Former coal miner to head nation’s labor movement

September 17, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


I mentioned back in July that it seemed almost certain that Rich Trumka, a former coal miner and former president of the United Mine Workers of America union, would be elected president of the national AFL-CIO.

Well, that’s just what happened this week at the labor organization’s annual convention in Pittsburgh. And in his acceptance speech, Trumka talked a fair amount about coal, coal miners, and the truggle for justice in the coalfields. His references started very early in the speech:

And then there’s my extended family: my brother Cecil Roberts and the men and women of the United Mine Workers of America.

From my first day working in a coal mine to my last day as its International president, I have been in awe of the courage and compassion – and the unbreakable solidarity — of my UMWA brothers and sisters

And I want you to know that just as you have always stood with me, I will always stand with you.

Trumka talked about Pittsburgh, and the history of the working people there:

It was a place where the whistle of the coal trains pierced the night.

It was a place where men with names like Esposito, and Kowalski, and O’Hara and Friedman worked 12-hour days standing in the glow of molten steel.

Where black men worked in the coke ovens doing the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs of all.

And where women washed other people’s laundry and cleaned other people’s homes and cooked other people’s meals – anything to have enough money so their kids wouldn’t have to work.

They spoke Polish and Italian and English and Yiddish and Spanish and more.

Most of the time they couldn’t understand a word of what the other was saying – but they all spoke the language of hope.

The hope of better lives, good lives, for themselves and their families.

The chance to own a home and to give their kids something more – something better – than they ever had.

And about the drive to unionize workers there, and around the country:

And they also knew that there was only one way they’d ever be able to make that happen.
It wasn’t by pleading for it, or begging for it, or praying for it.
No! It was by joining together and fighting for it.

It was by mobilizing, together!
Organizing, together!
Standing tall and proud and union together!
And telling the companies in one, clear, strong voice that you may own the iron,
you may own the coal,
you may own the banks,
and the newspapers, and the politicians –
but you don’t own me, you don’t own my family, and you will never, ever own my union!

I’ve previously mentioned this Huffington Post commentary and a related National Public Radio story in which Trumka talks about confronting racism about union members while campaigning for President Obama. And this week, West Virginia Blue had more on Trumka’s hopes for the future.

You can watch the whole speech here:

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