- President of AFL-CIO, key player in New Labor Movement
- Former President of the United Mine Workers Union
- Pled the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination in Teamsters Union money-laundering scandal linked to prominent Democrats
Richard Louis Trumka was born in July 1949 in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, the son and grandson of coal miners. He, too, began working in the mines at age 19 and joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMW), a member union of the AFL-CIO federation. Trumka served as head of UMW Local 6290's safety committee and became an activist in the Miners for Democracy reform movement.
After graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 1971, Trumka earned a degree from Villanova University Law School and was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. From 1974-78 he worked on the UMW legal staff, then returned to the mines. In 1981 he was elected to UMW's executive board, and the following year he became the union's international president. Seven years later Trumka earned a seat on the AFL-CIO's executive council.
During Trumka's tenure as UNW president (1982-1995), a number of his union's strikes were marred by violence. For example, in a 1985 strike against A.T. Massey Coal, a union man who crossed the picket line received a serious gash in the head in an attack by angry strikers.
Eight years later, UNW thuggery proved fatal. In the spring of 1993, Trumka, in an effort to ensure that no one would be able to find employment as a miner without paying dues or agency fees to the UMW, ordered more than 17,000 mine workers to walk off their jobs. Moreover, he explicitly instructed striking miners to "kick the sh-- out of every last one" of their fellow employees and mine operators who resisted union demands. In response, UMW enforcers vandalized homes, fired gunshots at a mine office, and cut off the power supply to another mine, temporarily trapping 93 miners underground.
Then, on July 22, 1993, a UMW member shot 39-year-old, non-union worker Eddie York in the back of the head as York was driving home from his Logan County, West Virginia job, killing him. Eight UMW strikers were present at the scene of the shooting. When guards subsequently came to check on York's condition, those eight strikers threw rocks at them. Rather take any disciplinary action against the UMW strikers who had behaved so badly, Trumka explained metaphorically: "[I]f you strike a match and put your finger in, common sense tells you you're going to burn your finger."
Soon thereafter, York's widow charged Trumka and other UMW officials in a $27 million wrongful death lawsuit. After fighting the charges for four years, UMW lawyers quickly decided to settle out of court in June 1997 once federal prosecutors announced that they planned to release evidence from the trial of Jerry Dale Lowe, whom a federal jury had previously convicted of conspiracy and weapons charges in connection with York's murder.
UMW strikers perpetrated their acts of violence with the encouragement and approval of Trumka and their other union leaders. As Virginia Circuit Court Judge Donald McGlothlin Jr. declared in 1989, “the evidence shows beyond any shadow of a doubt that violent activities are being organized, orchestrated and encouraged by the leadership of this union.” The Virginia Supreme Court concurred: “Union officials took active roles in these unlawful activities. Notwithstanding the large fines, the Union never represented to the court that it regretted or intended to cease its lawless actions. To the contrary, the utter defiance of the rule of law continued unabated.”
In 1994, Trumka was honored at the annual Eugene Debs Award Banquet in Terre Haute, Indiana; The award was named after the man who founded the Socialist Party of America and ran for U.S. President five times on the Socialist Party ticket.
In 1995 Trumka was one-third of a troika elected to head the AFL-CIO. His running mates for election were Sweeney, head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Linda Chavez-Thompson, who had been Executive Vice President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Calling themselves the "New Voice," this threesome pledged to replace the policies of the moderate AFL-CIO leaders who had preceded them. Trumka would go on to serve as the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer from 1995 to September 2009, second in command to its president, John Sweeney.
Trumka, Sweeney, and Chavez-Thompson represented a turn away from blue-collar industrial unionism and the AFL-CIO's traditional emphasis on raising wages and improving working conditions. Rather, they focused on recruiting ever-growing numbers of government workers who would benefit from higher taxes and bigger government, and who therefore ould reliably support socialism and America's pro-big government Democratic Party.
In 1996, Trumka was one of approximately 130 people who played a role in helping Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey found the Campaign for America's Future. Among the other notables were: Mary Frances Berry, Julian Bond, Heather Booth, John Cavanagh, Richard Cloward, Jeff Cohen, Ken Cook, Peter Dreier, Barbara Ehrenreich, Betty Friedan, Todd Gitlin, Heidi Hartmann, Tom Hayden, Denis Hayes, Roger Hickey, Patricia Ireland, Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery, Steve Max, Gerald McEntee, Harold Meyerson, Frances Fox Piven, Robert Reich, Mark Ritchie, Arlie Schardt, Susan Shaer, Andrew Stern, and John Sweeney.
When Trumka and his successor as UMWA president, Cecil Roberts, made a joint speaking appearance in Bentleyville, Pennsylvania, approximately fifty rank-and-file union members gathered to protest their leaders' policies. "Within minutes," wrote leftwing journalist Paul Scherrer, "a group of UMWA officials and their supporters attacked the protesting miners ... Several miners were punched, knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly.... Richard Trumka [afterward] refused to answer questions about the assault."
As an AFL-CIO leader, Trumka has developed and promoted radical strategies and tactics like those of the 1960s New Left for signing up workers. These tactics include labor alliances with media, government, and radical activists. The objective is to intimidate companies by threatening to inflict a "death of a thousand cuts" via negative-publicity campaigns, harassment of corporate investors, alliances with government regulators, and more.
Soon after winning their election in 1995, Trumka and his fellow triumvirs instituted "Union Summer," an effort "to recruit and train hundreds of young people as organizers and political activists." The "Union Summer" indoctrination materials endorsed by Trumka use explicit anti-capitalist, class-warfare rhetoric, instructing young participants to recite a pledge called "Working Class Commitment" that includes the Marxist dogma "that we [union workers] produce the world's wealth ... [and] will end all oppression." Unlike their more moderate predecessors, Trumka and his fellow AFL-CIO bosses see free-market capitalism not as essential to worker prosperity but as something to be despised and destroyed. Their ultimate aim is not to boost members' wages, but to radically transform society. Trumka would confirm this in a September 2010 moment of candor, when he stated that he had gotten "into the labor movement not because I wanted to negotiate wages," but "because I saw it as a vehicle to do massive social change to include lots of people."
The agenda of Trumka and his fellow "New Voice" leaders is to promote "class-based organizing," on the theory -- as explained by labor economist Michael Yates -- that "those unions which mobilize rank-and-file workers around a program of aggressive solidarity and conflict with their employers have the best chance of winning union elections, bargaining good contracts, and resisting decertification."
Trumka, Sweeney and Chavez-Thompson also rescinded a founding AFL-CIO rule that banned Communist Party members and loyalists from leadership positions within the Federation and its unions. Instead, the "New Voice" triumvirate welcomed Communist Party delegates to positions of power in the Federation. And the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) declared itself "in complete accord" with the troika's new AFL-CIO program. "The radical shift in both leadership and policy is a very positive, even historic change," wrote CPUSA National Chairman Gus Hall in 1996 about the Trumka/Sweeney/Chavez-Thompson takeover.
In the late 1990s, Trumka twice invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in a congressional committee investigation of a corruption and money-laundering scandal. At that time, the AFL-CIO had a policy -- instituted in 1957 -- stipulating that any union official who chose to invoke the Fifth Amendment should be removed from his position. But then-AFL-CIO president John Sweeney chose to eliminate the rule rather than the rule-breaker Trumka. For the details of this case, click here.
During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Trumka said: "There's not a single good reason for any worker, especially any union member, to vote against Barack Obama." By Trumka's telling, whatever anti-Obama sentiment existed among American voters could be attributed largely to the racism of "right-wing race-haters" who "just can't get past the idea that there's something wrong with voting for a black man."
In February 2009, President Obama named Trumka to his Economic Recovery Advisory Board.
On September 16, 2009, Trumka was elected president of the AFL-CIO, replacing the retiring John Sweeney.
On November 3, 2010 -- the day after mid-term elections in which Democrats lost 6 Senate seats, more than 60 House seats, and 7 governorships -- Communist Party USA Labor Commission chairman Scott Marshall emphasized that his organization had worked collaboratively on political campaigns with Trumka.
On February 18, 2011, Trumka revealed the extent of his involvement with the Obama administration: "I'm at the white House a couple times a week -- two, three times a week. I have conversations every day with someone in the White House or in the administration. Every day."
During his career as a union leader, Trumka has aligned himself with the agendas of the Progressive Caucus on numerous matters, most notably opposition to welfare reform and support for a single-payer healthcare system.