Speech | Immigration

Trumka: Advance Immigration Agenda for All Workers

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka today delivered the following remarks at the AFL-CIO Immigration Policy and Politics Conference: 

Thank you, Brother Jim [Boland], for your kind words of introduction. Brothers and sisters, welcome to the House of Labor for this important conference. It’s wonderful to be gathered here together.

Today, we have a simple purpose: to advance an immigration agenda for all workers. This agenda is something all of us must be able to advocate clearly to our friends, our coworkers and each other, because the attacks against working people come in many forms… and one of the most dangerous is the immoral idea that says some of us are more worthy of freedoms and protections than others.

Often, when I talk on the subject of immigration, I tell the story of my family in the coal fields of Southwest Pennsylvania, about how my grandfather came to the United States from Italy and worked for years before he could bring over his wife and children… including my mother… to live together as a family. I am a product of the “chain migration” President Trump so often demagogues.

I talk about my father’s father, who came here to escape poverty in Poland. Today, the immigration hardliners would question whether he brought enough merit to be allowed in.

I talk about how the mine owners divided us in my hometown by language, nationality and religion… and how there was a dirty name for each and every one of us… how we were cheated and abused.   

Yet I also make clear how we came together as members of the United Mine Workers of America, how we stood strong in solidarity despite our different accents and origins. We won good jobs through our unionism, and we helped lift an entire nation in the process. It was unity and strength in the face of fear and division. It was hope in the face of hate. It was the labor movement at our best.  

Brothers and sisters, today the forces of fear and division are on the move. And their influence goes all the way to the top. So many of the policies being pushed by the Trump Administration are designed to weaken unions, lower wages and make our workplaces more dangerous. This is what happens when you gut labor and safety agencies, take freedom on the job from more than a million workers and make hunting down working people the primary focus of immigration officials and the Department of Justice.

I want to share a few such examples today of what this means in worksites across the country.

In Boston, an immigrant worker broke his leg falling from a ladder on a construction site. Turns out that the contractor didn’t have workers’ compensation insurance, and when he tried to file a claim, he was arrested by ICE. That makes every construction worker in Boston less safe, because the next guy will think twice before filing a claim.

Last month, 100 people were arrested and detained in a workplace raid in a Tennessee packing plant. The raids are happening faster than activists can track them. In Wisconsin. California. Texas. North Carolina. Iowa. I could go on and on. These ICE raids are terrifying immigrant workers, which directly threatens our freedom to stand together and fight in unions for fair pay and treatment.

After contributing to our economy and playing by the rules for decades, the Trump Administration has said tens of thousands of union members with Temporary Protected Status are no longer welcome here. He’s sending the same message to DREAMers, seeking to end protections that have produced broadly shared benefits in industries and communities around the country.

You’re going to hear more detail from our panel of experts in a minute, but let me lay something out plain: when DREAMers won the legal right to live and work here, pay and benefits shot up. That’s not just good for them. It’s good for everyone who works alongside them. You see, that’s how it works: We all do better when we all do better.

Unfortunately, what we’re seeing today is exactly the opposite. We all share in the suffering when policies put a target on the backs of workers.

Nearly every policy this administration has pushed... from tax cuts for billionaires to the roll back of worker safety to the attacks on dignity and rights of immigrant workers… has further rigged the economic rules against us and in favor of the wealthy few.

It is critical for working people to understand this dynamic.

Over the past several years, the AFL-CIO has been engaging in a worker education program called Common Sense Economics. Some of you have no doubt taken the training, or given it, and its main purpose is to help people understand that the economy isn’t like the weather. It doesn’t simply happen to us. The decisions we make at the ballot affect the economy, because it is shaped and guided by the people we elect to public office.

Here’s something that might surprise you. Economists, including UC Berkeley professor Michael Reich, tracked the effect of prejudice on pay and benefits. They’ve found, predictably, that it coincides with less money and fewer benefits for those being discriminated against. But they also found that discrimination against one group of workers leads to poorer economic outcomes for everyone else in the community.

When the rich and powerful are able to divide us, all workers lose. When we stand together in unity… we all rise.

We have to stand together in 2018. We cannot shy away from the immigration debate or cede a single inch of ground to our opponents. We are committed to having real conversations through our union member to member program about how these issues affect us all, and Common Sense Economics will be an important tool to do that.  

We need workers to understand America’s broken immigration system puts downward pressure on pay and benefits for all of us. Our answer is to stand united, as a politically independent movement of working people, for an immigration agenda that lifts us up. That starts with a path to citizenship for the millions and millions of people who live and work here and are American in every way but on paper.

But it doesn’t stop there. It’s time to reform captive work visa programs so they are based on actual industry needs and include full labor rights and fair wages for every single worker. We must end the enforcement overreach and provide explicit protections to workers who want to organize a union or have the courage to speak up about unsafe conditions. We must keep families together, offer safe harbor to refugees and open our doors to working people from all over the world who want nothing more than a better life, just like my family did.

If we do it right, immigration reform will make jobs better for everyone, improve the health of our democracy and empower us to organize millions of workers into unions.

Unity works. Unionism pays. Our worker-led immigration agenda will help us lift each other up, strengthen our communities and work with dignity. It will take all of us to finally build an immigration system that puts people first, so we’re going to roll up our sleeves and lead by example. It’s time to remind working families of the power of solidarity and the dangers of division.

This is our time. This is our fight. We’re organized. We’re mobilized. We’re gearing up, and we’re ready to turn the tide! Together, we all do better. Thank you very much.

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