Speech | Better Pay and Benefits · Labor Law

Trumka to Alabama AFL-CIO: United We Win, Divided We Fall

Montgomery, Alabama

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the Alabama AFL-CIO Convention:

Good morning, brothers and sisters. It is an honor to be here with you today. Brother Rickey (Kornegay), thank you for that introduction. You and Brother Bren (Riley) are doing a great job leading the labor movement forward here in Alabama.

I love this state. Great food. Great football. Great people. And great unions. That’s Alabama. Roll tide!

You’ve maintained nearly 10% union density—more than Virginia and Georgia combined—in the face of globalization and right to work, anti-worker politicians and corporate greed.

Just look at what happened with Airbus. When the French giant decided to build a $600 million manufacturing facility in Mobile, after being given more than $150 million of your hard-earned tax money, the governor credited right to work with sealing the deal. The message was clear. Workers stay quiet. And unions stay away.

Airbus told employees they could have a direct relationship with management. No third parties.  Organizers know this myth well. It’s like Walmart’s open door policy. The only problem is you have absolutely no power once you get inside that door. Workers were forced to attend meetings where Airbus officials said things like: “All the union cares about is getting your dues…” and “...the union can put you on trial and fine you.” This is what we’re up against.

Just yesterday, we released a report called “The Double Standard at Work.” It lays out in great detail how European companies like Airbus have come to the American South in search of cheap labor and low standards. And your elected officials have made it easy for them, offering lavish tax packages and smashing workers’ rights at every turn. Alabama doesn’t even have a minimum wage.

With our report, we are calling out this hypocrisy by corporations who preach progress on one side of the Atlantic Ocean and bust unions on the other. We will continue to pressure these global players to provide good jobs here in Alabama and everywhere they operate. But we need your help. As Southern union members and leaders, you can strengthen our hand by joining together in solidarity. United, we win. Divided, we don’t have a prayer.

I know unity is easier said than done here in Alabama. The corporate right-wing has been trying to pull us apart for centuries—from slavery to reconstruction, from Jim Crow to modern voter suppression. In March of 1965, right here in Montgomery, after marching for five days from Selma, Dr. King talked about racial segregation. He said it was a political tool by corporate interests to “keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.” There is no denying that we've made progress in the more than 50 years since.

America elected its first black president, and earlier this month, Montgomery elected its first black mayor. Six union members won Alabama House seats in 2018 alone, part of a nationwide wave that included nearly 1,000 of our brothers and sisters.

UAW broke through at a manufacturing plant in Piedmont. Health care workers in Selma and Mobile voted to join the RWDSU. And, CWA and the Steelworkers are demanding good union jobs at New Flyer in Anniston. Day after day and against all odds, Alabama workers continue to demonstrate the true power of collective action.

But we are still too divided. All you need to do is open Facebook or watch the news to see that. And all these decades later, southern labor is STILL the cheapest in the land.

Brothers and sisters, I’m here today to say we can change that. There is so much more that unites us than divides us. We have more in common with a worker of another race than we will EVER have with a CEO. Our jobs and health care and pensions are not under attack by immigrants or transgender people or even LSU fans—they are being surgically and strategically targeted by wealthy corporations and spineless politicians who want us so divided and so distracted that we forget to notice they are robbing us blind.

I say enough.

Black and white—we are union!

North and South—we are union!

Immigrant and native born—we are union!

When we stand together, when we fight for each other, when my picket line is your picket line and your picket line is my picket line, no one can stop us.

This is our time to shine. I can feel it in this room. We won’t be held down or pushed around.

We built the American middle class. And we’re going to rebuild it for every single working family—starting right here in Alabama!

Brothers and sisters, I’ve been at this for more than 50 years, and I’ve never been more optimistic about the labor movement. At a time when our politics and our culture wants us isolated and bitter and ready to blame, working people are, instead, turning to each other.

Union approval is at 64%, the highest in nearly 50 years. 2018 was the biggest year for collective action in a generation. More than 60 million workers would vote to join a union today if given the chance.

As you probably know, nearly 50,000 UAW members have been out on strike at GM for the last month. Remember, this is a company that was on the brink of collapse in 2008. The American people rescued GM with our tax dollars. And UAW members gave up their own wages, their own benefits, to carry GM out of bankruptcy. But autoworkers didn’t just save GM. They delivered years of record-breaking profits. Today, GM is pulling in tens of billions of dollars every year. Their CEO is the highest-paid auto executive in the world. Yet at first, the company put forward a contract that did not adequately share these gains.

So for more than 30 days, UAW members have been striking, demanding from GM a fair piece of the profits they made possible. And guess what? They’re on the verge of a big win. The temporary agreement has higher wages. Profit sharing. Job security. And a path to permanent seniority for temps. This is a victory not just for UAW members, but for every worker who makes our country go.

When we sacrifice the comforts of today for the progress of tomorrow, real change is within our reach.

So we’re telling everyone we can: If you want power—join a union.

Of course, with more than 60 million workers saying they want in, you’d think unions would be growing at an exponential rate. But our badly outdated labor laws, which haven’t been strengthened since 1935, continue to make the job of organizing unreasonably hard. Employers like Airbus hire high-price attorneys and consultants to scare workers into voting no. This coercion is seen in corporate boardrooms as little more than the cost of doing business.

That’s why we need to pass the PRO Act—Protecting the Right to Organize.

The PRO Act would let us do our jobs without interference from anti-union employers or anti-worker politicians.

We have wanted labor law reform for a long time, so workers can fairly choose to form or join unions. Well, sometimes you've got to knock on the door before you get in. We've been knocking. How many of you remember the Employee Free Choice Act? It was the first major piece of labor reform legislation in a generation or more, and we came up just a few votes short.

In the years since that setback, the labor movement has never stopped educating working people and legislators about the importance of raising wages through fair and modern labor laws. The PRO Act is our strongest bill yet—and we are hopeful it will pass the House before Thanksgiving.

The PRO Act protects the right to strike. It includes first contract arbitration, substantial relief for workers whose rights have been violated and real penalties for employers who break the law.

And here is one of the most underrated pieces of this legislation. It removes the employer’s standing in representation cases. The choice to form a union should be that of workers alone. They don’t ask for our input when making a decision about work. So they have no business attempting to influence who we choose to sit at the bargaining table.

Now, there are a few Democratic holdouts on this bill, including your senator, Doug Jones. I greatly admired the race Senator Jones ran against Roy Moore, and I am proud of the work the Alabama AFL-CIO did to send him to Washington. But this is fundamental. I urge each and every one of you to call on Senator Jones to cosponsor the PRO Act today. This bill is good for Alabama. It’s good for America. And it deserves his support.

Brothers and sisters, our approach to politics is pretty straightforward. If you stand with us, we will stand with you. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. Party doesn’t matter. We are a labor movement of issues.

That’s the approach I took when Donald Trump was elected. Trump got 62 percent here. So I imagine some of you voted for him. Trust me, I get it.

President Clinton gave us NAFTA. President Obama tried to give us the TPP and failed to give us labor law reform. And the 2016 Democratic ticket had more questions than answers. So I wasn’t surprised that some working people, especially here in the South, went the other way.

But let’s be clear, the Republican Party’s agenda has been a disaster for working people. Right to work. Lowering our wages. Taking away our health care. The ridiculous law reducing unemployment compensation here in Alabama. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, said only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice. Well, those fools are running the Grand Old Party today.

So I strongly believe the 2016 election was an indictment of political elites in both parties. Donald Trump made promises that spoke directly to working people. He promised to protect American jobs, fix NAFTA and invest in infrastructure. He ripped Wall Street greed and pledged his commitment to changing the economic rules. He spoke about our issues better than Hillary Clinton ever did.

After the election, I traveled up to New York to meet with Trump at his tower. I was hopeful we could work together on the few issues where we actually agreed. I committed to calling balls and strikes—supporting the president when he did something to help us and opposing him when he did something to hurt us.

Well, it’s been nearly three years and I can tell you one thing for certain: Donald Trump is one of the most anti-worker presidents in American history. If you think he’s on your side, you better think again.

Wall Street got another windfall tax cut. NAFTA is still in place. And when Goodyear announced it was moving the Gadsden plant to Mexico, the president was nowhere to be found.

We haven’t spent a penny on infrastructure. Workplace safety regulations have been gutted. They stole our overtime pay. And a management side lawyer with a history of union-bashing and busting is the new Secretary of Labor.

Forget balls and strikes, this president is throwing the pitch directly at our heads.

Brothers and sisters, I will work with any leader who wants to help our 12.5 million hard-working members. So I reached out my hand to Donald Trump in cooperation. I listened. I waited. I tried. And all I got was broken promises and outright attacks. Workers deserve better. We are demanding better. And in 2020, we are going to win better.

So who will win our support?

Look, there are plenty of people running for president. Some we know well. Others are new faces.

But this election is so much bigger than any one individual.

2020 cannot be about personalities. And it certainly cannot be about any one party.

This election MUST be about workers.

That means talking to us and getting to know us.

It means visiting our worksites and our union halls. It means marching on our picket lines. It means learning about our hopes and dreams and understanding our concerns. It means being just as pro-union when you’re at the Farm Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce as you are at a Labor Day picnic.

It means knowing inside and out how our trade, tax, labor and immigration policies have been used to batter working families. And being ready to fix them on day one.

It means filling the NLRB, the Labor Department, every single government agency and the courts with champions of collective bargaining.

We’re refusing to accept business as usual. Not when...in some parts of the country...it’s still harder to form a union than climb a mountain. Not when 40% of Americans don’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency. Not when in the past 30 years, the top 1% has gained $21 trillion in wealth, while the bottom 50% has LOST $900 billion.

But if you join us, fight for us and walk in our shoes, we will move heaven and earth to elect you.

And together, we can put this country back where it belongs, in the hands of the workers who make it go.

Listen, times are tough. But so are we!

30 years ago, I was in the middle of a strike against Pittston Coal Company.

We had just endured Reagan. Union busting was the flavor of the day. There were concessions everywhere. And Pittston decided to come after the health care of our retirees and widows. Sound familiar?

That nearly year-long strike—which we won with the help of the entire labor movement—sent a clear message to every union-buster across this great country. We are not backing down. We are not giving up. We are not going to take it anymore!

Not long after the strike ended, I was sitting in the backyard with my dad. We were chewing tobacco and enjoying some time together. At one point, my father turned in my direction and gave me this look. It was the face of pride. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to.

The American labor movement is finding that pride again. You see, workers are willing to endure hardship. We are the most resilient group of people the world has ever known. But what we won’t accept is the feeling of being unnecessary. What we won’t allow is for anyone to strip us of our value, our dignity and our worth.

When Rosa Parks was asked if she didn’t give up her seat because she was too tired, she said: ”The only tired I was—was tired of giving in.”

This labor movement is tired of giving in. And we are going to win a new day.

We’ll march for it. We’ll organize for it. We’ll fight for it.

Brothers and sisters, are you ready to fight? Are you ready to fight?

We’re going to fight for higher pay.

We’re going to fight for better health care.

We’re going to fight for a secure retirement.

And, we’re going to fight for an economy where every worker—every single worker—has the freedom to form a union and bargain collectively.

We’ve earned it, brothers and sisters. We teach, heal and make. We package, print and bake. We put food on the table. We care for the sick. We build the cars and mine the coal. We serve our nation with dignity and pride. We stand tall. We don’t run and hide. We wake our country up every single day, and we tuck her into bed at night!

WE are the American labor movement and we will not—we will not—be denied! Thank you, brothers and sisters! God bless you!

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