“There’s no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism, and it’s something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge. It’s our special responsibility because we know, better than anyone else, how racism is used to divide working people.” – Richard Trumka
As the leader of a movement whose history is fraught with racial conflict, Richard Trumka was fiercely anti-racist.
Early in his presidency of the United Mine Workers of America, Trumka established a solidarity program with Black mineworkers living under the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa.
Then in his early 30s, Trumka rallied support for a boycott of Royal Dutch Shell, a major investor in South African industries, stressing the need for American unions to join the struggle.
Trumka, who went on to serve for more than two decades as president of the AFL-CIO, died last week at the age of 72, leaving a historic legacy of solidarity and racial unity in the labor movement.
Acknowledging that union halls “have often been breeding grounds for bigotry,” Trumka never tried to sugarcoat the undercurrent of racism that flowed through the labor movement from the days of the Great Migrations to the present day. In 1917, when companies in East St. Louis replace white strikers with Black workers recruited from the south, the strikers led a massacre that left hundreds dead and thousands homeless.
“When I think about an event like that—and there are plenty in our history all over this great country, and not all of them so long ago—I wonder what those white workers would say if they could stand where we stand today,” Trumka said in 2014. What would they say about the choices to embrace hatred and division over unity and strength?”
Trumka hailed from Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, established in 1917 by the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. around a company-owned mine that produced nearly a million tons of coal needed for the operation of its steel mills. After the mine shut down in the mid-1980s, the town fell into a steep decline.
In 2008, a woman in Nemacolin told him she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because he’s Black. He responded, “ ‘Look around this town….Our kids are moving away because there’s no future here. And here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s going to fight for people like us, and you want to tell me that you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind, lady?’
Days after President Trump blamed deadly racial violence at the 2017 “Unite the Right rally”, on “both sides,” referring to white supremacists as “very fine people,” Trumka quit the president’s manufacturing council.
“We cannot sit on a council for a President who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism,” Trumka said. “We must resign on behalf of America’s working people, who reject all notions of legitimacy of these bigoted groups.”
A few years ago, I had the honor to stand with Richard Trumka at the Lincoln Memorial for the “One Nation Working Together” rally. His words that day have remained with me, and are just as relevant today as they were then:
“Brothers and sisters, I want you to make a promise today. Promise that you won’t let anybody divide us or turn us against each other. And promise that you’ll make your voices heard for jobs, and justice, and education today and on election day. Because we believe in America, this one nation, this great nation. Our best days are ahead, not behind us, and we are ready to fight for it.”
Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.