On the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 4, thousands of mine workers, union and allies alike, came from as far as Pennsylvania to Brookwood, Alabama in support of the ongoing coal miner strike against Warrior Met Coal, Inc. It was one of the largest rallies in Alabama labor history and one of my proudest days as president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor union federation.
We had the honor of hearing remarks recorded by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the former United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) leader, reformer and hero. He spoke, as he always did, with his trademark strength, gusto and ability to inspire.
The following morning, Rich unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack at the age of 72.
The world will always remember Rich for his lifelong devotion to working people, for his unparalleled leadership, and for being the voice of the 21st Century labor movement.
But for the UMWA members who ache for his passing, they will remember him as one of their own—who came home, one last time, to bring them together and push them forward.
Rich embodied everything it meant to be a union man. Born in the small coal town of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather to become a third-generation coal miner and member of UMWA Local 6290. His lifelong passion for workers’ rights was born from talks around the family dinner table about the union’s struggle for decent wages, working conditions and pensions. His years spent in the sweat and dirt and dust of the coal mines only made his conviction stronger.
As president of the UMWA, Rich would go on to lead the union to victory in one of its toughest strikes in history against Pittston Coal Company in 1989. He never wavered. He never backed down. And after 10 months, the mineworkers won.
In the labor movement, we often say (and sing) “solidarity forever.” That’s because from the moment that union card first enters your wallet, you’re a part of something much bigger than yourself. And in a world where so much is not guaranteed, the power of collective action—solidarity—works. It seeps into your soul, and it never leaves.
I say this, because sitting under the hot sun on Wednesday in Brookwood’s Town Park, was a group of the same UMWA members who fought alongside Rich against Pittston more than 30 years ago, listening to Rich once again as their leader called them to action.
“It’s time to regrow America’s labor movement, to restore our rights, and to reclaim our power!” Rich said that day.
“To Warrior Met and all the union-busters out there: No matter how much you intimidate us, no matter how hard you try to break us, working people are not going to cave or capitulate! We’re not going to give in or give up. We will prevail. One day longer. One day stronger.”
The crowd of miners cheered.
Solidarity forever, indeed.
Being a part of that moment was the privilege of a lifetime and an honor Alabama’s labor movement will never forget. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that as the strike against Warrior Met continues, our working people are going to stop at nothing to honor Rich’s legacy. He has our word, and we are so, soblessed to have had his.