Wearing a tie that says “Stop TPP,” national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka—America’s top union official —called on unions to work together to win a better life for working people.
National AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka visited the Portland area May 19 to deliver the keynote address at a summit on union organizing. The summit—sponsored by the Oregon AFL-CIO and held at the Vancouver Hilton Hotel and Convention Center—drew 180 attendees, including professional organizers, union leaders, staff, and active members. What follows is his message, edited for space.
“The American labor movement is in transition. And organizing has to be front, center, and back, for us to go forward.
Our labor movement is in transition in every way and at every level. We’ve got to reach out and join with those who share our values. We have to go back to our roots, back into the community, and we have to be part of the community and the community part of us. And to do that, we have to take a hard look at ourselves. The labor movement grows from the bottom up, not from Washington, D.C., down. Without central labor councils and local unions that are fully engaged in organizing and bringing us together with the community, it doesn’t happen.
We, each of us, have to become more professional, and quite frankly, more accountable. Sometimes we ignore the fact that our brothers and sisters aren’t holding up their end of the deal. And we can’t do that any more, because we need everybody hitting on all eight cylinders if we’re going to succeed. And when one union for whatever reason lays back, the rest of us have to encourage them to come forward and carry their load, and to help us so that all of us can win.
When I say that we’re joining together with allies and likeminded partners, I really mean it. We’re committed to it. This isn’t a flavor of the month or a campaign slogan of the year. This is a fundamental of the labor movement — back to our roots, back to where we came from, the community.
This is transformative work, and it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be long, hard work, and it’s going to have some setbacks. And trust me when I tell you this: Do not let the first disagreement with another group destroy a partnership. Don’t allow little stumbles to prevent us from seeing the big picture down the road — a complete, inseparable partnership with our progressive friends and allies.
Everything ultimately that we do comes down to one simple mission, and that’s making working people’s lives better and more fair. Whether it’s getting a pathway to citizenship and eliminating a broken immigration system that hurts people and drives your wages down, or eliminating mass incarceration so that a whole generation of black men don’t get disenfranchised from society, or eliminating pay discrepancy, so that women get paid a dollar for a man’s dollar, rather than 78 cents. We’re all about lifting up the lives of working people, and the best and the most enduring way to do that is with collective bargaining and with a contract on the job. Organizing is the lifeblood of unionism. Collective bargaining built the middle class.
But inequality is surging in America today. It doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to be an economy, a country, that does real well for the top couple percent but the rest of us get left behind. We don’t have to be a country where racism can prevent people from getting opportunities, or any other ism that stops people from getting more of the American Dream. We know we can have a more just society, an economy of rising wages and shared prosperity, not just for a few of us, but for all of us. Together, we’re going to turn America right-side up. We’ll start shrinking the gap between the rich and the rest of us. We’ll bring justice to America’s tax system. And we’ll end the era of corporate trade deals like TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership).
Think about this: The real wages of 90 percent of working people have been falling for almost 40 years, while corporate profits keep rising. They’re at record levels. It’s time for us to get a raise. It’s going to take unity. We’re going to rise together, because if we don’t rise together, none of us will actually rise. It’s like Whac-A-Mole: If they see one group of workers rise up, they’ll want to whack them. What do you think the assault on public employees is all about? First they came after private sector employees, industrial workers, whacking us — closing plants, taking pensions, taking health care, lowering your wages. And then they came after the public employees. They came after the building trades. And they came after the maritimes. Everybody will get your turn in the barrel if we don’t stick together. We have to have to lift all of us up if any of us are going to get very high.
Right now, brave workers at Target and Walmart are organizing without even the protection of a union on the job. And these workers, more than 2 million, have won raises this year, because they demanded a raise and we supported them. Money in the pocket of workers; that’s what we stand for.
Working people need relief. We need it now: Raising wages, shared prosperity. We’ll march for it. We’ll organize for it. We’ll picket for it. We’ll vote for it. We’ll fight for it. And we will win for it, because of your efforts. Let’s go back and kick some ass for the working class.