Trumka to grads: ‘Use your law degree as a force for moral good’

May 19, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Speaking at the 2016 commencement ceremony for the Penn State Dickinson School of Law in University Park on May 14, AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka challenged members of the class of 2016 to use their education to “advance justice, expand freedom, and promote fairness.”

“You have an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility to use your law degree as a force for moral good,” Trumka told the approximately 150 S.J.D., LL.M., and J.D. graduates at the law school’s 137th formal commencement ceremony.

“Make no mistake, it won’t be easy. A law degree is not an automatic ticket to success,” he said. “Don’t be discouraged. You worked your tail off to get here. The greatest reward for hard work is the opportunity to serve others. The harder you work, the more opportunities you’ll have. In the end, activism will erase your debts and fill your hearts.”

Trumka, a 1971 graduate of the Penn State Smeal College of Business, cited his own rise from the coal mines of western Pennsylvania to his leadership post at the helm of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO, the largest organization of labor unions in the country. He shared a story from his childhood, when, at 12 years old, he sat on his coal-miner grandfather’s front porch in the midst of a mine workers strike. He told his grandfather that he wanted to become an attorney to “stand up for workers’ rights.” His grandfather told him, “If you want to help workers, you first need to help people.”

And that was the tenor of Trumka’s message to the class of 2016.

“Your challenge is to use these skills to make the world a better place in your own way,” he said. “I got my start helping coal miners win fair pay, good benefits, and a secure retirement. For you, it will likely be something different. Perhaps you want to be an advocate for victims of domestic violence. Maybe your mission is to make our immigration system fairer and more just. You could serve in government, become an educator, practice corporate law, open your own firm, or do pro bono work for a cause you believe in. The options are endless.”

Trumka also called upon the future attorneys to stay true to the ethics of the profession and be mindful of their personal integrity.

“There are going to be times when a superior or a client tells you to cross the line,” he said. “If you listen, it may help advance your career in the short term. What will you do in that moment? You can either take the path that is easy, or you can make the hard decision to do the right thing, even if it costs you a promotion in the process.”

Trumka was elected president of the AFL-CIO in 2009, after serving as the organization’s secretary-treasurer from 1995 to 2009. Prior to joining the AFL-CIO, he was president of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) for 13 years, after being elected in 1982, at age 33, as the youngest president in the organization’s history.

Born in Nemacolin, Trumka followed his father and grandfather into the southwestern Pennsylvania coal mines, working his way through Penn State and then law school at Villanova University. After law school, Trumka worked on the legal staff of the UMWA in Washington, D.C., for four years before returning to mine work in 1979 and doing pro bono legal work for local families in the Nemacolin area during his hours away from the mine. Once back at work in the mining community, Trumka rose quickly through the ranks, first serving as chair of UMWA Local 6290's safety committee and later on the union's International Executive Board.

He has remained connected to Penn State since graduating in 1971. He served on the Penn State Board of Trustees from 1983 to 1995, and, in 2010, the board presented him with the Distinguished Alumni Award, the University’s highest honor for an individual. In his commencement remarks, he called his time as a Penn State student a liberating experience that opened his eyes to “a broad array of ideas and experiences.”

“As you head off to your next adventure, I want you to remember how special this place is,” he told the graduates. “Don’t ever take it for granted. Penn State is a family. And I am incredibly proud to call you brothers and sisters.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 19, 2016