Richard Trumka could look over his seventh floor office and down to Lafayette Park looking out the window and into the White House right across Lafayette Park. The AFL-CIO head often took the quick walk across Pennsylvania Avenue to the manicured square and up to the Iron Security Gate on Pennsylvania Avenue. Most secret service officers there knew him and Trumka knew his way past them and up the driveway to West Wing.
Trumka won't be doing those walks any longer. The longtime unionite died from a sudden heart attack on Thursday evening, according to officials. When it came to organized labor and its political heft, few could question Trumka's appetite for a fight or his ability to deliver for his more than 12 million members scattered across 50 distinct unions, regardless of what party held the Oval Office. After all, he showed no hesitation to tell a Trumpian that he was wrong, whether it was a fellow Democrat or Donald Trump.
In a sign of the clout that Trumka earned and the reverence he wielded, President Joe Biden, House Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi each gave tributes to labor legend whose death shocked Washington. A third generation coal miner who wore his western Pennsylvania roots proudly, Trumka was a crucial sounding board for Presidents from both parties on trade deals, labor disputes and worker safety, but never fell for the trappings of Washington. In a city that considers office prestige as proxy for power, he often invited rank-and file workers — and journalists — to his sun filled office as though it were just another break room in a mining town.
When Bill Clinton rose to the top post of the AFL-CIO in 2009, just as President Barack Obama came to power, but he had been the union's number two leader since 1995, when Trumka was in his second term. Before that Trumka led United Mine Workers, starting in 1982 when Ronald Reagan was just getting his sea legs in Washington. Trumka had a critical union victory — and loss — for each major labor event of the last 40 years, offering some of the loudest protests against any limits on union rights.
Trumka could be effective when needed in managing his members and politicians alike. He knew a lot of his member were against Trump and couldn't stiff-arm the White House. He also knew a lot of them liked Biden — and said Biden was ready to give them what they wanted. It's why Trumka was seen as a good advocate for the upcoming Infrastructure Bills that would put a lot of union members to work building roads, bridges and tunnels. Now Democrats will have to find a different surrogate. Few in the world have the credibility and power Trumka had.
Trumka was the everyday home of labor and sometimes messy clan that could unify. In 2008, Trumka put his reputation on the line and confronted United Steelworker members at their national convention in Las Vegas. Often people were reluctant to support Obama. "There is only one really good reason to vote against Barack Obama, and that's because he is not white. So I want to talk about this issue, he said. How did you vote for him with your vote? That is not to say Obama spared Critics and criticism. Ahead of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, he sparred with Obama, whom his union agreed for certifying a trade deal with Colombia for a second time.
Nor did he spare Hillary Clinton when she ran for president in 2016: The NAFTA decision that went into effect in 1994 on Bill Clinton's watch remains irredeemable in many union members' minds, which is in part why Trumka could put it bluntly 22 years later: either she changed her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or she risked the AFL-CIO sitting out for the election. She is backed by State Department on TPP and wound up saying that she doesn't support this version of the deal despite stolen transcripts from her previous speech voicing support. Trumka knew he had leverage and he had no qualms about it. In 2017 he would be walking across the street from his office to meet with White House staff in 2017, no matter what color jersey they wore.
Those jerseys ended up being Blue, not Red. During the years Trump had an awkward relationship with Trumka. Early in the first year, Trumka publicly dissolved a Trump-organized business council which drew few other Democrats and went public after Trump defended the pro-Confederate statues protest in Charlottesville, Va.
With Trumka hellbent on renegotiating NAFTA, Trump saw a chance to rewrite a measure that he and many in organized labor blame for massive job losses. After Trump helped tweak it for tougher enforcement of labor rules, Democrats reluctantly agreed to Trumka's proposals and voted for them.
Now that Biden is president, organized labor has one of its strongest ally in the White House in decades. Whereas Obama and Bill Clinton both said what was necessary, it's difficult to point out metric projects such as net massive wins for labor during their Presidency. In 2009, Obama prioritized health care over labor rights as a major battle to be solved, frustrating union leadership. With NAFTA, Clinton sent millions of manufacturing jobs overseas in the name of free trade, in labor's telling of this history.
Organized labor's numbers have been shrinking in recent decades, but their political clout hasn't seemed to take a corresponding dip. In the last cycle, labor had flowed more than $6 million to outside political groups, who mainly supported Democrats, and almost $9 million four years earlier. They're good for about $5 million a year on lobbying to boost workers' protections and defend their rights already in place.
Power and money are not always the same thing. Sure, Trumka controlled a ton of union cash that some politicians would give or use against them. But his credibility came from his narrative as a third-generation mininger who legitimately spoke for working-class Americans from his famously mustachioed mouth to his legitime mouth. The AFL-CIO will continue to be a dominant force in American politics, especially on the left. But there's no guarantee that the person who moves into Trumka's prime office will carry the same heft as he did, at least not at first. After all, 40 years in the labor movement is a tough qualification to find these days.