Speech | Better Pay and Benefits

Trumka Addresses America's Future Labor Lawyers

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee Minority Outreach Conference: 

Thank you, Jessica [Chu], for bringing us together, and it’s great to be with all of you. I’m glad to hear your stories, and I’m proud that our program here will be part of your professional biographies from this point forward.

I’d like to start today by giving you an overview of the state of the labor movement in America, as well as the opportunities in front of us and the challenges we face.

Something is happening in America… something great… something none of us have seen on a national scale in a long time. You’ve watched the news about teachers, who’ve been taking to the streets and to state capitals all over the country to demand more money for education. You may have read news stories about the rising popularity of labor unions. Well over 60% of the public wants labor unions to have a stronger role in American life and politics, and that number is rising.

These are major developments, and they will have a profound and positive effect on this country, and on the institutions which are devoted to the well-being of working people. Here are three real-world consequences of that rising popularity. In the span of one week recently, 15,000 workers in a range of industries and jobs, from Harvard grad students to journalists to health care workers, voted to join unions.

Second, last week 50,000 Culinary Workers in Las Vegas negotiated in a powerful move to win good pay and fair wages, and those workers proved that working people can stand strong… and win. That’s important, because in America too often the cult of business leads us to believe that CEOs and special interests hold all the cards and make all the decisions. We are showing that together, working people can shift the balance of power.

And, lastly, the first group of Boeing workers in South Carolina voted to unionize by joining the Machinists last week. I don’t think any of us can overstate the importance of workers choosing to stand together in a state where everyone, from the governor on down, has been openly hostile to workers and unions with no regard for the law for as long as anyone can remember. Mark my words: Workers in the South are organizing, and it marks powerful progress for the American Dream.

Yet none of us for a minute should think the road forward will be easy. President Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, threatens to cast the deciding vote against workers in Janus and tilt the Supreme Court further in favor of corporations, breaking with 40 years of commonsense precedent. And many of his picks for the lower courts are outrageous—people with no litigation experience who have made careers attacking voting rights and workers’ rights and LGBTQ rights.

Congress has been willing to stack the deck against working people for years, and they’re still at it. Massive tax cuts for corporations. Health care repeal and rollbacks. Attacks on immigrants. The deregulation of Wall Street. The gutting of environmental protections, worker safety rules and a whole lot more.

These have real-world effects. Corporations have used a rigged system to outsource jobs, hold down wages and make it harder to form a union. According to a recent study by the United Way, 51 million households don't earn enough to afford a budget that includes housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cell phone. That’s 43 percent of all homes in the United States.

To win new economic rules, we’re embracing real political independence that gives no consideration to party, so our agenda leads our politics, not the other way around. That’s important, because we need working people to understand that our endorsements are based on a candidate’s positions and actions. To put it more plainly: if you support us, we will support you.

As law students preparing to enter the job market, you have an opportunity to be at the forefront of this activism. Worker and civil rights. Income inequality. Corporate overreach. Discrimination. These issues are being debated in union halls, courtrooms and the public square. And we need dedicated and sharp legal minds to help make our case, guide us forward and win lasting progress.

Regular working people… especially those on the margins... that’s who needs clear, strong and enforceable rules most. The rich and powerful can rest on their wealth. The rest of us rely on the rule of law, and the dedicated professionals who spend their lives defending it.

With all that in mind, I hope this summer’s work is transformative for you. I can promise that our labor movement specifically and the progressive world more broadly needs you and all you bring to the table. Your ideas. Your energy. Everything.

It’s impossible to know what one experience will impact you the most, but I can tell you from my own legal journey that the greatest thing I’ve gained is lifelong friends.

So work hard. But don’t work too hard. Take some time to rest and recharge. Remember to laugh. Support one another. Down the road you’ll be glad you did. In a few years, you’ll be helping each other find jobs and solving complex legal questions together. You’ll be recruiting the next generation of law students to our labor movement. And you’ll be making our country stronger in the process. Just look at Jessica. She sat in your chair not too long ago.

With that, I’d love to hear some of your questions and thoughts. Who wants to start?

Explore the Issue