It was quite a journey for Richard Trumka, who was born in the coal fields of Pennsylvania and made his way to the halls of power in our nation’s capital.
The son of a coal miner, Trumka grew up in Nemacolin, an isolated, rural hamlet in southwestern Pennsylvania with about 1,000 people.
From those humble origins, Trumka became president of the United Mine Workers of America and later the AFL-CIO, a federation of 56 unions with 12.5 million members.
Trumka died last week, and many labor and political leaders praised him as one of the best labor leaders in the nation’s history.
“He wasn’t just a great labor leader, he was a friend,” said President Joe Biden after calling Trumka’s wife and son to offer his sympathy. “He was someone you could confide in.”
Biden said Trumka was also a man of his word, noting he didn’t mince words in speaking up for U.S. workers and other causes, from civil rights to workers’ rights to economic equality.
“He was always fighting for working people, protecting their wages, their safety, their pensions, and their ability to build a middle-class life,” Biden continued. “I’ve always believed the middle class built America and I know who built the middle-class: Unions. And Rich Trumka helped build those unions all across this country.”
Trumka worked for several years in the mines before graduating from Penn State University. He then received a law degree from the Villanova Law School and worked as a staff attorney with the UMWA in Washington, D.C.
He was elected as an International Executive Board Member of the UMWA in 1981 and became president in 1982.
But Trumka’s path to the presidency was not easy. He had to run against the incumbent President Sam Church, who waged a brutal campaign to keep his seat.
Church and his supporters accused Trumka of being too far left with ties to Communist and socialist groups. In the end, however, Trumka won the election by a margin of more than two-to-one.
It was then that our paths crossed. I was a long-time editor for the Herald-Standard newspaper in Uniontown, Fayette County, across the river from Nemacolin.
Trumka came to our office many times over the years to talk to our editorial board about the issues facing the UMWA and labor in general.
I found him to be an intelligent and compassionate person. He also took to questions very well, never becoming defensive or evasive. You always felt like you learned something just by talking to him.
Trumka then went on to become secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 1995 and then president in 2009.
While he didn’t meet with our editorial board as much as he used to, he occasionally stopped by and was always gracious with his time.
I was impressed that Trumka never forgot his Greene County roots. He would talk about coming home to hunt and see a high school football game. He had that unique ability to speak with the highest government and private business people yet still relate to coal miners and everyday workers.
Current UMWA President Cecil Roberts paid tribute to Trumka, noting he remained a dues-paying member of UMWA Local Union 6290. He added that Trumka’s last public remarks came at a UMWA rally in Alabama.
“The UMWA will forever be indebted to the strength, determination and commitment to the membership that Richard Trumka displayed as president, and then President Emeritus, of our union,” said Roberts. “He accomplished much in his long history of labor union leadership.”
In the month before the 2016 presidential election, Trumka campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton, touting her merits in a series of conversations with labor and political leaders across Pennsylvania.
One of his stops was at the Herald-Standard with our editorial board. It was great to see him again and talk about the good old days when he first ran for president of the UMWA.
But he also talked about how important the election was and the stark differences between Clinton and Donald Trump. He contended that Trump was dividing Americans across racial, religious, and economic lines and would be a terrible president. In contrast, Trumka said Clinton would listen to workers and bring the country together.
He added that Clinton would do much more than Trump to help communities like Nemacolin, devastated by the closing of local coal mines.
When pressed, Trumka admitted that Clinton faced an uphill battle among many members of the UMW and the AFL-CIO. But he hoped that workers would come to their senses and back Clinton in the end,
That didn’t happen as southwestern Pennsylvania backed Trump by a wide margin, sparking his victory in Pennsylvania and the Electoral College.
Trumka had the last laugh, though, as Biden, his friend, and close ally, beat Trump last year in his bid for re-election.
His meeting with our editorial board was the last time I saw Rich, and I was very sad to hear of his untimely death at the age of 72. But he left a rich legacy.
Trumka never wavered in his commitment to improving the lives of American workers. He battled on their behalf until the end of his life.
Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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