In 2008, Trumka got widespread attention for his powerful speech to the United Steelworkers taking on racism in the context of Barack Obama’s run for president. In fact, Trumka gave versions of that speech to other groups, bringing the message as widely as he could. In the speech, Trumka told of an encounter with a woman in his hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, on the day of the state’s presidential primary. When she told him she could never vote for Obama, he pressed her through a series of excuses until she admitted it was because Obama was Black.
“And I said, ‘Look around this town. Nemacolin’s a dying town. There’s no jobs here,’” Trumka said. “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?”
“See, brothers and sisters, we can’t tap-dance around the fact that there’s a lot of folks out there, just like that woman, and a lot of them are good union people—they just can’t get past the idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a Black man. Well, those of us who know better can’t afford to sit silently or look the other way while it’s happening.”
He went on to detail times in U.S. history when organized labor similarly stood for civil rights and against racism. (That is by no means the only racial history of the U.S. labor movement, to be clear.)
Recently, Trumka had spoken out in favor of vaccination mandates.
As news of his death spread, Trumka was also fondly remembered for one of his briefest statements ever:
The U.S. labor movement has been in tough times for decades now, and Trumka decidedly could not stem the losses. But he has been a strong leader who tried to bring unions forward and raise up working people at every turn. This is a serious loss.