In one of his early moves as the new president of the United Mine Workers of America, Richard Trumka established a solidarity program with Black mine workers in South Africa. It was the mid-1980s. The apartheid regime was tightening its brutal grip on South Africa, and then-President Ronald Reagan was refusing to align the United States with the global movement to put economic pressure on the racist regime. As the thirtysomething leader of a union that was fighting plenty of its own battles at home, Trumka responded to the call from the National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa for a boycott of Royal Dutch Shell, a multinational oil conglomerate that had invested heavily in mining and other South African industries.
Trumka chaired the US boycott committee, playing a critical role in getting other unions on board and, with TransAfrica’s Randall Robinson, became one of the most outspoken advocates for the economic struggle against apartheid. With Robinson, the UMWA president urged the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations to support the boycott, explaining, “Without Shell, the South African government could not withstand the pressure and would fall. They are the pillar. That company, more than any other, is propping up the government of South Africa.” Trumka then toured the country to rally support for the boycott and the broader fight against apartheid, telling union crowds that they had to join this struggle.
“True labor solidarity cannot be limited by national boundaries or the color of a person’s skin. My opposition to apartheid comes not only from my personal beliefs and values, but is also deeply rooted in the history of my union,” he declared at a historic rally in Chicago in 1988.
Richard Trumka, who would go on to become the president of the AFL-CIO, died unexpectedly Thursday at age 72.
He had many strengths as a union leader. But his greatest strength was his willingness to push this country’s labor movement to be better. “Unafraid to challenge racism and classism anywhere,” recalled Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Richard Trumka was a civil- and human-rights champion who leaves behind a legacy matched by few. From his participation in the Free South Africa Movement protests to his influential leadership of the AFL-CIO, he unquestionably moved mountains in the fight for a more just and equal society.”
Long before he assumed the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 2009—after a 14-year stint as its secretary-treasurer—Trumka positioned himself as an old-school labor activist who was willing to fight for the movement, as he did perhaps most notably during the epic 1989–90 strike against the Pittston Coal Company. But there was more to Trumka’s vision. He had come out of the mines with an agenda for getting union members to embrace new realities and new opportunities. He did not always succeed. During his decades as an AFL-CIO leader, unions faced setbacks in fights over trade policy (especially during the presidency of a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who had been elected with labor support); wrangled over organizing strategies so intensely that some major affiliates broke with the federation; faced a brutal assault on collective-bargaining rights from Republican governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich; and struggled to adjust to the radical transformation of work with the full arrival of the digital age, apps, and the gig economy.
Yet Trumka never lost sight of his mission as a modernizer for a labor movement that had often been too slow to embrace international solidarity, too cautious in addressing racial disparities, and too myopic in its approach to immigrant workers. What was striking about Trumka was his determination to move beyond “lip-service solidarity” and get down to the serious work of organizing on behalf of economic, social, and racial justice.
Trumka did this, too, in the thick of the 2008 presidential race, when he boldly confronted the reality of racism within the ranks of the movement to which he had devoted his life.
“Brothers and sisters, we can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of folks out there who do not want to vote for Barack Obama because of the color of his skin,” Trumka told the United Steelworkers convention that July. “A lot of them are good union people; they just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a Black man,” he continued. “Well, those of us who know better can’t afford to look the other way.”
Then, in one of the most meaningful statements of the 2008 campaign, Trumka declared:
I’m not one for quoting dead philosophers, but back in the 1700s, Edmund Burke said: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” Well, there’s no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism—and it’s something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge. It’s our special responsibility because we know, better than anyone else, how racism is used to divide working people. We’ve seen how companies set worker against worker—how they throw whites a few extra crumbs off the table—and how we all end up losing.
That’s why the labor movement—imperfect as we are—is the most integrated institution in American life. I don’t think we should be out there pointing fingers in peoples’ faces and calling them racist; instead we need to educate them that if they care about holding on to their jobs, their health care, their pensions, and their homes—if they care about creating good jobs with clean energy, child care, pay equity for women workers—there’s only going to be one candidate on the ballot this fall who’s on their side… only one candidate who’s going to stand up for their families… only one candidate who’s earned their votes… and his name is Barack Obama!
Trumka was proven right. Obama recognized that his 2008 victories in swing states such as Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania—where Republican strategists had hoped to stir tensions sufficiently to peel off a significant number of union votes—owed much to the diligent campaigning by Trumka and his allies.
When Trumka took over as AFL-CIO president the following year, he continued to prod the labor movement to make real the promise of the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever.” In his acceptance speech at the federation’s convention in Pittsburgh, Trumka promised to forge “a new kind of labor movement—one shaped to meet the needs of Americans in a changing economy.”
He spoke the language of solidarity—domestically and internationally.
“We need to finally come to terms with the fact that union halls that should have been meeting grounds for understanding have often been breeding grounds for bigotry. And millions of people of color–and millions of women–have paid a staggering price,” Trumka said. “We have a moral responsibility to take the benefits of union representation to those who the labor movement walked past in the past. That means organizing poverty-wage African American, Latino, and Asian workers. It means reaching out to women: women are 50 percent of the workforce.… And it means something else. It means organizing immigrants.”
Rarely, if ever, had an AFL-CIO presidency begun on so positive a note.
Over the ensuing 12 years, Trumka worked to forge a more inclusive, and visionary, labor movement. He was the first to say that there was more work to do. And he was willing do do that work—as when he positioned the AFL-CIO in clear opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency; as when he championed Black Lives Matter protests, after the murder of George Floyd Jr., in 2020; as he did in the spring of 2021 with his “Immigrant Rights Are Worker Rights” advocacy. This is what mattered most about him. It is, as well, what will matter most in the maneuvering to name his successor. As Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said Thursday, “The very best way to honor Rich’s legacy is to fight back stronger than ever for American workers.”
Richard Trumka fit the profile of a traditional union leader. He got his hands dirty as a miner before he ever gripped a podium and addressed a crowd. Yet he understood that the movement’s challenges were not merely the result of corporate machinations and political compromises. He was willing to acknowledge past mistakes and lingering divisions, and to try to address them. The measure of his success will be in the movement that extends from his long tenure as leader who—for the better part of a half century—preached a gospel of “true solidarity.”