NEMACOLIN, Pa. - In the morning, a silver mist rolls off the mountains, spiraling up from the hills of this former mining town 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, now a ghostly shadow of what it once was.

The mine is closed. The houses are worn, evidence of the relentless nature of mining, an industry that extracts its treasure from the earth, leaving behind faded towns in tired hollows.

The man who on Wednesday will become the nation's most powerful labor leader grew up here.

"It was a big deal for me to go to Pittsburgh and sit in the bleachers to watch the Pirates with the Little League," Richard Trumka mused, outside his old union hall perched on a rise down the hill from the two-bedroom home where he grew up.

On Wednesday, in a convention center in Pittsburgh, Trumka, the son and grandson of coal miners and a coal miner himself, will become president of the 11-million-member AFL-CIO.

He is unopposed to replace retiring president John Sweeney, 75, who elevated Trumka, a graduate of Villanova University's law school, to the top ranks of union leadership in 1995, when Sweeney became AFL-CIO president.

Trumka, 60, will lead the nation's largest labor federation at a challenging time for the union movement.

These days, the union promise of better wages and benefits seems thin when nearly 15 million Americans are unemployed and nothing seems to stop the flood of layoffs.

Unions have been battered by the economy, as union workers face stinging criticism for trying to save generous wages and benefits negotiated in better times.

"Even when there are bad conditions, if it weren't for the unions, the workers would get nothing," said Trumka, back in Nemacolin for a visit last week.

Part of the time, it was like the old days, sitting on the porch of the United Mine Workers of America union hall, shooting the breeze with union and hunting buddies.

In the morning, a crew filmed him in what passes for a town square in Nemacolin. His humble beginnings will be writ large in an inspirational video projected on mega screens at the convention.

Then Trumka drove around town, pointing out the bowling alley that is gone, the movie theater that is now an empty lot, the swimming pool that no longer exists.

On the national stage, Trumka will be the man who leads an organization credited, in no small part, with helping to elect President Obama.

Trumka will work on issues such as health care, international trade, pension reform, and legislation to make union organizing easier. It will be up to him to reverse a general trend of declining membership while making unions relevant.

Labor insiders say he will add dynamism to the AFL-CIO, a change from Sweeney, who is known as a nice man but not a hard driver like Trumka, long the heir apparent.

But Randel Johnson, senior vice president for labor and employment for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, does not expect much change.

"I think he'll be more aggressive, but it will end up being more of the same," Johnson said. "Like Sweeney, Trumka seems to demonize employers like they haven't changed since the 1930s. That rhetoric doesn't bode well for our ability to work with labor at the political level."

Trumka vows to install an army of 1,000 organizers who will be dispatched around the country to help workers who want to form unions. He'll reach out to the young.

"We have to signal to them that we are willing to change our ways of doing things to meet their needs," he said.

Trumka unlocked the back door of his family's wood-framed home on Bliss Avenue and moved through the narrow kitchen into the paneled living room, every table crowded with knickknacks and photos.

His mother, Eola, now ailing, lives with his sister in Pittsburgh. Trumka's father, Frank, has passed away.

Wistfully, he pointed out the pictures. That's him, graduating from high school, then from Pennsylvania State University, and finally from Villanova Law. Now his son, also a lawyer, clerks for U.S. District Judge Berle Schiller in Philadelphia.

So many memories. When Trumka was a boy, his father worked only five days a month. "My dad had a drinking problem," Trumka said, leaning against the sink. His father asked Trumka what he wanted for his 12th birthday.

"I told him I wanted him to stop drinking." Trumka's father quit right then.

In 1975, it was Trumka's turn to grant his father's request. "Alcoholism is genetic, and I have the kind of personality that pushes you. He probably saw things that I didn't see," Trumka said.

Driving through town, he pointed out the tall white water tower. In the 1930s, he said, mine owners installed a spotlight and machine gun on top. If officials saw men gathering at one house, they suspected it was a union organizing meeting and dispatched guards to beat the men up.

Those were the kinds of stories he grew up hearing.

Here is another:

In 1969, when Trumka was already working in the mines, union reformer Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, his wife, and their daughter were killed at home, just 11 miles from Nemacolin.

The murders made national headlines, underscoring an image of union thuggery.

Like many miners, Trumka had supported Yablonski's bid to unseat Tony Boyle for the presidency of the United Mine Workers. By the time Trumka graduated from law school in 1974 and went to work in the union's national headquarters, Boyle was gone, convicted in the slayings.

In the aftermath, there was an urgency in the union to make changes. Also, as management grew more sophisticated, the miners needed a different kind of leader.

In 1982, after moving up the ranks, Trumka, then 33, became that leader. He stayed president until he became secretary-treasurer of the national AFL-CIO in 1995.

"He started out in the bowels of the earth," said Donald Redman, a government official in nearby Fayette County and a former miner who worked with Trumka.

"We got someone who was a polished attorney," Redman said. With Trumka as president, "we went from hard hats and beating people up to pinstripes and briefcases."

Under Trumka's watch, stricter environmental laws and technological advances led to a decline in mining employment. The percentage of union mine workers also fell, following workforce trends.

These days, Trumka makes his home in Maryland. When he attended Villanova, he lived in King of Prussia.

Villanova law professor Leonard Packel remembers when Trumka, then a student, sought his advice.

Trumka had landed a summer internship in the United Mine Workers legal department.

"He told me he was thinking about working in the mines," Packel recalled. "I asked him, 'Why in the world would you want to do that?'

"He said, 'You can't duplicate the comradeship. Your life is in their hands and their lives are in your hands.' To me, that was all doubletalk, but I could feel that to him it was very important.

"He talks like a miner. Not crude. Not unsophisticated, but he uses words that miners would use and he has a gruff voice," Packel said. "At the same time, he's very, very smart. . . . He has a real commitment to labor in general and mine workers in particular. He may be the last person in America with that commitment."

On Wednesday, many retired miners from Nemacolin's Local 6290 and other nearby halls will travel to Pittsburgh to see Trumka become head of the AFL-CIO.

"I've been in the labor movement my whole life," Trumka said. "I know the issues. I know the people."

And in his hometown, the people know him. Some like him. Some don't.

"He's a good guy. He's an honest person. I don't think he's afraid to speak his mind," said Bob Dobbins, the former mayor of Carmichaels, where Trumka played football in high school. "I think he's going to do well."

Or, "I think he can be arrogant," said Mary Lewis, borough administrator in Carmichaels. "A lot of times people get in higher places, they forget the little people."

While some applaud his work for the union, especially the retention of health benefits for retirees, others wonder why some of the biggest mines in Greene County are nonunion. If Trumka's so great, why did that happen?

Some cannot forget that Trumka, as president of the union, sued his best friend from childhood for libel when the two disagreed over pension funding. The 1992 suit was settled without anyone paying a dime, but the friendship is broken.

Looking sad and withdrawn, Trumka wouldn not discuss it on the record. The friend, Gerald Onderko, who lives in Carmichaels, seemed equally sad.

"I cried when he was inaugurated," Onderko said. "I was so proud. Now, my heart is broken."

Onderko's mother, Anne, still lives in Nemacolin. She remembered how much Trumka loved her salads, how good he was in math, how often he slept in her home, how considerate he was of his mother.

"I know he'll make a real good president" of the AFL-CIO, she said, sitting in an armchair in her living room.

"You tell him I said so."

To take a video tour with

incoming AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka of his home town of Nemacolin, Pa., go to http://go.philly.com/trumkaEndText