Speech | Better Pay and Benefits · Infrastructure · Manufacturing

Labor’s Future: Bargaining for All

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the National Press Club: 

Good afternoon. It is an honor to be here on behalf of the 55 unions and 12.5 million members of the AFL-CIO to talk about how to win progress for America’s working people.

As I start, I’d like to note that today is Equal Pay Day. For anyone unfamiliar, this is not a celebration. It’s a reminder that for a woman to earn as much as a man, she has to work a full year, plus an extra 100 days, all the way to April 4. For women of color, it’s even longer.

The pay gap between women and men is one symptom of a much larger problem. Our economy is historically out of balance, tilted steeply against working people and in favor of corporations.

In each of the last three years, corporate profits have reached record highs, one year after the other, yet workers haven’t gotten a real raise in half a century. Corporate CEOs are making more than three hundred times the average worker. And despite living in the richest country in the world at its richest point in history, our overall standard of living is going down. This is a moral and an economic crisis.

You see, the imbalance in our economy causes regular people real pain. Mothers and fathers are forced to choose between paying the rent and paying the doctor. Consumers are being cheated out of hard-earned money. Seniors are taking jobs instead of enjoying retirement. These are the realities for working people while corporations cart more and more riches to the bank.

So how did we get here?

Republicans, and too many Democrats, have rigged our economy to enrich a select few at the expense of everyday, hard-working Americans. It has been a direct assault on our deeply held national values of unity, justice and broad opportunity. It’s been done under the guise of creating jobs and justified by a fanatical economic theory that seeks to remove or destroy anything seen as a barrier to the free market, most especially unions.

We see it in our trade deals that create special rights for corporations. We see it in our health care system that is a windfall for insurance companies and a complicated, unaffordable mess for patients and families. We see it in our financial sector that has become the master, not the servant, of the real economy.

Above all, we see it in our outdated labor laws that allow employers to steal wages and unfairly restrict the freedom of workers to form unions.

But inequality is not inevitable. Inequality is a choice. And we can choose to do better.

Let me be perfectly clear—we will never solve the problem unless every worker has the power to bargain with their employer. Nothing else raises wages better or more fairly.

Now it would seem that the Bill of Rights—with its freedoms of speech and assembly—affords every worker the right to bargain with their employer. But that is not how the system works in practice.

The law today only requires employers to bargain with recognized unions, so we are proposing something bold. Something better. Every worker, everybody, deserves a job and the power to make it a good job, to bargain for higher wages, safer working conditions and retirement security. Whether you’re black or white. Whether you're gay or straight. Whether you're immigrant or native-born. Whether you're union or not yet union.

If you tend crops in North Carolina or clean hotel rooms in New York City, if you’re an engineer in Seattle or an autoworker in Mississippi, you should have the right to bargain with your coworkers for a better life. And employers should have to abide by that right.

Some might say this is radical. Quite frankly, I say it's the most fundamental thing there can be. And there has never been a more important time for workers to assert our collective power.

When all workers have a say in our pay and working conditions, we will start to close that gap. We will lift up more families and communities. We will build the America our founders envisioned, our parents built and our children deserve.

This is what the vast majority of Americans cried out for in 2016—whether they voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. New economic rules. A new way of doing business. Changing an economy so that it worked for them. 

We are closing in on the first 100 days of President Trump’s administration, and two very different factions have emerged. There is a Wall Street wing that seeks to undermine Donald Trump’s promises to workers, and a competing wing that could actually win some progress that working people need.

President Trump needs to decide who he stands with. The coal miners, farmers, steelworkers and other regular Americans who he promised to help in his campaign, or the Wall Street tycoons who are rigging the economy at our expense. That decision will be the single greatest test and the most defining thing of his presidency.

Even before taking office, President Trump used his bully pulpit to tell companies to stay put. A few have listened. And that’s a good thing. Every president should fight to keep good jobs here, because every single job saved means one more family can pay down the mortgage, save for college or retire with dignity.

But it is not enough simply to demand companies stay in America if the jobs that are ultimately saved provide low wages and little voice. President Trump should use his office and influence to call for an end to workplace intimidation, reject “right to work” once and for all and promote and protect the freedom of every single worker to form or join a union and bargain for a better life.

Tweet that. Fight for that. Accomplish that. That’s how we’ll make America great!

From my very first meeting with President Trump, I let him know that we will judge his administration by its actions. We’re watching. We’re keeping score. If the president does something good for all working people, something consistent with our values, we’ll support it and work hard for it. If he does something that threatens who we are and what we stand for, we are going to fight it, as a unified labor movement.

This isn’t just talk.

We opposed the American Health Care Act because it was an all-out attack on workers’ health care security—taking money away from Medicare and Medicaid, increasing the number of uninsured and taxing our health plans. We want health care for all, not the few.

By defeating that bad legislation, we sent a powerful message. If you pull a bait and switch on working people—if you say you are with us and then attack us, you will fail.

We are applying this same standard to the important issues of the day.

We were thankful that President Trump signed the TPP’s death certificate. But working people killed that unfair agreement. We did that. NAFTA is the real test, and despite the president calling it the worst trade deal in history, it appears the Trump Administration could leave its most oppressive pieces in place.

President Trump has proposed a $1 trillion investment in America’s infrastructure. This is the right scale to be talking about, and the labor movement is ready to hit the ground running. But will we invest the right way—with high wages and standards for the workers who build our roads and bridges?

Just last week, the Republican House voted to eliminate PLAs on all federal projects. What will he do with that? Will he sign it or will he veto it?

Quite frankly, I am concerned that the Wall Street wing of the White House is starting to hijack the agenda.

President Trump has already rolled back important federal regulations that keep us safe on the job. His executive orders on immigration criminalize our workplaces and violate our basic principles. And by delaying the fiduciary rule which says financial advisers must act in your best interest, working people could lose more than a quarter of our retirement money.

Then there’s the president’s budget. In the end, a budget is a more than a set of numbers. It’s a values document. It’s how we know if you put your money where your mouth is. And this budget fails that test.

You can’t say you’re for working people when your budget starves programs like the Appalachian commission and the Delta Regional Authority, which train workers and grow local economies.

You can’t say you’re for working people when your budget cuts infrastructure dollars for hundreds of necessary projects like upgrading Route 640 in Elkhorn City, Kentucky—their lifeline.        

You can’t say you’re for working people when your budget slashes funding for OSHA and MSHA while 150 workers die every single day from workplace injuries or illnesses like silica dust and other toxins.

These are the wrong priorities, the wrong values, but there truly is a different path.

Down in the mountain valleys of southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, poverty and a lack of opportunity were once brutal facts of life. Yet when I was a kid, the local public school gave us a top-quality education, and college was an affordable reality. Back then our economy worked better for working families, largely because of the wages and benefits bargained by workers in unions, like mine, the United Mine Workers of America.

Today UMWA retirees are on Capitol Hill lobbying for a fair retirement deal. Over 20,000 health care cut-off notices have been sent out and benefits are set to expire on April 30. We have a responsibility to keep our promise to America’s coal miners. Congress should send the Miners Protection Act to President Trump’s desk today.

Mining was a dangerous and difficult job and my family was not rich by any stretch. But unionism gave us a ladder to the middle class, and I got to climb it.

For too many people, that ladder is gone. We’re going to have to rebuild it. Rung by rung.

We want to rebuild the ladder and change the rules of our economy for workers like Michael Smith. Michael worked at the Oreo plant on the South Side of Chicago. Yet Mondelez, the parent company of Nabisco, decided to move his job to Mexico. And NAFTA helped pave the way.

Michael is with us today. Please stand, Mike. Thank you, my brother. The members of Mike’s union, the Bakery Workers, want to make Oreos in the United States. This isn’t just about a few cookies. That factory is an icon. It was a place where you could make decent wages and raise a family, and places like that should not be a thing of the past.

Irene Rosenfeld, the CEO of Mondelez, makes over $9,000 an hour. She just went over the $200 million mark that she's taken out of the company. For her. One person. $9,000 an hour and in that same hour, Nabisco workers in Mexico earn barely more than a dollar. One dollar. That's simply unacceptable.

President Trump, do what’s right. Stand with us. Stand with Michael. Stand with the Bakery Workers. Bring the jobs home, protect our pensions and invest in America. That's what you said you were going to do. 

Building an economy that works for everyone requires putting our issues and our values first. We will not be an ATM for any political party. We will stand up to the corporate Republicans who attack working people and the neoliberal Democrats who take us for granted. When our fidelity is to working people and fair economic rules, politicians will have to come to us. That’s how we’ll stop choosing on Election Day between the lesser of two evils and start choosing between the better of two goods.

Momentum has been building for working people over the last few years. People want good jobs. They want fair trade. They want rising pay. A powerful majority of Americans support unions, and our popularity is growing, especially among young people.

As I speak about unionism, and the gains we can win and the power we can build, I’m not asking any of us to disregard reality. I know it won’t be easy. I know we face long odds. But nothing is set in stone... nothing. The future is truly ours to shape.  

Because in the labor movement, we understand that quality jobs don’t just grow on trees. They don't just happen. 

Mining and factory jobs used to be dangerous and dirty. We made them better by standing together. Solidarity works. Unity works. It’s as American as apple pie, but better. When we stand together, we win, and our success spreads.

It’s happening right now, as we sit here. Workers are organizing for a seat at the table and a chance to improve pay and benefits. EMTs and paramedics here in D.C. recently joined the State, County and Municipal Employees. Hard-working women and men at an electric bus factory in Los Angeles won recognition with the Sheet Metal Workers. Employees at Baltimore Gas and Electric said yes to the Electrical Workers. Thousands of teaching and research assistants at Columbia and Yale voted for a voice on the job with the United Auto Workers and UNITE HERE respectively—and more are on the way. And speaking of UNITE HERE, Trump hotel workers in Las Vegas not only secured a first contract, they won a union at Trump International Hotel just a few blocks from this club. That’s our movement—workers of all skills and backgrounds coming together in pursuit of a common goal.

As I close, I want to mention a recent study from Harvard. It showed that only 30 percent of those born in the 1980s believe it’s essential to live in a democratic nation. This is a startling statistic. I believe it reflects the simple truth that young people are bearing the brunt of our economic imbalance. The American idea that anything is possible if you work hard and play by the rules, has been fading away for this generation and too many others.

The labor movement can and must change this. We are in the fight of our lives—to reclaim America as a land of opportunity. And we have never been more committed to getting the job done right now.

In the end, it all comes down to this: Everybody deserves a good job and the power to win better wages, benefits and retirement security, whether you’re in a union or not. That's how we build an economy that works.

President Trump, the labor movement is moving forward. You should join us, sooner rather than later. Use the power of your office to help us raise wages, strengthen unions and give all workers a better life. You do that. And we'll take it from there. Thank you very much.


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