduled call "to check in as old friends do."

  • "I was lucky to know Rich for many years, and I was always proud to work with him," Vice President Kamala Harris said in a statement. "Today, my thoughts and prayers are with Rich’s wife Barbara, their son Rich Jr., and their grandchildren Richard and Taylor."  
  • "The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation lost a legend today. 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," AFL-CIO communications director Tim Schlittner said in a statement.
  • "Today, the 56 unions and 12.5 million members of the AFL-CIO mourn the passing of our fearless leader and commit to honoring his legacy with action. Standing on Rich’s shoulders, we will pour everything we have into building an economy, society and democracy that lifts up every working family and community.”

A teary-eyed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Trumka's death on the Senate floor on Thursday, saying, "The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most."

  • "Just yesterday, Rich was lending his support to the striking miners in Alabama," Schumer said.

"Rich’s story is the American story — he was the son and grandson of Italian and Polish immigrants and began his career mining coal," Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in a statement.

  • "He never forgot where he came from. He dedicated the rest of his career to fighting for America’s working men and women. He was a fierce advocate for working people and a truly decent man."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with statements of remembrance from the president and vice president.

Go deeper