Speech

At Northern Kentucky University Labor-Management Conference, Trumka Looks to the Future

Highland Heights, Kentucky

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the Northern Kentucky University 36th Annual Labor-Management Conference

Good morning, everybody. It’s a pleasure to be here. And it’s great to see my friend Tom Buffenbarger again. Tom, your lifetime of commitment to America’s working families can be felt in every corner of this country. You are a constant force for unity and solidarity, and I can’t think of anyone better to help us chart a path forward.

The topic of today’s conversation, America’s future workforce, is absolutely critical. And I very much look forward to hearing Nick’s (Pinchuk) insight and perspective.

On Thursday, the AFL-CIO launched our Commission on the Future of Work and Unions. The commission was formed by a unanimous vote of our convention last fall, and we are charged with determining how best to build bargaining power and provide economic security for millions of Americans amidst massive changes in the workplace.

At our kickoff event, we heard from labor leaders, academics, policy professionals, organizers and frontline workers, who are each shaping the future of work in their own unique way.

And we asked ourselves two important questions:

  1. What happens to a system that becomes incapable of supplying a rising standard
    of living to its people?

  2. How will the products and benefits of technology be divided...and who will make that decision?

We’re facing a moment of unprecedented change—both in its scale and its accelerating pace. It’s one of the defining challenges of our time. But more importantly, it’s one of the greatest opportunities we’ve ever been presented.

We can grow our economy and strengthen our nation, boost productivity and create greater prosperity, raise wages and secure better, longer, healthier lives for everyone. But only if we make some key decisions, together, about what we want our future economy to look like.

As labor and management, we should be heading into this crossroads together.

Just as managers are invested in their success, workers have a stake in what we produce. We take pride in the products we build and the services we provide. Our labor is sacred, and it drives us every day.

Business and labor may play different roles, but we share common goals.

Each of us wants American companies to succeed. Each of us wants workers to be safe, satisfied and productive. Each of us want a future where everyone can enjoy the fulfillment that comes with a good job.

Yet we simply cannot ignore what has happened over the past 40 years. When unions are pushed aside—when decisions about our future are kept behind closed doors—the system begins to crack. And the bonds that hold all of us together start to weaken. We’re seeing the consequences of that erosion today.

The latest wave of technological disruption has coincided with a generation of bad policy choices. These policies have held down wages, skyrocketed inequality and made it harder to form a union. Temporary jobs, scheduling abuse, subcontracting and misclassified workers have become all too common. As a result, more and more young people have lowered their expectations of ever paying off student loans, buying a home or even landing a good job.

Listen to this: A 2016 study from Harvard University showed that only 30 percent of millenials believe it’s essential to live in a democratic nation. It’s a startling statistic. I believe it reflects the simple truth that young people are becoming more disillusioned as they bear the brunt of our broken economy.

Earlier I asked what happens to a system that becomes incapable of supplying a rising standard of living to its people. The Harvard study provides us a glimpse of the answer. A system unable to provide for its citizens will not endure.

So we cannot have a complete discussion about the future of work without talking about the future of workers. And that means acknowledging what tomorrow’s working class will look like. By 2032, a majority of workers between the ages of 18 and 64 with less than a college degree will be people of color. They need to play a part in shaping what comes next.

These decisions can’t and won’t be made in the board room or corner office alone. We know from firsthand experience that the single most effective tool for building an economy of shared prosperity is collective bargaining. Strong unions—our collective voices—must be a part of this conversation.

When workers sit down across the table from our employers and bargain, we bring home higher wages, have greater access to health care and a pension and are more likely to be safe on the job. Most importantly, workers who bargain collectively have a voice, a say in the terms and conditions of work. As a result, we’re more invested in our work. As we put our blood, sweat and time into our jobs—we also share in the fruits of that labor. And that leads to more driven, satisfied and productive workers who are committed to helping businesses thrive. It’s a win-win.

When we raise the bar for ourselves, non-union employers also raise pay and improve benefits to attract and keep the best people. We can use this upward pressure to demand a world where the gains from technology translate into better pay and working conditions for everyone, where being more productive means we can work less and live more, where artificial intelligence allows us to have better, safer and more interesting jobs.

As a labor movement, we are focused on using our collective voice to bargain nothing less than a fair piece of the gains from innovation. If the benefits of technology are divided fairly, we can create a new era of broadly shared prosperity, one where working people get a chance to share in the enormous wealth we help create.

Today we are in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Automation. AI. Digitization. You name it.

Let me be clear. The labor movement isn’t shying away from this change. We’re leading the way.

From assembly lines to construction sites to Silicon Valley, we have always adapted to new workplace realities with pride, flexibility and unwavering commitment.

Before the punch clock and the factory floor, there was the hand tool and the workshop. Before the hardhat, there was the artisan's apron. Before diesel and electricity, there was steam.

Times changed. Our jobs changed. And unions changed with them, building a more prosperous nation and a stronger labor movement in the process.

We aren't done yet. With each step forward, we're leading the way to an even healthier, safer and more prosperous society. Auto workers are designing and building nextgen automobiles that will save countless lives on the road. Digital journalists are transforming the newsroom by providing breaking coverage on cutting-edge platforms. Steelworkers are advocating for exoskeleton technology—to help workers avoid injuries on the job. Electrical workers are using virtual reality to train a new wave of apprentices, handing them tools that I couldn't have dreamed of when I first stepped foot in a union hall.

We’re providing today’s workers with the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow. We partner with employers, government agencies and local communities to provide training for new and returning workers. Between 60 and 70 percent of registered apprentices are in labor-affiliated programs, contributing more than $1.5 billion a year to the economy.

Our presence is having its biggest impact in the building trades, where we take part in more than 1,600 joint labor-management apprenticeship training committees. But apprenticeship programs are helping transform sectors from manufacturing to hotels and restaurants. In all, we operate the largest training network outside the U.S. military.

So we aren't just embracing the future of work. We're living it and pioneering it every single day.

But our experience has also taught us that there is a right way and a wrong way to unleash new tools. Will we let the drivers of inequality pervert technology to foster greater economic injustice and social unrest? Or will we demand that technology improves lives and raises standards and wages across the board?

Labor and management have an opportunity to come together to ensure technology is used for good, not greed. In many ways, we are like a railroad. Labor is one track. Management is the other. But we are both heading in the same direction. And if one track isn’t on firm footing, we’ve all got a big problem.

Now listen, there are some in management who think negotiating with employees is beneath them. They bring a dismissive and often hostile attitude to the bargaining table. There are some on the union side who think it’s not the job of workers to make their employers profitable and that anything gained without a fight doesn’t constitute a win. They’re both wrong.

I tell my union friends all the time—an unprofitable company does us no good. So we have an interest in helping our employers succeed. But we also must have the freedom to bargain for a share of that success. All we’re asking for is an equitable piece of the profits we help create.

More and more, workers are putting aspiration above fear. We see it in the historic teacher strikes sweeping the country, including right here in Kentucky. We see it in the more than 14,000 workers who formed and joined unions in just a single week last month.

Americans are overwhelmingly rejecting the idea that good jobs are impossible—now or in the future. They refuse to accept an economy where Amazon pockets massive tax breaks while its employees live off food stamps...or where Walmart's CEO earns nearly 1,200 times more than the company's median worker.

Working together, labor and management have created the most prosperous nation in human history. We’ve lit our cities and mechanized our farms. We've piloted flights across oceans. We’ve built a transcontinental railroad and an interstate highway system. We’ve played in unforgettable Super Bowls and delivered Academy Award winning performances. And we've connected the world with a device you can fit in the palm of your hand.

Technology is more ingrained into our work than ever before, whether it’s something as common as email or as complex as artificial intelligence. We embrace advances in technology and systems that allow us to do our jobs faster, better and safer. But we will not allow 21st century breakthroughs to be used as an excuse for 19th century labor practices.

The future of work provides an unmatched opportunity for cooperation and collaboration, communication and compromise. We can harness technology to raise pay, make jobs safer and achieve real work-life balance. We can usher in a workforce of unprecedented skill and professionalism. We can use this moment in history to redefine the relationship between labor and management, joining in partnership to build an economy that works for all of us and saving our democracy in the process.

Let that be our legacy. Thank you very much.