Richard Trumka, who had led the AFL-CIO since 2009, died on Thursday at the age of 72.
Trumka was known as a battler in his younger days, starting out as a Pennsylvania coal miner and moving up to the presidency of the United Mine Workers in 1982 at age 33.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer got emotional in announcing Trumka’s death on the Senate floor. “The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most,” Schumer said.
The AFL-CIO is a shadow of its former self. At the height of its political power in the 1950s, the unions associated with the AFL-CIO represented almost 35 percent of American labor. That number is now 11 percent, which has led to an existential crisis for organized labor. Trumka did little to stem the exodus of workers from the organization and resorted to bribing Democrats to try and ease the rules that gave management and labor a roughly equal playing field in certification elections.
Trumka is not without blood on his hands.
A third generation coal miner, Trumka took a job in the mines at age 19. After graduating from Pennsylvania State University and law school at Villanova University, he began work as a staff attorney for the United Mine Workers of America in their Washington, DC headquarters. By 1982, he was president of the union, and during his 13-year reign, he built a reputation for outspoken and aggressive action, especially against the management of businesses the UMWA sought to organize. The aggressiveness came to a head in 1993, when Trumka led the UMWA out on strike against Peabody Coal, an action characterized by violence that left one non-union worker, Eddie York, dead of a gunshot wound.
It’s hard to say that Trumka fought for “the little guy,” despite what Schumer and other Democrats are saying. The policies he promoted did little to expand opportunities for workers as radicals moved in to control many unions. The industrial unions — the backbone of organized labor and of America — have lost clout and Trumka did nothing to stop that.
At one time, labor unions were necessary and good. Most of what we think of today as “work” came about through the struggles of organized labor. The five-day work week, health benefits, vacation, sick days — these things were unheard of 100 years ago. Those benefits were earned by the blood and sacrifice of ordinary Americans who fought to make the lives of all of us better.
Trumka was not of that generation nor was he interested in making the lives of all Americans better. The “labor movement” — if there is such a thing anymore — has lost its power because the workers themselves refuse to cede their own influence and power to corrupt officials.