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AFL-CIO Head Trumka’s Death Leaves Void Atop U.S. Labor Movement

Aug. 5, 2021, 10:01 PM

The sudden death of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka—the fiery former Pennsylvania coal miner who shepherded 12 million union workers through two recessions and a deadly pandemic—leaves a gaping hole atop the American labor movement at an uncertain moment.

Trumka, 72, died unexpectedly Thursday at a family event. His death is sure to accelerate a long-simmering battle over the leadership of the nation’s premier labor federation ahead of next year’s convention, when union delegates will select a new slate of officers.

His death comes with U.S. labor ascendant for the first time in decades, fueled by an avowedly pro-worker Democratic administration and a secretary of labor who himself is a former union leader. Their signature initiative, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, or PRO Act, passed the U.S. House in March, but has since stalled in the evenly divided Senate.

The late labor leader had remained coy on whether he would seek re-election, fueling intense speculation about who might replace him as Congress debates infrastructure legislation that could help unions. Now, the question is more urgent than anyone anticipated.

“For him to be suddenly out of the picture creates uncertainty,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California-Berkeley. “He was a vital force.”

Potential Successors

Federation Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, a Trumka ally, is viewed as the establishment front-runner, while Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, is seen as the insurgent left-wing pick. Under the AFL-CIO constitution, Shuler in the next few days must convene the AFL-CIO executive council to select a successor for the remainder of Trumka’s term.

Schuler is regarded by many as the obvious choice, having served as his second in command. But there’s no guarantee she’ll go unchallenged, given that the winner of the executive council vote would gain an aura of inevitability in 2022 and beyond.

Union allies spent the day in a state of shock and mourning, though some acknowledged that the process of selecting of Trumka’s replacement had already begun, whether they wanted it to or not.

“I’ve already spoken to her and I certainly want to do everything I can to help her,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former AFL-CIO official who worked under Trumka, said of Shuler.

Nelson praised Trumka’s legacy and goals, including a sweeping labor reform bill he had pledged to push through Congress. She made no mention of Trumka’s replacement.

“There is important unfinished work to do,” Nelson said in a statement. “Rich vowed to lead the movement until the PRO Act is signed into law. We must recommit ourselves as a movement to doing what is needed to achieve his mission for working people: a fair chance to survive and thrive.”

A Demographic Shift

Trumka held office during a difficult era for unions, which have suffered a years-long decline in membership.

“He was a very capable and I think popular leader but he faced forces that proved insurmountable,” Shaiken said. “And now his successor will have to face those forces.”

The next AFL-CIO president also will lead a movement increasingly populated by women and workers of color. Trumka was pilloried by labor activists during the protests over George Floyd’s murder for refusing to expel police unions from the federation. At the same time, police unions criticized Trumka for not standing up for them more vocally.

Trumka was generally not shy in taking on issues of race, though. In 2008, as secretary-treasurer, he made headlines for an unusually blunt pitch in Las Vegas for union voters to elect Barack Obama to the White House.

There is, Trumka said, “only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama. And that’s because he’s not White.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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