It was never boring to sit next to Rich Trumka at the annual Labor Day press breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
When the news came Thursday afternoon that Trumka — president of the AFL-CIO since 2009 — had died of a heart attack at age 72, memories of our talks before the Monitor breakfast and his no-punches-pulled answers during breakfast came back vividly.
The son of a coal miner, Trumka grew up among the United Mine Workers union. He met its first and longest-serving president, John L. Lewis, and never forgot his signature bushy eyebrows, his gravelly voice, or his independence.
"People forget that John L. was no mouthpiece of the Democratic Party and would back Republicans when he thought it was right," Trumka told Newsmax, reminding us that Lewis and the UMW supported Republican Wendell Willkie against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, after FDR told Lewis and the mine owners "a plague on both your houses."
Trumka, himself a friend of Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, could never have been accused of the bipartisanship of his hero Lewis.
When Wisconsin then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, ended collective bargaining and reformed the public pension system in his state in 2011, Trumka vowed his demise.
In 2012, the AFL-CIO led the charge to recall Walker. The movement failed and, as the governor sought reelection in 2014, Trumka proclaimed him "Public Enemy Number One" at a Monitor breakfast.
The union's efforts to unseat Walker failed that year as well, but e was finally defeated in 2018.
In 2016, Trumka told reporters at his Labor Day sit-down that Donald Trump’s hard-line support for trade had some support, that some AFL-CIO members did talk about endorsing him for president, but it was unlikely to happen.
After Newsmax reported — accurately — that the door was open for a possible AFL-CIO endorsement of Trump (which did not happen in the end), Trumka would spot this reporter at an event and inevitably say: "I’m going to be careful. He’s going to report what I say inaccurately."
Then he would smile, laugh, and regale me with some reminiscence.
The young Trumka grew up hating corruption in the United Mine Workers. He took an immediate dislike to its second president, W.A. "Tony" Boyle, when he left in a helicopter after a brief visit to the site of a mining disaster that killed several workers in western Pennsylvania, Trumka's home turf.
Boyle was later convicted as part of a conspiracy that murdered his rival Joseph "Jock" Yablonski. When I reminded Trumka that Boyle had sworn before the National Press Club that he didn’t kill Yablonski "so help me God," the AFL-CIO chieftain shot back: "A grand jury said otherwise."
As a labor lawyer, Trumka in 1982 led the reform movement that made him UMW president by deposing President Sam Church, around whom charges of corruption swirled.
"I later went into a Denny’s in West Virginia one morning and who was coming out but Sam," Trumka recalled. "I could handle myself, and I thought ‘we’re going to have a fight right here.’ But I greeted him in a friendly way, and he invited me to have breakfast with him."
Trumka and Church made peace, and Trumka remained friendly with Church’s wife and son — "He’s a decorated military officer" — after his old rival's death.
Rich Trumka, whether he agreed or disagreed with another, would marvel that person with stories and reminiscences with pizazz. He will be remembered and missed by all those who got to report on him and know him.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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