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Richard L. Trumka

'If You Want to Help Workers, You First Need to Help People'

On September 16, 2009, Richard L. Trumka was elected President of the AFL-CIO by acclamation at the Federation’s 26th convention in Pittsburgh, Pa., and re-elected in 2013 by AFL-CIO convention delegates in Los Angeles. His election, following 15 years of service as the AFL-CIO’s Secretary-Treasurer, capped Trumka’s rise to leadership of the nation’s largest labor federation from humble beginnings in the small coal mining communities of southwest Pennsylvania.

Twelve-year-old Richard Louis Trumka was sitting on the porch of his grandfather Attilio Bertugli’s house in Rices Landing, Pa., complaining bitterly to his grandpap about how badly Mine Workers were being treated. It was the 1960s, and the miners were on strike.

“What do you plan to do about it?” his grandfather asked.

“When I grow up, I could be a politician,” Rich replied. His grandpap feigned smacking him across the back of his head. Chastened, young Trumka offered a second opinion: “I could become a lawyer and stand up for workers’ rights.”

His grandfather, a longtime miner, allowed how that was a better idea, but added something that has stuck with Trumka ever since. “If you want to help workers,” his grandfather said, “you first need to help people.”

Rich Trumka not only grasped the wisdom of his grandfather’s counsel, it has been the encompassing vision of his leadership in the labor movement ever since: Unions must strive to uplift everybody in their pursuit of fair treatment for workers, as they did in building the world’s strongest middle class, and as they must once again by leveling the playing field and restoring job growth and prosperity for working people.

'The Mines Humble Man'

Born July 24, 1949, Trumka grew up in the Pennsylvania coalfields during the ’60s. Like many of his generation living in his community, his prospects coming out of high school were “steel, auto, the mines or the military.” Rich followed his grandfather Attilio and his father, Frank, into the mines. They proved worse than he had imagined: “Cold, damp, dusty – sound bouncing all around,” he recounts. “A dungeon of impending danger.”

His grandfather and father, both of whom were union activists, offered him advice he hadn’t anticipated, either. They told him that in return for demanding the right to be respected, you owed your employer a full day’s hard work.

Working side by side at times with his father, he witnessed the family’s work ethic put into practice. Frank Trumka was highly regarded by his co-workers for his astute judgment and tireless work ethic, once setting a long-standing record for filling the most coal cars in a single shift. He worked with the utmost efficiency, 
Rich recalls, “with movements as graceful as a ballet dancer.”

Rich worked in the mines for more than seven years, working his way through Penn State University, where he graduated in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science degree, and eventually got a law degree from Villanova University in 1974. He worked on the legal staff of the United Mine Workers for four years before returning to mine work in 1979, doing pro bono legal work for local families in the Nemacolin area during his hours away from the mine.

In his years working underground, the hazards of mining exposed Trumka to lessons beyond his imagination, experiences that shaped him far more than his academic or legal pursuits.

“The mines humble man,” he says. “I’ve been in near death, disastrous situations.” He saw his father, who spent 44 years as a miner, spontaneously take charge of a rescue operation of a man after a near-disastrous cave-in. It was in moments like these that Rich learned the true meaning of solidarity.

'Our Lives Depended on Each Other'

The enduring lesson that Rich Trumka learned in the mines is that people need each other. “You learn dependence,” he says. “You work in common. Your lives revolve around each other. You experience the vulnerability of all mankind because of the power of nature.”

In short, you learn that solidarity is more than a galvanizing principle; it’s a necessity.

“You also learn about employers,” he adds. “You learn that some of them care more about a lump of coal than an individual’s life.”

Rich Trumka’s blood knowledge of solidarity’s significance and the need to challenge corporate indifference have proved the twin engines driving his many successes throughout his years as a labor leader.

'My Grandfather’s Proudest Moment'

Once back at work in the mining community, Trumka’s leadership shone. He rose quickly through the ranks, first serving as chair of UMWA Local 6290’s safety committee and later on the union’s International Executive Board. Rich had always admired Mine Workers reformer Jock Yablonski, who was murdered in 1969, along with his wife and daughter, victims of the fractious and sometimes violent feuds in the UMWA that Trumka was hell-bent on ending.

Undaunted by the violence earlier visited on Yablonski, Trumka took up the reformers’ mantel and led a reform slate in 1982. At 33, he was elected the UMWA’s youngest president. His grandfather Bertugli had passed away by then, a source of deep regret for Trumka, who muses, “It would have been my grandfather’s proudest moment.”

Trumka was sworn into office by his father. Straightaway, he set about reforming the Mine Workers’ fractious bureaucracy. He understood the strength of a unified union possessed for projecting a powerful voice on issues. As president of UMWA he led one of the most successful strikes in recent American history against the Pittston Coal Company, which tried to avoid paying into an industry-wide health and pension fund. Breaking with decades of tradition, his consistent use of non-violent civil disobedience led to his being given the Labor Responsibility Award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in 1990.

Following his grandfather’s counsel to always help people, Rich became an early supporter of the civil rights and anti apartheid movements, and continues to challenge prejudice in whatever form it takes. He mobilized international support by building alliances with miners in Australia, South Africa, Europe and Scandanavia and other countries to join the union’s fight. Trumka pioneered the use of strategic comprehensive campaigns by unions—building coalitions and alliances with other unions and nonprofit advocacy groups to strengthen the Mine Worker’s cause and reaching out to Wall Street investors. Ultimately, he overcame hundreds of millions in federal court-ordered fines against the union to win the Pittston coal strike, and then doggedly appealed the fines until the U.S. Supreme Court finally overruled them.

Over time, his successes built on one another. In the course of his UMWA three-term presidency, Trumka:

  • Won passage of the federal COAL Act that provides guaranteed health care for retired miners;
  • Brought the UMWA into the AFL-CIO;
  • Mobilized support to win a contract for 18,000 miners forced out on strike for seven months by BCOA; and
  • Established an office that rallied support among mineworkers for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He also served as the U.S. Shell Oil boycott chairman, which challenged the company for its business dealings in South Africa.

By his third term as president of the Mine Workers in 1995, Trumka’s record of activism, innovation and reform was firmly established and well known to AFL-CIO union presidents.

A New Reform Insurgency

When an insurgent group of union presidents that year chose SEIU president John Sweeney to challenge Lane Kirkland for the AFL-CIO presidency, Rich Trumka was their obvious choice to run as Secretary-Treasurer on the Sweeney ticket. Their reasoning was based on the breadth of Trumka’s appeal to the labor movement and beyond.

Trumka’s credentials as a reformer and tough negotiator complemented Sweeney’s considerable record of organizing success at SEIU. More than a decade younger, Trumka added industrial bargaining clout to Sweeney’s public-sector credentials.

His record as a unifier who had restored the Mine Workers to the fold at the AFL-CIO, and as a formidable adversary of renegade corporate behavior, lent credibility to the insurgents’ call for revitalizing the federation. And his widely acknowledged rhetorical gift for inspiring activism paired neatly with Sweeney’s skill as a union diplomat and administrator.

Trumka also strengthened the ticket’s appeal to young and minority workers as a result of his civil and human rights leadership. His role in forging U.S. mineworker solidarity with the mineworkers of South Africa while they were fighting racial apartheid had been hailed beyond the labor community in 1990, when he received the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award – evidence of bold leadership that presaged his speech during the Obama presidential campaign condemning voters subsumed by racial prejudice.

Combating Reckless Capital

When the Sweeney-Trumka ticket won at the 1995 convention, Rich became the youngest Secretary-Treasurer in AFL-CIO history.

He soon carved out a unique and innovative leadership role, creating investment programs for the pension and benefit funds of the labor movement and fighting excessive corporate profits. He urged creation of, and chairs, the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, a consortium of manufacturing unions focusing on key issues in trade, health care and labor law reform.

A member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council since 1989, Trumka was instrumental in developing tactics to rally the support of international labor on behalf of U.S. workers struggling for workplace justice against multinational conglomerates. He also served on the executive boards of the International Miners’ Federation and the ICFTU and played a key role in organizing a new global coalition of coal miners’ unions in five countries.

Rich further strengthened his hand as an outspoken opponent of an unregulated trading regime that is undermining good-paying American jobs by becoming co-chair of the China Currency Coalition, an alliance of industry, agriculture, services and worker organizations supporting U.S. manufacturing.

Trumka chairs the AFL-CIO’s Strategic Approaches Committee, charged with assisting affiliated unions that seek assistance in achieving their strategic goals through collective bargaining. He also chairs the AFL-CIO Finance Committee and the AFL-CIO Capital Stewardship Committee, which works to ensure workers’ deferred wages are wisely invested to provide the best long-term benefits to America’s working families.

The Power of Fearless Convictions

During the 2008 presidential race, Rich Trumka’s penchant for bold leadership reemerged. Polls early on in the general election showed a close race, but failed to reveal what Trumka was witnessing in trips home to Nemacolin and across the country: an underlying resistance to voting for Obama, driven by thinly veiled racial prejudice, particularly among older voters, many of them staunch labor supporters.

Rich, who was out front in opposing apartheid in South Africa, was convinced such prejudice needed to be confronted here at home. The conventional wisdom in Washington advised against it as too risky and potentially inflammatory. Rich concluded that silence in the face of such repulsive prejudice ran the risk of inadvertently empowering it.

So on July 1, 2008, at the Steelworkers International convention, inspired by the belief that “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing,” Trumka delivered a stem-winding speech attacking the latent racism that threatened Obama’s candidacy.

“There’s no evil,” he trumpeted, “that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism. And it’s something that we in the labor movement have a very, very special responsibility to challenge. Because we know better than anybody how racism is used to divide working people.”

The speech proved electrifying, both literally and figuratively, evincing a rising tide of applause from the 3,000 delegates in the hall. A video excerpt posted on YouTube has attracted more than a half-million viewers, strong evidence that Trumka’s uncompromising convictions in the face of age-old prejudices had rung the bell with a younger generation of voters.

The emerging generation of workers is the most diverse in the nation’s history, but it has in common a regard for the no-nonsense candor so characteristic of Trumka, yet so often lacking among today’s leaders, whether in business or in politics.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, believes that Rich’s straight-from-the-shoulder convictions will appeal greatly to this new generation of workers, many of whom feel estranged from the establishment.

“If Rich feels that workers are being wronged,” she says, “he will speak truth to power, because he feels it’s more important to do what’s right for workers than to be on the right side of the political establishment.”

A New Generation of Unionism

The same sense of injustice that animated outrage in 12-year-old Rich Trumka over the lousy treatment of miners is evident today in Trumka’s outrage over the economic raw deal being foisted on a new generation of workers. Trumka, strongly committed to education as a foundation for future success, decries the increasing lack of access to education for today's future leaders.

In announcing his candidacy to succeed John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO, Trumka pledged to go on a nationwide “listening tour” to learn first-hand what younger workers think about unions and how to make the labor movement more relevant to their lives.

“I’m convinced,” he said, “that if we sit down and begin to actually listen to what young workers are saying, we can find ways to earn their support.”

It was a conviction firmly expressed in addressing a recent group of graduating seniors at Cornell University, whom Trumka urged to “assert your beliefs with absolute conviction.

“As you do, others will see the value of stepping out from the crowd and challenging what’s all-to-often called ‘conventional wisdom.’ So assert your beliefs – with absolute conviction. And as you do, I believe you’ll find, as I have through the years, that inspiration is contagious – that other voices will be raised in support of your beliefs.

“And from your collective vision will come a new generation of leaders who will change things for the better – a generation that will stand up for its beliefs, and stand down those who blindly resist change.”

A New Day for Working America

A change in the economic pecking order was the centerpiece of Trumka’s message in kicking off his campaign for the presidency of the AFL-CIO. “In this economy, still manipulated by Wall Street, many Americans are struggling to have decent jobs with security and to simply survive. Unions are more important than ever because we speak up for the disadvantaged,” Trumka said. “We can make their voice heard.”

He pledged to engage workers in a bottom-up effort to strengthen unions, and to reach out to women and minorities to make the labor movement a reflection of the nation’s evolving workforce. “It’s the voice of workers that unions represent, and I promise I will be a good listener. The best ideas and activism bubble up from the grassroots.”

“This campaign will extend beyond the convention in September,” Trumka added. “We will carry our fight to win basic rights and new opportunities for working Americans into next year and beyond. It’s time that workers got a fair shake for a change, and America’s unions are going to be on the front lines of winning it.”

Building an Opportunity Society

Richard Trumka’s record of innovation and assertion, coupled with his commitment to reunify the splintered labor movement as he once did the fractious UMWA, has won him widespread support among leaders representing everyone from blue-collar workers to white-collar professionals.

“Rich Trumka has demonstrated his courage as a trade unionist throughout his career,” says Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “He has terrific leadership skills. He knows the inner workings of labor, and will be forceful and aggressive in strengthening the voice of America’s working families.”

Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, the nation’s largest industrial union, cites Trumka’s “ intellectual capacity to do the job,” as well as his “great heart and passion to fight for issues that matter to America’s working families.”

Rose Ann DeMoro, Executive Director of the 80,000-member California Nurses Association (CNA/NNOC) hails Trumka as “a bold, strategic, and fighting leader whose passion for working people and social change are especially needed in this critical juncture.”

Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) president Mike Langford calls Trumka “a visionary trade unionist who speaks with honest conviction and power about building a society with real opportunity for all Americans.”

“Rich Trumka is a labor leader for our times,” says James Williams, president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “No one else today speaks with the passion, and the intelligence, about an economy that is not working for working people. No one else has the experience and the personal fortitude necessary to bring unions together for the benefit of us all.

Remarkably consistent praise, for a remarkably consistent record of principled leadership.

Trumka has a sister, Frances Szellar. He and his wife Barbara (nee Vidovich) have a son, Richard, Jr., who is a 2006 graduate of the Cornell University School of Industrial Relations and a 2009 graduate of Georgetown University Law School.

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