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

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a former miner who led the 12.5 million-member union organization, died Thursday. He was 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 the time, "Trumka was doing what he loved, spending time celebrating his grandson's birthday," said AFL-CIO treasurer Liz Shuler in a message to staff.

"Our hearts are broken," wrote Shuler, who, according to the group's statutes, will act as president until the AFL-CIO's executive board elects a successor to Trumka.

After hearing of the union leader's death, President Joe Biden called Trumka a close friend. Biden's 2020 White House candidacy was supported by the AFL-CIO.

"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 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-N.Y., 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 the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America and became the youngest leader of the UMW in its history.

In 1995 Trumka was elected Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, which had been formed 40 years earlier through the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

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, he persuaded several skeptical members of the Democratic House of Representatives, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to approve 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 US union jobs across the border into Mexico, where wages are lower and the unions represent industry rather than workers.

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.

Although Trumka was influential, his rise in union politics since the 1980s coincided with a marked decline in American union membership during this period.

In 1983, about 20% of U.S. workers were unionized, but by 2019 it was just over 14%, according to Department of Labor statistics.

However, in recent years the labor movement has gained momentum as workers in all industries from fast food to aviation to large retailers like Amazon pushed for better wages and improved working conditions. That boost came at the same time as corporate profits skyrocketed.

Trumka noticed this shift in momentum during his last major speech on July 27 at the Texas AFL-CIO's virtual convention.

"My union colleagues, make no mistake: the labor movement in Texas is getting more powerful," said Trumka. “The attacks against the workers did not discourage you! The climb didn't stop you. You have done the hard work since the pandemic broke out. You made your voices louder. And you've made your communities and your state stronger. "

"So it should come as no surprise that America is turning to the values ​​of unionism."

Sara Nelson, 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 us others 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."

Correction: In a previous version, AFL-CIO Treasurer Liz Shuler's last name was misspelled.

– Additional coverage from CNBC's Kevin Breuninger

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