Speech | Global Worker Rights

Trumka to Global Labor University: Raising Wages "Our Guiding Star"

Washington, D.C.

Thank you, Brother Mark [Anner], Frank Hoffer and FES.

As an alumni of Penn State University, I am proud of the work you have done to bring the Global Labor University program to the United States. I know it hasn’t been easy, but it’s obvious that you are filling an important role in America.

It’s wonderful to be part of this historic conference. Thank you for bringing us together.

And I especially want to thank our brothers and sisters who have joined us from so far away -- from Brazil, South Africa, India, Germany and so many other countries. Thank you.

As I look around this room, I see familiar faces. I’m glad to see new faces, too.

Together, old friends and new, as activists and academics, we will, in the words of Pope Francis, build a “globalization of hope.”

Corporate agendas have been driving the world economy for too long. The world is ready for new ideas, ideas to put the lives and fortunes of typical working people, regular families, at the center of global economic policy.

It will be our job to put forward these ideas, to scrutinize and test them, and then showcase the ones that work.

Brothers and sisters, here in the United States we have had an absolute whirlwind of a month. America hosted our Holy Father, who inspired an often-polarized nation to focus on a global agenda based on justice, not greed. He spoke against “corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.” He said the world needs a new economic model. We listened to what Pope Francis said.

The rules of the global economy and trade have been front-and-center this year. Working people in the United States seized the narrative. Instead of the old conversation of trade versus no-trade, we demanded a conversation about what kind of trade works, what trade should accomplish and who it should benefit, and a powerful coalition grew around the idea of holding corporations accountable, of denying them special rights and special deals at the expense of the rest of us.

This coalition has stalled the outdated model of corporate globalization. In Washington, we dashed the Wall Street dream of another quick and easy corporate trade deal—the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The deal still won fast track approval, but only barely, and progress has all but stalled since, because as it stands, the deal would hurt regular working people, and pad the profits of multinationals.

Corporate profits must not come before working people, and that means a loud no for features like the investor-state-dispute-settlement. It also means an enthusiastic yes to trade provisions that protect our health, not the gross profits of pharmaceutical companies.

The TPP remains on the table. At the AFL-CIO, we have negotiated hard for three years to transform its harmful language into something better, a deal to benefit workers around the world. I’m not optimistic it will get better.

If it doesn’t improve, we will pull out all the stops in a campaign against it, but only if our hand is forced. If TPP dies, it will only be because it wasn’t done right. We will use the same criteria to build a pro-worker trade agenda with our partners in Europe as our governments negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

This conference is important, because the time is ripe for new ideas and action. Working people need solutions. We need to be proactive on climate. We need a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We must adapt to new technologies and find ways for workers to stand together in what’s become known as the “gig” or on-demand economy.

Our goal must be to strengthen labor movements around the globe, so working people every-where can help fuel a world economy built on real demand -- demand from wages not debt.

How we choose to engage with a changing global economy that is creating massive inequality is up to us. How we change the way we approach organizing and corporate campaigns relies on the analysis we will lay out over the next few days. What comes next is up to us, not simply on trade but for all aspects of the global economy and workers’ rights. We have a great opportunity.

No one should doubt the power of our coalition. Make no mistake: The pendulum of power is swinging back in favor of workers. We have tasted fresh wins, with organizing retail workers at Zara, with the Bangladesh Accord, with the Uber campaign, with the delay of the TPP.

That’s the power of a united front. People are looking at our labor movements a lot differently than they did before. A few corporate interests thought they could run the world. They won’t stop trying, but the ball is in our court. What will we do?

At the AFL-CIO, we are guided by one basic principle. It’s our guiding star: We want to raise wages.

Economic inequality hurts working people everywhere, and raising wages can fix that. Inequality stifles opportunity not only here, but in places like Cambodia, Honduras and Swaziland. It promotes the terrible scourge of human trafficking from Thailand to Malaysia and Qatar. It drives the poorest among us to seek jobs, even in terrifyingly dangerous situations like in Bangladesh and too many other countries.

We want to raise all wages, the wages of men and women, because gender-based discrimination remains part of the lives of women in too many workplaces. We want to raise wages to help end discrimination based on skin color, sexual orientation, and gender identity. I want to be clear: No one should be harassed, fired, deported or worse because of who they are or who they love.

We are committed to justice and basic human rights, including the right of people to stand together on the job. We will honor the dignity of refugees and migrants, wherever they come from. In the United States, we demand comprehensive immigration reform to give equal rights to 11 million undocumented workers. This call for justice goes far beyond the United States. We support the global call to strengthen commitments to resettle refugees and those who seek asylum from violence. All migrants and all refugees must have access to decent work.

Our call for justice extends to the environment. We aim to address global climate change and to provide clean air and safe water to world populations, and we will do so under the principle of a just transition. Here’s what that means: Workers and communities in and near the fossil fuel industries cannot be made to shoulder the cost of our transition to clean energy, and new clean energy jobs must give workers a voice and must be good, family-supporting jobs. In the developing world, affordable energy must improve the standard of living of poor people.

We want all transitions to be just, not excuses to knock down working people. Too often, that’s what technology has done. Businesses, customers and workers can connect with each other in new ways. We can embrace the best aspects of these changes while still making sure jobs of the future are good jobs. I’ll offer some specific points on the technology issue in a moment.

The outlines I’m giving you are broad, I know. But each subject has substance.

Let me give you an example about corporate accountability. It involves Bangladesh, but I could just as easily talk about progress in Honduras, the Dominican Republic or a number of other countries.

You know about the Bangladesh Safety Accord, how 1,200 workers died at the Rana Plaza garment factory when it collapsed in 2013. We all know how more than 200 major global brands and retailers—including Zara and H&M whose clothes had been made at Rana Plaza—signed an agreement to make garment factories safer. The accord requires independent inspections by safety professionals. It says the client global brands and retailers must help contractors cover the cost of safety upgrades in factories, and then must commit not to cut and run from that upgraded factory.

What we’re looking at now is a real-world example of the difficulty of holding governments and corporations accountable. Inspections have taken place. Dangerous conditions have been documented. Improvements have been spelled out, but almost nothing has been done, and that’s where things stand. In the coming weeks and months, specific cases will begin to go to arbitration. Even now, as I speak to you, labor unions and our allies, largely in the United States and Europe, are raising money to cover the cost of the arbitrations. We intend to use the Bangladesh Safety Accord to hold these global brands accountable, and then we want to take what we’ve learned and apply it everywhere we can.

As I said, that’s just one example. We’re developing dozen of tools to lift up working people, and then we want to use these tools everywhere in the world.

In Europe and the United States, we have other challenges. When it comes to companies like Uber, let me be clear: the innovative use of algorithms and apps to connect customers to services is absolutely genius, and it serves the public well, but classifying Uber drivers as independent contractors is ridiculous. The same is true when it comes to home healthcare workers.

Now, when it’s not true, when workers truly are independent, we must use smart regulation so our society can realize the improvements offered by the digital frontier while preserving worker security and co-determination.

Today’s labor laws in the United States and in Europe are based on a model of continuous full-time employment—like a factory worker—that’s just not the way most people live anymore. Today, a lot of working people want control of their own time. Our legal frameworks need to change, too, so people aren’t faced with the hard trade-off of a good living on the one hand and the flexibility to care for small children or ailing parents on the other. Also, labor law must cover fast-growing sectors of the economy, especially those areas which are excluded today. Right now in the United States, I’m talking about day laborers, domestic workers and piece workers.

Too many working people look at a future of endless insecurity, trapped by well-capitalized labor brokers who choose to see themselves as employers. Our hands may create profits for multinational corporations, and yet we remain isolated, unable to bargain for enough to live, let alone for what’s fair.

Let me give you an example of the hard outer edge of today’s digital economy. This story comes from the Nation Magazine. It involves a woman named Stephanie Costello, who wanted to earn more money online but found herself trapped doing piecework, and earning far below minimum wage. It seemed promising at first when she signed up with a company called Mechanical Turk. She started doing tiny jobs, like typing a word from a web page or answering a quick question about a web site. Many of these jobs last only a few minutes and pay as little as 7 cents, but some pay a few dollars.

The work piled up but the pay didn’t. And that’s the point. Workers like Stephanie find themselves falling deeper and deeper into debt. The competition among such workers is intense and anonymous, and it’s making companies like Amazon rich.

In years past, people united to fight the poverty of piecework. Those unions became the world’s middle classes. It’s time for us to unite again, to find new ways to raise our collective voice. We’ll regulate digital work, not fight it. We want people to do digital work, and to be able to work for a better life.

From Dhaka to D.C., we want work to help us live better lives. We want the freedom to work our way out of poverty. That’s what work must do. It cannot trap us or hold us down.

We want to raise wages. That’s our focus, and the single best way for working people to lift wages is with a voice on the job. Unions are our main focus, but not our only one.

Our world isn’t poor, but too many of the people who create the world’s wealth are.

Here in America we have already begun to chart a new course. We’re demanding our politicians address economic inequality and its fundamental cause—employers holding down wages—in meaningful ways.

But we’re not waiting. This year, 5 million working men and women—more than any other single year in American history—are sitting down across from managers and bosses to negotiate fair pay. It’s a big deal, and the early evidence shows we win when we stand together. On average, in the ratified contracts, working people raised wages by 4.3%. Those numbers are a big deal to us, because we don’t do sector-wide bargaining. Every union negotiates its own contract.

Every worker in the world should be able to sit down across from his or her employer to negotiate fair pay. And every worker must have the freedom to safely advocate for unionism. It’s time to end the common global practice of weak company unions, whose only purpose is to increase corporate profits. Today, it is dangerous to start a union in too many countries, in every place where the government can jail you for political speech.

I am proud that the brothers Vincent Ncongwane and Patrick Mamba are with us from the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland. I am proud that our government selected TUCOSWA, as one of three civil society organizations to speak at a White House event this week at the United Nations. Thank you, my brothers. You know what it means to risk life to organize unions. Your courage inspires us all.

Let’s use that inspiration. Let’s put plans into motion. The world is hungry for it, so work can work for regular people. The Global Labor University will play an important role as specific aspects of these rules continue to take shape.

I’m proud to stand with you. I’m proud to lead beside you. Our opponents stand against us, but when we unite, the numbers are on our side. No matter how long they stand, we’ll stand longer. We won’t be out-organized, out-worked or out-lasted.

Our hands make the value, and with our hands and our hard work we’ll make life better, for ourselves and each other, and for our children and children’s children.

Thank you and God bless you, and the work you do.

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