Trumka to American Legion: Nothing Provides Financial Stability Like a Union Card

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the American Legion's Washington Conference:

Good morning. Thank you, Chairman Daniel Seehafer. And thank you to National Commander James Oxford for the privilege of joining the American Legion today. Next year, let’s do it in person.

You know me as a union guy. I also come from an American Legion family. My dad, who served in the Pacific during World War II, was a commander of American Legion post 816. An uncle of mine was a state commander and two other uncles also were Legionnaires. My mom, who spent countless days delivering food and books to Veterans across Pennsylvania, was a state officer with the Cootiettes of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

So my family is a military family. And I have deep respect for the American Legion’s history and great confidence in its future.

In the shadow of World War I, this proud organization was chartered in the spirit of “mutual helpfulness.” Is there a better way to describe what America’s servicemembers, Veterans, and their families represent? And for that matter, there’s no better way to define what the labor movement is all about.

When you look at both groups of Americans—Veterans and union members—mutual helpfulness is what you see. You’ll see it in the way we always have each other’s back. The way we lift each other up. The ways in which we foster and feel the strongest senses of sisterhood and bonds of brotherhood.

And of course, there is a tremendous amount of overlap between Veterans and union members. I’ve asked Veterans what being in a union means to them. They tell me that it gives them a chance to lead, just like the military did. They say it is a source of dignity, just like their service was. They say it means the duty and the opportunity to continue fighting for what’s right.

Mutual helpfulness runs on trust. It doesn’t work any other way. We have to trust one another. But we also have to trust that our hard work will pay off and our rights will be recognized. When trust breaks down, everything breaks down.

Democracy is just another word for mutual helpfulness at the national scale. And democracy runs on trust, too. No one believes in democracy more than you. No one has advanced it more than you and those you served with.

Today, absolutely nothing threatens our democracy more than inequality. It’s not even close.

When I say “inequality,” I mean three things: Inequality of income. Inequality of opportunity. And inequality of power. The rich and corporations are too powerful. Working people are too weak. The longer this imbalance continues, the heavier a burden inequality becomes—until it comes crashing down. Believe me: the longer we wait to do something about these three scourges of inequality, the longer the odds that capitalism can survive.

The facts are the facts. If you look at a CEO’s pay stub and compare it to one from 1978, today’s would be 940 times bigger. But what about a worker’s paycheck? Did it go up in similar fashion?

We all know that it hasn’t. In those 40-plus years, workers’ compensation has gone up just 12 percent. Twelve—940 to 12.

The gap between what CEOs make and what workers make used to be 30 to 1. Today it’s almost 300 to 1.

That’s what I mean when I say the imbalance is getting bigger. The weight is getting heavier. And the day when everything implodes is getting closer. This system is fundamentally broken. At the current trajectory, there’s simply no other way this story ends.

That’s why we’re committed to bringing economic justice to every workplace and guaranteeing social justice for every working person, regardless of whether they carry a union card. It’s why we’re fighting so hard to strengthen worker bargaining power, so more workers can fight for ourselves. Because no system can endure if it doesn’t provide for the workers who make it work.

You don’t need me to tell you that when something is broken, Veterans fix it. That’s because when something is broken, Veterans feel it.

Inequality and financial instability are among the most sinister enemies Veterans face when they take off the uniform. When our heroes return to civilian life, we know too many struggle to find a sense of purpose and feel a sense of respect. Inequality is at the root of indignity.

For example, most Veterans take home less than $50,000 a year. In fact, 31 percent of working Veterans earn less than $31,000. They likely don’t have health insurance or a retirement plan. That’s not enough to get ahead. Heck, that’s not even enough to get by. The American Dream you fought for is about doing better than the generation before you. But you can’t build a livable future without a living wage.

You can draw a straight line from this inequality—this instability—to the other silent enemy far too many Veterans face on the home front: suicide. Veterans are taking their lives in ones and twos and threes every day. It is the tragedy of all tragedies, and there are many causes.

It’s not a new crisis. In fact, it was one of the earliest fights the Legion fought a century ago.

But in the richest country in the world, in the 21st century, your dignity, your job, your income, your savings—these should never lead someone to take their own life.

Brothers and sisters, there is nothing that restores your dignity, nothing that pulls you back into the workforce, nothing that amplifies your voice in the workplace, nothing that provides financial stability like a union card. It is a key to a world-class apprenticeship. To good wages. To a sound retirement. To solidarity. To equality.

The way forward is clear: one of the best escape routes from this triple threat of inequality is to get a union card in the hands of as many workers as possible. And that can’t happen unless we get them in the hands of as many Veterans as possible.

Unions were there to welcome home Veterans throughout the 20th century. And we’ve kept our arms open just as wide for the 9/11 generation.

Unions created tens of thousands of jobs through programs like Veterans in Piping, the Utility Worker Military Assistance Program, and the Union Veterans Council.

The building trades Veterans recruitment program, called Helmets to Hardhats, has placed more than 36,000 Veterans and spent more than a billion dollars to train the next generation of highly skilled union craft workers.

And unions across the country have fought hard to make sure Veterans’ pay doesn’t get cut and working standards don’t get dangerously watered down.

As we connect Veterans to union jobs through these programs and many others, there are two policies that demand our attention today.

The first is called Buy American, and it does exactly what it says it does. It revitalizes American manufacturing by making sure our tax dollars advance production here at home. Too many corporations—including many that wrap themselves in the flag—take unfair advantage of loopholes that let them favor foreign-made products.

The American Legion supports the Buy American resolution. So does the AFL-CIO. We support closing loopholes, creating jobs, and giving America’s workers a level playing field. Because we know that when they have that fair chance, they out-compete anyone in the world.

When we Buy American, we honor Veterans and workers.

There’s one other policy change that also needs our focus and our support—and if you remember nothing else from this morning, I want you to remember this.

It’s called the PRO Act, and it will give Veterans and all workers the freedom to band together, to collectively have a say in our own economic future and in our working conditions.

Sixty million people would join a union today if given the chance. An MIT study confirmed that, but I’d wager that number is even higher because of this pandemic. And Veterans are more likely to join a union than non-veterans.

But outdated laws and anti-union attacks are stealing that choice from too many Veterans. That’s what the PRO Act will reverse. It will finally allow workers the freedom to form a union freely and fairly. It will finally make sure that workers can reach a first contract quickly after a union is recognized.

As much as the PRO Act is about empowering workers, it’s also about holding corporations responsible. Why? Because it’s about damn time.

It will stop corporations from punishing striking workers by hiring permanent replacements. And it will, once and for all, ban right to work—a racist relic of the Jim Crow era designed to keep Black and white workers apart that has no place in America. Segregation did not work in the military. And it does not work in the workplace.

Joe Clarkson served in Iraq and Kosovo. Now he lives in Missouri, serves his community in a local government job, and is a member of AFGE Local 96. Joe said that he often thinks of what’s written on his union hall’s wall: “United we bargain, divided we beg.”

In other words: mutual helpfulness.

The PRO Act is where everything we care about comes together:

Our democracy—which relies on the voice of the people, each of whom gets a vote, each vote counting the same.

Our economy—which thrives on fairness and opportunity but crumbles under the weight of inequality.

Our safety—which should never be at risk in the workplace. Can you imagine coming home from a warzone and worrying about how likely you are to get hurt on the factory floor?

It’s also about our dignity—as workers, as coworkers, as human beings.

That’s some of what’s written in the PRO Act. But I’ll give you an even simpler way to say it: if someone asks you what’s in this bill, just tell them: what’s inside the PRO Act is the American Dream. It is one of the most patriotic pieces of legislation you’ll ever read.

What’s more patriotic than making sure Veterans and military families can get a job and health care and a livable wage? Provide for their families? Have security in retirement?

No handouts. Nothing unearned. Just rewarding hard work the way it should be rewarded. Getting our end of the bargain—and not having to beg for what we’ve earned.

Brothers and sisters, tell the elected leaders who represent you: “Veterans are not props. Don’t just take a picture with us. Take a stand for us.”

Don’t just thank Veterans for their service. Serve them right back. Give them a job with pension benefits and good health care, including mental health care.

I mentioned earlier that the American Legion came to life at the end of World War I. As it was said at the time, we fought that war “to make the world safe for democracy.”

The labor movement was founded on a similar, simple idea: to make the workplace safe for working people. To make the economy work for those who make it run.

America’s unions have done that. But just like the fight for democracy, our work is never done. We have been called to do it again and again. And we must answer the call—we must further the fight for working people—and we are needed right now.

We need to fight against inequality of income.

Against inequality of opportunity.

Against inequality of power.

And with the same determination, we must fight against racial inequality and all brands of discrimination.

Even though every service member serves on equal footing, regardless of background, race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, that’s not always true when they return. Veterans of color, female veterans, and LGBTQ+ veterans face unique challenges.

Collective bargaining helps here, too. It increases protections for everyone in areas where our laws are still falling short.

In fact, a union contract is the single best tool we have to close racial and gender wage gaps in the Veteran workforce, and to ensure dignity and due process for workers.

In recent months, we’ve been called to make America safe for democracy. I never thought I’d have to say those words.

We must understand—and we must never underestimate—the role that racism plays in attacks on the legitimacy of our government and its leaders.

You all saw the insurrection at the Capitol less than two months ago. Confederate flags. Nazi symbols. Wolves of anti-Americanism wrapped in patriotic clothing.

This inequality is our common enemy, too. It’s just like trust—if our ability to respect one another breaks down, nothing else works.

The American Legion building and the AFL-CIO building are separated by a few footsteps. It’s a reminder that the American Legion and America’s labor movement are not only close in proximity, but also in a common mission—between union members and Veterans and those who can proudly say they’re both.

What all of us have in common is our belief in fighting for what is right—and for our shared, unalienable rights.

That solidarity is our strength. Like any platoon, like any brigade, like any band of brothers and sisters, when we’re stronger—when we’re mutually helpful—we can fight better on behalf of everyone else.

When union membership is higher, worker power is greater.

When worker voices are louder, inequality is weaker. And that’s good for every working person, whether they’re in a union or just hope to join one—whether they’re a Veteran or just grateful to know one.

I count myself among the many who, every day, are grateful. Grateful for what you and your families did. Grateful for what you do. And grateful for what you will do next to bring us out of darkness and into the light of a better day.

Thank you for your service. Thank you for your helpfulness. And thank you for the honor of being with you this morning. God bless you all.