Speech | Labor Law · Future of Work

Trumka to Federal Mediators: Labor-Management Partnerships Key to Future of Work

Chicago, Ill.

Thank you, Allison [Beck], for that introduction. I appreciate your leadership and your friendship. I am honored to be here today for this important discussion. I look forward to having a real dialogue about the future of collective bargaining.

To my sisters and brothers here from labor, it is always good to see you. Thank you for the work you are doing each and every day to make life better for working people. Our job has never been more important.

To my friends here from management, I want to commend you for being willing to listen to our concerns, meet us halfway and build an economy that is good for business and for workers.

Finally, to the mediators in the room, including Allison, I’d say this: Thank you for your service. You are the guardians of collective bargaining. Your professionalism and objectivity are second to none. And we are all better for it.

Now I believe this room is evenly divided between labor, management and neutral. We may play different roles, but we share common goals. Each of us wants American companies to succeed. Each of us wants workers to be safe, satisfied and productive. Each of us wants to avoid work stoppages. We can’t live long without a paycheck, and a business can’t either. When business and labor don’t get along, entire communities suffer.

And yet we cannot just go along to get along. The labor movement refuses to allow our working families, our communities, and yes, our businesses to continue to suffer a slow and painful death, as more and more of America’s assets become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. It’s wrong. It has to stop.

Collective bargaining is the most powerful tool for bringing our economy back into balance.

At the AFL-CIO, we are experimenting with new forms of collective bargaining, and we’re reinvigorating what’s tried and true. But we don’t own the idea of collective bargaining, or the concept of a strong and growing middle class. That’s for all of us. In that sense, the future of collective bargaining is on our hands. And it will take all of us to preserve it, strengthen it and expand it.

It’s critical that we continue to have conversations like this.

As some of you may know, I am a third-generation coal miner from a small town in Pennsylvania. I was taught the importance of collective bargaining from an early age. We weren’t rich. But my dad’s union job put food on the table and a roof over our head. We had the dignity of work and the confidence that the next generation would do better than the last. That’s what the American Dream is all about.

Today that dream has slipped out of reach for far too many families. Wages are stubbornly flat. Income inequality has reached levels that shock the conscience. Sixty-three percent of Americans say they don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 car repair or a $1,000 medical bill. A majority of workers are living paycheck to paycheck. And for the first time in our nation’s history, our children may inherit a lower standard of living. This is the issue of our time.

Pope Francis has said it. I’ve said it. President Obama has said it. We are suffering a moral and economic crisis. The policies that have left workers weaker and poorer—and the elected politicians who wrote those rules—have not been held to account. As a result, a growing number of Americans are both angry and anxious. And who can blame them? They work hard. They pay taxes. They do right by their families and communities. Yet they can feel their future slipping away.

This anger is manifest in the 2016 election, in the rise of a democratic socialist and also a dangerous demagogue. This much is clear—people are fed up with going along to get along. We are tired of the Wall Street and Washington elite writing the rules for themselves. And we are ready to use our voice and our vote to make big changes.

We have already begun to use our voice. This year, working people have led the national debate. We’ve put the focus on good jobs with strong and growing wages. We’ve made clear that workers should be sharing in the wealth we help create. We’ve called for an end to the tax and trade policies that outsources our jobs and widens the gap between the rich and the rest of us.

But we also know that the single most effective tool for building an economy of shared prosperity is collective bargaining. When workers sit down across the table from our employers and bargain, we bring home higher wages, have greater access to health care and a pension and are more likely to be safe on the job. Most importantly, workers who bargain collectively have a voice, a say in the terms and conditions of work. And when we raise the bar for ourselves, we raise the bar for everyone. Other employers raise pay and improve benefits to attract and keep the best people.

When I first won elected office in my union, the United Mine Workers of America, I was on the safety committee. So my first real personal experience with collective bargaining centered on the life-and-death realities of coal mining work. Being at that table changes you. It gives you an appreciation for how difficult it is to achieve even minimal progress. And it shows you how contract language plays out in reality. A rule about mine safety is more than just words. It means the difference between a deadly roof fall, or a father returning home to his family.

This same truth applies today. When we negotiate an extra personal day, it means someone can spend more time with a loved one. When we protect our pensions, it means a senior can retire with dignity and security. When we win fairer scheduling language, it means a working mom can balance family and career. That’s the power of collective bargaining.

As president of the UMWA, I had the privilege of being involved in all facets of collective bargaining. I traveled to New Mexico and Arizona to bargain alongside locals that were mostly Navajo. I went to Montana and Missouri and Illinois. I crisscrossed Appalachia. At each stop, I had one simple purpose: to win the best wages and benefits possible and then to keep up our end of the bargain, which is to be the hardest working, best trained, and most productive workforce in the world.

To me, that is the essence of labor-management cooperation. We share the same basic concerns. In many ways, we are like a railroad. Labor is one track. Management is the other. But we are both heading in the same direction. And if one track isn’t on firm footing, we’ve all got a big problem.

I know this conference will highlight a number of successful partnerships. Ford and the UAW. American Water and the Utility Workers. Even the Labor Management Cooperation Committee here in Chicago that has successfully held down health care premiums for city employees.

The key stakeholders in these relationships can tell you better than anyone what works. My view is this: there must be an open line of communication—and not just during contract negotiations. Each side must demonstrate a willingness to have hard conversations in a respectful way and to find common ground.

Now listen, there are some in management who think negotiating with employees is beneath them. They bring a dismissive and often hostile attitude to the bargaining table. There are some on the union side who think it’s not the job of workers to make their employers profitable and that anything gained without a fight doesn’t constitute a win. I disagree with both of these perspectives.

I tell my union friends all the time—an unprofitable company does us no good. So we have a responsibility to help our employers succeed. But we also must have the freedom to bargain for a share of that success. We want an equitable piece of the profits we help create. That’s the flip side of the shared sacrifice we face in the hard times. Again and again, we’ve done our share of sacrificing. We also want shared prosperity in the good times.

This is where the critical work of FMCS comes in—helping labor and management bridge the gap. In general, mediators don’t like to talk about themselves. It’s not in their nature. So I want to spend a little time giving my perspective on the job they do. From the moment FMCS receives notice of an expiring contract, mediators swing into action. They contact the parties, offer their services, probe for middle ground and design a process that can work. Mediation can go on for weeks at a time, in hotel conference rooms and factory basements. Tensions can get high, yet so are the stakes. Day and night, these public servants do everything they can to encourage cooperation, improve communication and preserve labor peace.

On behalf of the 12.5 million working women and men of the AFL-CIO, I just want to say thank you for everything you do, and the spirit in which you do it.

One of the most challenging labor disputes to come before FMCS was the Verizon strike. I won’t pretend I was somehow objective in that case. I marched on picket lines with CWA and IBEW members who were fighting for a better life. I found the company’s initial offer to be wholly inadequate. But I wanted a resolution as much as anyone. Allison was sent in to mediate the conflict, along with Labor Secretary Tom Perez, which shows you the incredible magnitude of this particular work stoppage. In the end, the sides reached a new contract with substantial raises and enhanced job security. And not only that: they agreed to set up committees focused on improving their relationship. Friends, if labor and Verizon can find a way to come together, anything is possible.

A reporter at BusinessWeek recently asked me if there should be more strikes in the United States. I certainly hope not.

Our goal is to have employers sit down with workers and bargain in good faith. But when you have companies that, instead of treating us as assets to be invested in, view us as costs to be cut, there’s going to be conflict. And by the way, our system is designed for conflict. You petition the National Labor Relations Board to form a new union, and the first thing that happens is your employer starts firing people illegally, threatening to outsource your jobs, ripping you apart.

If a person that you went out on a first date with did nothing but say, “You’re such an idiot, you’re a thief, you have no redeeming value whatsoever,” do you think there would be a second date? That’s what U.S. labor relations does. It makes you fight. It’s corrosive, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In most other countries, it isn’t.

So to strengthen bargaining, we need to fix organizing. Common sense tells us it is virtually impossible to be enemies during the unionization process and then turn around and be partners at the bargaining table. That’s why the AFL-CIO is working hard to pass the WAGE Act, legislation which would dramatically increase fines against those who break the law. This isn’t about punishing anyone. It’s about ensuring a fair process and incentivizing employers to cooperate from the outset. Earlier this month, after a majority of Zara employees in New York City signed cards indicating their desire to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, the company agreed. That kind of attitude can help set a positive tone as the sides head into first contract negotiations.

There is a lot of discussion about what the future of collective bargaining will look like. There are those on the left who suggest, wrongly, that the current model will cease to exist. There are those on the right who are trying to legislate collective bargaining out of existence.

I see a different path forward. I believe we are in the early stages of a worker-led resurgence where collective bargaining and collective action are at the forefront of labor relations.

Millennials, who now outnumber Baby Boomers, overwhelmingly support unions. More and more working people are embracing the power and possibility of banding together for a better life. The emergence of the digital economy has created a new urgency about how best for working people to use our voices collectively on the job. And leaders across the political spectrum are feeling the groundswell of a nation that has reached its tipping point.

America needs collective bargaining. We need it to help businesses grow, workers succeed and communities thrive. We need it to create a level playing field, a fairer economy and a stronger country.

Labor and management, working together, communicating and compromising. Sacrificing and listening. Reaching common ground. Using common sense. Benefitting the common good.

That is the future at work. And if we stumble, FMCS will be there to get us back on track.

Thank you very much.

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