Speech | Better Pay and Benefits

Trumka to Air Traffic Controllers: We are Building a More Perfect Union

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Thank you, Brother Paul [Rinaldi], for your kind words of welcome, and for your leadership of the Air Traffic Controllers. Just this week, a few miles from here, we were reminded of the bravery each of you demonstrates, when a Southwest jet flying from New York to Dallas lost its engine and was forced to make an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport. Audio of the call between the pilot and air traffic control demonstrated once again the calm, steady hand guiding us home every single day. We owe so much to our air traffic controllers. I'm so proud and honored to be here at your convention. You are American heroes.

Today’s theme is “Building a More Perfect Union.” Just over a decade ago, Barack Obama gave a speech here in Philadelphia, and it bore the same title. At the time, a controversy had erupted about the inflammatory comments of Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama, in the midst of a presidential campaign, had a choice to make. He could let the moment pass and hope the controversy would eventually die out. Instead, he decided to confront the issue head on. What followed was one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Obama addressed the importance of unity in America. The man who went on to become our 44th president spoke of embracing and understanding our past without letting it define our future. He talked about binding our hopes together with the larger aspirations of all Americans. “Let us be our brother’s keeper,” he  said. “Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”

As a labor movement, we face our own critical choice. Will we let corporations continue to write the economic rules...or will we reclaim the economy for those of us who work? Will we be defined by red states and blue states...or will we lead with a robust pro-worker agenda that transcends partisan politics? Will we tap into the inspiring wave of worker activism sweeping our nation...or will we be content to simply protect what we have?

Brothers and sisters, we cannot let this moment pass. We will not let this moment pass.

We can build a more perfect union by building a bigger and stronger labor movement. The Air Traffic Controllers are showing us the way forward. Your organizing is second to none. You have always put issues first. You are focused on electing leaders who will help us win progress, no matter their party. 

Just look at our recent victory in the western part of this state.

Conor Lamb faced an uphill battle. Donald Trump had won the 18th Congressional District by more than 20 points. So Conor Lamb came to us. He met with our leaders. He spoke in our union halls. He wore his support for our issues on his sleeve. And we turned out for him.

Labor made up 25 percent of the electorate. Lamb carried our households with over 60 percent. And the final margin of victory was just 755 votes.

That’s how Conor Lamb won . It’s a loud wake-up call for anyone hoping to do the same in 2018—and yes, 2020. Earning the support of working people is a high bar. It’s more than a handshake or a photo-op. And it extends well beyond the campaign trail.

Union members used our passion and resources to help elect candidate Lamb. Now we are going to use that same energy to hold Congressman Lamb  accountable in office. Winning elections is only the first step. Winning pro-worker policies is the ultimate goal.

Working people proved that we will move heaven and earth to help a genuine ally. But we won’t waste a dime or a door knock on fair weather friends. If you want working people to rally around you, then you sure as hell better rally around us.

And it’s not just Pennsylvania. Working family candidates have outperformed expectations and won races in Iowa, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Washington, New Jersey, Maine, Virginia and Alabama, and that’s just the past few months.

We want every candidate to understand that the path to power runs through the American labor movement, brothers and sisters. That’s why our political independence is so important. That’s why we’re going to unleash the most dynamic member to member program in our history. That’s why we’ve got to keep organizing, keep mobilizing, keep educating, keep registering, keep marching, keep fighting and keep winning, because we want a new day and a new economy where people can work hard and get ahead! And we’ll do it! With the Air Traffic Controllers leading the way!

Our unionism… the passionate stand we take for ourselves, our communities and each other... has never been more important. We are the best organized voice for working people in America.

Yet the truth is we’ve been on defense for too long, brothers and sisters. Right to work. Janus. The attacks on federal employees. You name it. It is time to go on offense. Let’s drop our shield and pick up two swords. And let’s start by demanding the best infrastructure in the world.

It’s time for stable and predictable long-term funding for the FAA and for broad upgrades to the air traffic control system. That means full staffing, new technology and a commitment to modernization. Let’s do it. Enough delays. Enough excuses. Let’s invest the trillions of dollars it’ll take to rebuild this country.

To pay for what we need, America needs a fair tax system. Tuesday was Tax Day. As a result of President Trump’s bogus new law, working people footed the bill for over $1 trillion in giveaways to the rich and powerful. Not only does the new tax law provide corporations even more money to ship American jobs overseas…it gives the richest 1 percent a $33,000 tax cut while low-wage workers get just $40. Imagine that: billionaires get a new car, while the working poor gets a tank of gas.

We demand better, brothers and sisters. We demand universal health care. We demand real retirement security. We demand a new direction on trade that raises wages and creates jobs.  We demand citizenship for immigrants. We demand equal pay for women and an end to sexual harassment. We demand a raise for America’s teachers. And we demand every single resource necessary to help air traffic controllers do their job! 

Let’s show working people we can win, brothers and sisters! Let’s deliver the change America needs. It’ll take risk. It’ll take blood and sweat, but we can make it happen through solidarity—by standing together, marching together, fighting together… shoulder to shoulder…arm in arm…as long as it takes. To take America back! For workers! For the country we love! For each other!

When I talk about workers, I’m talking about our members, our friends, our family—people like my dad, and my uncles. I’m talking about folks like Cheryl Brouwer, a sixth-grade teacher in Oklahoma. Cheryl joined a walkout that closed schools statewide for more than a week. She did it to demand better pay and more school funding, so her students would have textbooks published in this century. She did it because she loves her work.That’s the same reason teachers walked out in Kentucky, Arizona and West Virginia, and I was so proud and happy when those teachers won.

This is a special moment in American history, brothers and sisters. As a labor movement, we are truly building a more perfect union. From the classroom to the air traffic control tower.

Solidarity is our strength. Think about it. The popularity of unions has been rising for years. It’s well over 60%, the highest in nearly two decades, and it’s even higher among young workers. Listen to this: 75% of workers under 30 have a favorable view of unions, including 55% of young Republicans.

Those numbers are a reflection of America’s common values and the ideas that Barack Obama talked about in this city of brotherly love 10 years ago. The past does not define us. A future of shared prosperity, of thriving unions and strong communities is ours to win.

Don’t for a moment think it’ll be easy. The forces of corporate greed are more powerful, organized and focused than anytime I can remember.

Yet none of us should doubt…not for a second…about how this all ends. Our movement is coming back, and we’re coming back strong!

This is our time. Every day, our union movement is growing stronger, because we’re fighting for something real. We’re fighting to lift up lives. We’re fighting for the transformation that comes with a collectively bargained contract. We’re fighting for solidarity. I know it. You know it. It’s like love. It can’t be fully measured. It has to be felt, and I want every worker in America to feel it, to feel the pride and power that comes with a union.

We’re ready to make progress, brothers and sisters. Each election, each time someone signs a membership card, each legislative battle…all of it showcases our growing clout in politics and our economy. Yet I believe you’ll soon see the impact of our momentum on an even broader level.

When more union members fill the halls of power…when wages rise and inequality shrinks… when we have more pro-labor Republicans and fewer corporate-beholden Democrats… when a growing number of young people see the value of democracy and know we can and will change the rules of this economy… when we stop defining victory as not losing… and most of all… when more workers realize our own value… that’s when you’ll know unions are on the rise.

That moment is close. I can feel it. I feel it in every union hall I visit and every picket line I stand on. I feel it when I talk to brave immigrants ready to come out of the shadows and working women who are saying enough is enough. And I feel it here today.

Never forget. We’re the ones who wake America every single morning. We tuck her into bed at night. We build the cars, we land the planes and make the roads. We lift the loads. We pour the molds. We connect our cities and the world. We teach, heal and make. We package, print and bake. We make America strong.

We don’t duck and run. We don’t run and hide. We are the American labor movement, and we will not be denied! Thank you. God bless you. Have a wonderful convention!

Explore the Issue