Richard Trumka, chairman of the AFL-CIO, dies on the age of 72

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks outside the Economic Club of Washington in Washington, DC on April 23, 2019.

Almond Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka died Thursday at the age of 72.

Trumka, who became the leader of the country’s most powerful workers’ organization in 2009, died of an apparent heart attack, according to two sources informed by AFL-CIO officials.

At that time, Trumka “did what he loved, spent time celebrating his grandson’s birthday,” said Liz Schuler, secretary and treasurer of the AFL-CIO, in a message to the staff of the 12.5 million-strong association .

“We are heartbroken,” wrote Schuler.

President Joe Biden, whose 2020 White House candidacy was supported by the AFL-CIO, called Trumka a close friend after learning of the union leader’s death.

“The labor movement, the AFL-CIO and the nation have lost a legend today,” said Tim Schlittner, communications director for the federation, which consists of 56 union members and is a major force in democratic politics.

“Rich Trumka has dedicated his life to working people, from his early days as president of United Mine Workers of America to his unparalleled leadership as the voice of the American labor movement,” said Schlittner.

“He was a tireless advocate of workers’ rights, occupational safety, worker-oriented trade, democracy and much more. He was also a devoted father, grandfather, husband, brother, coach, colleague, and friend. Rich was loved and loved. “

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, choked tears as he spoke about Trumka in the Senate.

“I rise today with some sad, terrible news of the death of a great friend Rich Trumka who left us this morning,” said Schumer, before pausing to collect himself.

“America’s working people lost a savage warrior when we needed them most.”

Trumka grew up in the coal mining town of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania. As a college and law student, Trumka worked as a miner like his father and grandfather had.

At 33, he ran for and won a reform ticket for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America and became the union’s youngest leader in its history.

Trumka was more recently a major force in Biden’s selection of Marty Walsh as Secretary of the Department of Labor.

When Biden was putting his cabinet together, Trumka’s lobbying for the then-mayor of Boston was critical to cementing Biden’s election to nominate Walsh over MP Andy Levin, the Michigan Democrat who was the preferred candidate for some of the AFL-CIO affiliates

Trumka was just as influential when the Republicans occupied the White House.

In 2019, Trumka persuaded several skeptical members of the Democratic House of Representatives, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to adopt the revised version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the USMCA, from then President Donald Trump.

Unions have long criticized NAFTA, claiming it sent tens of thousands of unionized jobs in the US across the border into Mexico, where wages are lower and the unions represent the industries rather than the workers in them.

Trumka later said that while USMCA was far from perfect, it was a big step in repairing the damage caused by NAFTA. USMCA passed the House of Representatives in December 2019 with 41 Democrats voting against.

Sara Nelson, a prominent union leader and president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents around 50,000 flight attendants from more than a dozen airlines, said she was “shocked and saddened” by Trumka’s death.

“The best way to honor Rich’s legacy is to stand up stronger than ever for American workers,” said Nelson.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said Trumka’s death was “really heartbreaking”.

“We have lost a larger-than-life character who has spent a career fighting for and defending the Union way of life,” Fetterman, a Democrat, wrote in a tweet.

“It’s up to the rest of us to fill the void and never stop fighting. #UnionStrong. “

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy ordered flags to be flown in that state to mark Trumka’s death.

“The working families of America and New Jersey have lost one of their most staunch and dedicated allies,” Murphy said in a statement. “The organized workforce has lost one of its most powerful voices.”

– Additional coverage by CNBCs Kevin Breuninger

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