AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks to the IFPTE convention:
Thank you so much, Matt [Biggs]—and for your leadership over these many years. And thank you to everyone watching out there for all the notes, calls, texts and expressions of love and support.
As you’ve heard, Rich [Trumka] passed away last week in Pennsylvania where he was camping with his family—fishing and being outdoors with his grandkids—.doing what he loved. Rich was looking forward to this convention—to thanking and acknowledging Paul [Shearon] for everything he’s done for our movement. He wanted to wish Paul a wonderful retirement...and I want to wish you all the best in your next chapter as well, Paul.
All of you know how Paul led the landmark Boeing strike in 2000 at his home local, SPEEA—back when it was an open shop. Rich had that in common with you Paul, bringing his Pittston strike experience from his Mineworker days. And of course Rich was there on the ground during your strike to fire-up the picket line. He led the negotiated settlement with you...and he made sure, going forward...it was a closed shop.
The life-changing gains that continue to impact IFPTE families...are part of Rich’s living legacy. Rich’s memory will be there with every step forward we take for unions, organizing rights, civil rights, dignity, worker power...and the strength of our democracy. In that way, he’ll never really be gone. Please join me now in a moment of silence in his honor.
[Ten second pause.]
I worked side by side with Rich Trumka at the AFL-CIO for 12 years. We talked often about what a moment it is right now in the labor movement. I am so hopeful for our future. We are already creating opportunities for growth and innovation. Have you ever seen that bumper sticker or meme? The Labor Movement: the folks who brought you the weekend. I love it because that’s a perfect example of union innovation that impacts everyone.
That’s part of our history. Think back and picture the days of grim and dangerous factories and mills, when there was no concept of having a life away from work. That was inhumane and unsustainable. And to our movement, unacceptable. So we got creative. We invented the weekend. There’s a parallel to today—changes have accelerated in the pandemic. And we’ve seen what happens as union density has decreased—income inequality has skyrocketed.
To reverse that trend, to shrink inequality, we have to grow union density. We have to organize into action, reach new workplaces. We have to innovate. And I know because of our solidarity, your strength and your character, we’re going to define and win what’s the next weekend. Because the labor movement is the most powerful vehicle for progress in this country.
We elected pro-worker majorities in the House and Senate, the most pro-worker administration, and look what we won for working families in the American rescue plan. To protect jobs and strengthen supply chains, IFPTE and SPEEA with the Machinists Union championed the bipartisan Aviation Manufacturing Jobs Protection Act. Your advocacy secured $350 billion for state and local governments, $170 billion for public education, $30.5 billion for public transit and $75 billion for housing and community development. That means job security, vital services and healthy communities. IFPTE sounded the alarm on nonprofit employers, including anti-union think tanks, qualifying for the Paycheck Protection Program while unions were excluded. The results: PPP was extended to unions in the American Rescue Plan. And the child tax credits we won are cutting child poverty in half.
And throughout so many challenges IFPTE members have been on the frontlines serving so much more than themselves. We know IFPTE members were essential before and during the pandemic and you’re essential to building back better after. Keyword better—better than it is, better than it’s ever been. And here’s why we need to keep the pressure on: We’re on the brink of a generational investment in working families.
The $3.5 trillion budget resolution, as currently written would create the first ever federal Paid Family and Medical Leave benefit—investment that recognizes care is critical infrastructure. It includes clean energy research and game-changing infrastructure. There's a long overdue path to citizenship. Real penalties for employers who violate workers rights. And a huge funding increase for labor law enforcement, which will empower working people.
This goes with the bipartisan infrastructure plan we’ve been hearing about for months, that would bring investments in roads, bridges and waterways. Public transportation, rural broadband and job training. Not to mention the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, investment in science and technology research to shore up American supply chains and seed future American industries. We see untapped potential. The U.S. is a world leader in science and technology innovation.
But we haven’t been great at translating those publicly funded investments into good American job gains. At least not in recent years. The example that I always think about, for how we want it to work, is the U.S. space program that first put an American on the moon. It was funded entirely by our tax dollars. It gave us new technologies, created new business. It supported families and local communities. It was built and maintained and run by union labor, including IFPTE members. But bad policy enabled offshoring. With deindustrialization there was a shift in power.
We began to lose union density and all that unions provide, not just to our members, to all working families. Today, we have a private space race among a handful of billionaires. And did you know Elon Musk’s private companies received nearly $5 billion of our tax dollars? Did we get a widely shared return of that investment? No. Our lives were put at risk. Musk ignored local health orders and at least 450 workers at Tesla in California were infected with COVID-19. And before that Tesla threatened and fired employees for organizing. This is what we mean when we say we need to balance the scales.
And to do that we need the PRO Act and the public sector PRO Act right alongside it to make sure the jobs created with our tax dollars are well-paid, union jobs, that worker voice and perspective is included in technology and innovation. And that union-busting corporations are held accountable with real penalties. Polls tell us that 60 million people want to join a union. Young workers, workers in emerging industries, exploited gig workers and people working as “independent” contractors who are misclassified and being denied their rights want unions.
You all know, the tech sector is one of the biggest growth sectors where there is essentially zero union density. But a recent survey found that HALF of all tech workers want a union. More than any other generation in the workforce, millennials are the most interested in joining unions, more than 60%. IFPTE members are innovators. You work on the cutting edge. Can you see it? This is our opportunity. This is how we grow!
But with labor laws broken like they are today more than half of workers in the U.S. are threatened with losing their jobs if they try to form a union. One in FIVE are fired. You know this— we see it in organizing campaigns all the time. Look at Southern California Edison. Corporate management spent millions to intimidate and deny workers their right to have a union. Well our friends in Congress are renaming the PRO Act after our beloved leader. We’re going to start calling it the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize Act and we’re going to pass it.
Because it’s about fairness, it's about our freedom to choose. What’s at stake is the future of work and the technology shaping it. The focus on new technology can’t be at the expense of the humans who are working to actually allow that innovation to function in the real world. One example. A hospital introduced technology to try and predict the patients’ risk of sepsis. But the tech development team didn’t involve the nurses. So when the technology was put to use not only were nurses doing their regular, demanding work of caring for the patient, but they also had to do technology repair work. We want technology to help us, not hold us back. And the way we do that is by including worker voice in the research and development process. By including worker voice in deciding how technology is developed it leads to better decisions about how the technology is used, and of course the jobs that flow from new technology.
I think of this as collective creation. That means at every stage—not just at the end, as an afterthought—innovation should have input from the humans who will be using the technology on the job.
Paul thank you for leading on the AFL-CIO’s Future of Work Commission—which looked at these issues and made recommendations on how to unlock organizing potential. The commission also recommended we launch a technology institute, which I’m thrilled to say we did earlier this year—to make technology work for working people.
Because this really is our moment. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to get it right.
Everyone included. No community left behind. American-made industries, American supply-chains. Organizing on an unprecedented scale. High labor standards, worker perspective and voice in every step of the innovation process, those are key to the 21st Century vision for America’s future. And as we make major national investments in infrastructure, in families, in the science and technology research that will seed future American industries.
We need the Richard Trumka PRO Act. To make sure jobs now and jobs on the horizon in those new industries will be good, union jobs. To make sure the clean energy future and American innovation are union-made. And to lift up worker voice and perspective so that we benefit from our taxpayer investments.
Because this isn’t just about unions. It’s about the fundamental economic power of working people in the United States. Engineers, scientists, biologists, chemists, nonprofit employees, researchers, lawyers, programmers—all working people—deserve to have a voice on the job. That’s what those thousands of engineers and other white collar workers understood when they walked out of Boeing in 2000. It wasn’t just for the pay. It was about the future of the labor movement.
That’s the future we’re building right now, on the shoulders of giants like Paul, and the legacy of Richard Trumka.
Together, we will innovate, we will organize, and we will grow.
I can’t wait to see where we go from here. Thank you!