Speech | Labor Law

Trumka: Collective Bargaining Boosts Worker Productivity

Washington, D.C.

Good morning everyone. Thank you, Karen (Nussbaum) for that introduction. And thank you to Working America for organizing today’s forum. It is great to be here for this important conversation.

I want to recognize all of the outstanding congressional leaders who are participating in this event. Leader Pelosi. Senator Brown. Ranking Member Scott. Thank you for continuing to stand up for unions, our members and all working people.

I also want to thank each of the panelists for sharing their expertise and experience.

Finally, I want to thank Tim Collins for bucking the trend in the business world and speaking out on the importance of collective bargaining.

Tim and I share similar backgrounds. We both come from Big Ten country—Tim grew up in Ohio, while my roots are in Pennsylvania. We both know what it’s like to rely on a paycheck.

Tim worked in the auto industry. I followed my father and grandfather into the coal mines. We both enjoy the outdoors. And we both share a fundamental agreement about the need for a strong middle class.

Tim is business. I am labor. But we are here today with one message: collective bargaining is essential to a strong economy and a civil society.

Let me start by reading you a quote: “Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. I have no use for those—regardless of their political party—who hold some vain and foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when organized labor was huddled, almost as a hapless mass. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

Anyone know who said that? It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican and one of our nation’s greatest leaders. Eisenhower understood that when workers have a say, lives improve, communities thrive and businesses grow.

When Ike said that in 1952, more than a quarter of all workers belonged to a union. But in the decades since, union membership has plummeted. Many businesses have adopted the Walmart model of a race to the bottom. Corporate-­backed politicians have tried to defund, dismantle and destroy unions. Right to work is now the law of the land in a majority of all states.

This didn’t happen accidentally. Our economy is a set of rules. Those rules are written by the men and women we elect. They set the terms and conditions of the free market. They pick winners and losers. And despite the best efforts of our champions, working people have too often been on the wrong end of that equation.

We see it in stagnant wages and mind­-numbing inequality. We see it in our shrinking manufacturing base. We see it in trade deals that export jobs instead of goods. And quite frankly, we see it in growing social tensions that have given rise to demagogues like Donald Trump.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change the rules, help workers build better lives and create a climate that leads to economic growth and shared prosperity.

Make no mistake, there is a moral argument for collective bargaining. It creates opportunity, lifts families out of poverty, keeps workers safe and provides an important counterweight to employers. But that’s not why we are here today. We are here because in a competitive global economy, the best way to boost productivity is by giving workers a strong, independent voice on the job.

Everyone knows that to gain a competitive advantage, Henry Ford paid his workers enough to afford the Model T. But he made that decision in flush times when it was easy. And he did it on his terms. Without a union, it wasn’t sustainable. When the Great Depression came, he fired hundreds of thousands of workers, cut wages and turned machine guns on the people he employed. As we will hear today, it was only when Ford built a partnership with its workers through their union that the company was able to sustain itself as a high performance workplace.

Those lessons apply today. The key to productivity in the highly competitive, digitalized global economy is the wise use of human capital. Why does Germany have higher manufacturing wages and a trade surplus? It’s the combination of lifelong worker training, with employers, unions and government working together, and the protection of workers’ voices so that unions can partner with management to improve production.

Here at home, the United Auto Workers, the Big Three manufacturers and a Republican and Democratic president joined in partnership to save the auto industry. Due to innovation and cooperation, carmakers are thriving again. It is a comeback story for the ages.

Today we are going to hear from leading academics about the way worker voice and collective bargaining are good for business in construction and health care, two of the most important sectors of our economy.

But this is not just a matter of making individual firms more competitive. It’s about the relationship between wages and demand. Some will tell you that raising wages hurts jobs. But 72 percent of our economy is driven by consumer spending. When you give people the money to take their family on vacation or send their kids to college, that leads to economic growth.

So our challenge is to use public policy to create more workplaces where wages, workers and productivity thrive.

Before we hear from our experts, I want to stress the fact that business leaders like Tim Collins are essential to this dialogue. In today’s political climate, it would be easy to assume that Tim is against unions. But he sees the big picture. He has experience managing high productivity union workplaces. He believes in structures that make compromise possible and profitable. He knows firsthand that diverse viewpoints make organizations stronger. And he sees unions as President Eisenhower did—as a force for stability and prosperity.

I don’t want to mince words today. For a generation, much of our politics has tried to sweep issues like inequality and wage stagnation under the rug. For too long, we have avoided talking about the polices—whether unfair trade deals, financial deregulation or attacks on collective bargaining—that have left workers weaker and poorer.

The result? Donald Trump has forced his way on stage. He has a perverse, hateful, dangerous way of talking about the real economic pain so many in our country feel. And we are now at risk of electing a profoundly unfit man to be president.

There is a better way forward. We can build a prosperous, competitive America, where businesses and workers succeed. An America where we all have a voice, not just at the ballot box but in the workplace. Where everyone who works hard has the opportunity to succeed and each generation does better than the last.

That is the future we must unite around. Business, labor and government working together. Only then can we build a nation that truly lives up to its greatest ideals. Thank you very much.

Explore the Issue