The Catholic Labor Network mourns the loss of AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka last week.
Trumka was a champion of working families and a friend of the Network. As a Catholic union leader, his faith and his vocation pointed in the same direction: solidarity, the key concept bridging the world of labor and Church.
A third-generation mineworker from Western Pennsylvania, Trumka rose to become president of the United Mineworkers of America, a legendary labor organization, leading the union through the bitter 1989 Pittston strike. In 1995 he teamed up with another union leader motivated by his Catholic faith, John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union to win the leadership of the AFL-CIO. They ran on on a platform of renewing labor’s commitment to organize the unorganized. When Sweeney retired in 2009, Trumka was elected president of the AFL-CIO.
When explaining labor’s relationship with the Church, he frequently related an incident his father had witnessed in the hard days of the 20s and 30s when the union was trying to organize in the face of fierce and violent employer opposition. Nemacolin was a classic company town, he explained. “Every house, every store and seemingly every square foot belonged to the mining company. There were two exceptions: the union hall and Our Lady of Consolation Church, which was at the heart of our town’s Catholic community.”
The mine owners had their own special police force, the Coal and Iron Police. One day these police broke up a labor action and a mounted officer pursued his father and grandfather all the way to the steps of the Church.
“The parish priest, Fr. Paul Simko, heard the commotion and came out front with a crucifix raised high. He stepped right between my dad and granddad and the mounted police and said, ‘You can’t ride up on these steps. This is a sanctuary!’… Fr. Simko was not some kind of rogue actor. He was living the church’s teachings from the papal enyclical, Rerum Novarum. He was practicing the virtue of solidarity that Pope Francis so often speaks of today.”
For more information on President Trumka’s life and work from a Catholic perspective, see:
- A Catholic labor priest laments death of ‘brother’ Richard Trumka – Fr Clete Kiley, National Catholic Reporter
- Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, dies at 72 – Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service
- A tribute to Trumka, a Catholic whose work we must carry on – Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter
- Rich Trumka lived in solidarity – E.J. Dionne, Washington Post