Trumka to DNC Labor Council: Our Democracy Is at Stake

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the 2020 Democratic National Convention Labor Council Meeting:

I want to thank my longtime friend, Brother Stuart [Appelbaum], for that introduction. And I want to thank Chairman [Tom] Perez, for his great leadership. 

As we convene this meeting of the Labor Council, as we begin four days of a Democratic convention unlike any other, working people are counting on us more than ever because working people are doing more for us than ever. Right now, in big cities and small towns, union members are on the job. A pandemic is not stopping us from lifting the loads, stocking the shelves and fighting the fires. From healing the suffering and teaching our children. And while many of us are joining this meeting and watching this convention from the comfort of our homes, too many working people are wondering if they will be able to keep their home or make next month’s rent. They are choosing between groceries and prescriptions. Millions are out of work through no fault of their own. As travel halts. And shows stop. And our economy grinds to a halt.

These workers did their job and they did it well, but our president refused to do his. Donald Trump did not create the coronavirus, but his utter incompetence, his inaction and his lack of basic compassion have made COVID-19 worse. Instead of pouring himself into a national response plan, the president is pouring gasoline on the fire! He downplayed the threat, called it a hoax and ignored the experts. 173 days ago, the president said we would soon have zero coronavirus cases. There have been 5.4 million cases and 170,000 deaths. So what does President Trump have to say about that? “It is what it is.”

Try telling “it is what it is” to the family of Tiran Billups. Tiran began his New Jersey Transit career in 1996 as a bus operator in Maplewood. He proudly served as the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 819. When this pandemic hit, he fought to protect frontline workers, his brothers, sisters and friends. In June, Tiran lost his own fight to COVID-19. Thousands of working families are grieving the loss of a loved one. In the past, presidents of both parties have comforted the grieving and rallied our nation in times of tragedy, summoning our better angels to come together for the common good. From this White House, there is no sorrow, just deception. No call for unity, just division and talk of domination. No hope, just fear. Some people tell me: “But Rich, the president is plain spoken. I like that.” Fair enough, but so is the drunk at a bar. And far too often, this president’s belligerent words have demeaned, divided and deceived.

In fact, on Friday, the president boasted: “My administration’s decisive actions have yielded truly incredible results.” Shirley Thomas, an AFSCME member in Florida, does not see those truly incredible results, Mr. President. She was a public-school custodian for more than 19 years. And over those 19 years, her motivation stayed the same: she loved being around students. She treated them like her own, with care and love. In April, she was furloughed. There is no telling when or if she will get to go back to work safely. Shirley is diabetic. Without health care, her medications are so expensive that she was forced to ration what she had left. She’s canceled a procedure to remove a blood clot. Here’s how Shirley put it: “My job gave me stability to take care of my kids. It gave me stability knowing that I would be able to retire. Overnight that stability is gone, but I will continue to live by prayer.”

I pray for Shirley. But she and millions of working people just like her need more than a prayer. They need real relief! They need real leadership! They need Joe Biden in the White House!

The AFL-CIO endorsed Joe Biden because we know Joe, and Joe knows us. Joe knows a job is about more than a paycheck, it’s about dignity. It’s about respect. Joe knows why worker safety must be more than a priority. It must be a guarantee. A promise to our loved ones that we will return home safely at the end of a hard day’s work. It’s why he’s always fought to strengthen OSHA, not gut it like Trump. Joe knows that Wall Street didn’t build America, the middle class did. And as he told the AFL-CIO, the middle class was built by unions. Joe Biden will sign the PRO Act into law so the 60 million Americans who want to join a union can do so freely and fairly.

Joe also knows our democracy is under siege. Look no further than what Donald Trump is doing with the Post Office. He’s threatening America’s most trusted public service with attacks and lies and extortion. And he’s doing this for one simple reason: to suppress the vote. Donald Trump knows that when we vote, he loses. Well I have a message today for the president, the Postmaster General and anyone who would attack our Postal Service. We’re going to fight you. We’re going to beat you. And America’s unionized postal workers, letter carriers and mail handlers are going to deliver every last ballot no matter what you throw at them. And on November 3, the Postal Service will be more than happy to process Donald Trump’s change of address form.

You see, this election is about more than red and blue. It’s a fight for our democracy itself. And in a battle for justice, it helps to have a warrior like Kamala Harris. As California’s attorney general, she held big banks accountable in the wake of the housing crisis. She prosecuted employers for stealing our wages and advanced criminal justice reform. In the Senate, she has been fighting alongside union members to pass the HEROES Act so we can provide overdue relief to our families and communities. She is a champion in every sense of the word, which is why she has a perfect lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the right team for working people. To beat this virus. To save lives and livelihoods. To win a better day. But when that day comes, our woes won’t be behind us. That’s when the real work of rebuilding begins.

Our economy is a set of rules. And those rules are written by the people we elect. They help pick the winners and the losers. And for four decades, working people have too often been left behind. Every day, we experience more suffering, fueled by the politics and economics of inequality. Inequality of income and inequality of opportunity, all rooted in inequality of power.

It is time to change the power dynamics in America. It is time to build an America where workers are paid fair wages and corporations pay fair taxes. Where health care is a right and a pension is a promise. Where workplaces are safe and it’s easier to form a union than bust one. And where systemic racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia are called out and rooted out and cast into the dustbin of history. This moment demands that we pick a side. We have an obligation to confront these tough truths, to adopt a party platform—a pro-worker platform—that is bold in scope and size. None of that will be easy. But what working people are doing every day is not easy.

We are heroically and resiliently battling this virus. And when we send Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House, when we elect union members and union allies up and down the ticket, we will have leaders who will help us beat this virus. Leaders who will finally and truly rewrite the rules of our economy.

All of you know I’m a grandfather. My grandchildren are the joy of life. They deserve a country where everyone who works hard has the opportunity to succeed. They belong to a generation that believes in the dignity of work and equality for everybody. They deserve to be a part of a generation that achieves more and prospers more. One that goes further and does better than the one I belong to. Over these next four days, over these next four years, we need to put America on that path!

We face a choice in this election. It’s a choice between more division and decline, or rebuilding and reviving the country we love. A country built by unions. A country run by unions. So I want to ask all of you today: are you ready to fight? Are you ready to vote? Are you ready to build an America that works for all of us?

There is no challenge too great. No mountain too high. No job too hard. We are the American labor movement and we will not—WE WILL NOT—be denied!

Thank you. And may God bless you.