Speech | Better Pay and Benefits

Trumka Hails Power of Stewards at Air Line Pilots Association Training Conference

Herndon, Virginia

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the Air Line Pilots Association Leadership Training Conference: 

Thank you, Brother Tim [Canoll]! Thank you for inviting me to this important gathering of a great, great union. It’s good to be with you two years in a row, and I want to thank you especially for your work on the relief effort in Puerto Rico. That was incredible, amazing, but hardly surprising, to be honest, because worker organizations like the Air Line Pilots Association routinely step forward with stunning generosity in times of need. Thank you, again.

Brothers and sisters, the backbone of power in the American labor movement is at the local level—local leaders and shop stewards. You deal with the nitty-gritty of contract defense, grievances and disciplinary actions. And you do it because you stepped forward when someone needed to. So more than anything, I just want to say thank you. Give yourselves a hand.

Not too long ago, just like you, I stepped forward because someone needed to. I can remember those days perfectly well, and looking at you makes me remember what it was like. To be honest, the experiences I gained back then still inspire me to spend every day thinking about how best to build and keep building power for working people in this challenging political and economic environment.

The answer will be neither easy nor simple, but I am confident we can get the job done.

One of the first positions I held in my union, the United Mine Workers of America, was on the safety committee. Brothers and sisters, it changed me, and I believe your union work will change you, too. You’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the importance of our basic democratic freedoms on the job. You’ll stand up more quickly and forcefully against unsafe or unfair treatment. You’ll be more careful to listen to every side of an argument. You’ll learn to focus more on solutions. As you serve, you’ll strengthen your union and our entire labor movement.

My work on the safety committee taught me the importance of policies and of using them. It could mean the difference between life and death and, in many cases, it did. I still watch policies today, but the view is much broader, the policies more varied. Instead of a mine office or a union hall, I’m working to influence agencies, regulations and laws, largely at the state and national level.

I’ll be honest, I know the leaders I can call and who’ll listen to me, but I also know our movement is not a niche movement. We’re a mainstream movement, and we should be supported by mainstream politicians, leaders of both political parties.  

That’s one reason why you’ll hear me talk about political independence, but that doesn’t mean we’re agnostic…and it certainly doesn’t mean we’ll shy away from policy debates.

Here’s what it does mean. It means we work for nobody but working people. Our sole fidelity is to the men and women of our unions, to the men and women who work for a living in America, and the issues and values that lift our lives, our families and our communities.

Nothing—and I mean nothing—lifts up our lives, our families and our communities better than a union contract, and one of the best examples is all around us—it’s the strong contracts and great careers fought for, won and defended by the Air Line Pilots Association!

We want great success for our employers, and we want to share in that success. Your informational picket by 750 JetBlue pilots at the company’s headquarters in New York was a powerful, positive and effective demonstration of union solidarity. Great work!

Your contracts are an entry point to the middle class. That’s the beauty of strong collective bargaining. It’s transformational.

More American workers need that opportunity. More American workers want solidarity and the real-life gains that come with it.

Our mission is clear. We want more political and economic power so we can achieve more worker wins! We want a better tomorrow, brothers and sisters, and we’ll organize for it, we’ll march for it, we’ll fight for it and we’ll vote for it. To those who want to hold us down and keep us poor—with low-road air service flying flags of convenience—to those who want to lower our pay, take our freedom and silence our voice, hear me loud and hear me clear: Your days are numbered! We are the American labor movement. We’re unified! We’re powerful! We’re determined! We’re getting stronger every day, and we will not be denied!

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for the 2018 election. I’m ready to demonstrate the power of working people. I’m ready to advance our issues and our agenda. I’m ready to help elect leaders to Congress and the states who actually give a damn about working people. And I’ll be ready to hold those leaders accountable, too, once they’re in office, to deliver on the things we need. I don’t think that’s too much to ask!

Life hasn’t been easy for America’s working families. The Great Recession. Attacks on collective bargaining. Threats to basic safety standards. But our labor movement has stood strong. We’ve done ourselves proud. Everywhere I’ve been this past year, I’ve seen union members demonstrating what toughness and grit really look like. And mark my words, working together, we are going to rebuild unionism in America—and good lives and a great future. Our labor movement isn’t content to merely survive. We’re going to thrive!

Last week, President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address. He painted an everything-being-great picture of America that while optimistic, is not the reality for most working families. Life may be better for President Trump’s powerful friends and associates, but the working men and women we represent aren’t seeing the same America, and many of his policies are actually making life worse.

Don’t get me wrong. No matter who is in the White House, our labor movement will try to get meaningful gains for workers, and we’ll be straight about it. That’s a path I’ve followed since day one, and the door is still open. Let me give you an example. I know President Trump took a small step in the right direction…but a good step nevertheless...by reaching an “Understandings Agreement” with Qatar on aviation. We need more of that, and we are going to hold this administration accountable to make sure it's actually a good deal for America’s workers.  

While he’s taken a positive step with Qatar, and rightly acknowledged our growing trade imbalance, he has done little else to level the playing field for America’s workers.
While President Trump talks about the crisis of outsourcing jobs, his tax bill actually encourages corporations to do more of it.

While he promises to put America back to work rebuilding our infrastructure, he’s spent more time demonizing immigrants than making investments in our roads, bridges and airports.

And slashing regulations, one of President Trump’s biggest applause lines, really means lowering worker pay and making work more dangerous. Let me tell you, there will be no rollback of pilot training standards on my watch. Not a chance. Whoever thinks that’s going to happen will be in for a fight!

As I said before, no matter who's sitting in the White House or what they're saying on TV or what they're tweeting, working people are moving forward. We are united around an agenda to secure our economic future—fighting for the freedom to have a voice on the job, sharing in the wealth we help create and living better lives.

If President Trump wants to change course and join us in the fight to raise wages and standards, strengthen our democracy, and build better lives, I’m ready right now. If not...well, the American people are going to make a choice. No matter what, we will continue growing our union movement, keep building our momentum, laser focused on true victories that bring a better day for working people all across this country.

Brothers and sisters, America is the richest country in the world at our richest time in history, yet not in 100 years has there been such a gap between the super-wealthy and the rest of us. We’re going to keep reaching out, keep reaching up. Working people are still the most powerful force in this nation and around the world.

People feel it. People know it. And people need it. It’s all around us. That’s why public approval for the labor movement is above 60%, the highest in nearly two decades. And it’s still going up.

Yet while our profile rises, the concerted attacks from the corporate right-wing have never been as bold, sharp and empowered.

None of the attacks are honest on their face. “Right to work”—I’ll tell you one thing that law doesn’t mean—it doesn’t give anybody the right to work. It’s a cynical ploy meant to lower pay and weaken workers. And legal challenges like Janus are exactly the same.

Some of you have probably heard about the Janus case, which seeks to impose right to work in the public sector—in schools and hospitals and other government workplaces all across the country.

And while this case doesn’t directly target airline pilots or anyone covered by the Railway Labor Act, the next one might.

The groups that want to weaken and destroy our freedom to stand together in union are coming after all of us, so we ALL need to stand united against them. We won’t be timid. We won’t react out of fear. Yet we WILL fight every single effort to knock us down and knock us out.

And we will use these attacks to finally go on the offense.

We want a good job for everyone in America who wants to work. That means the freedom to bargain with our employer, a $15 minimum wage and equal pay for women.

We want health care as a fundamental right, regardless of income, job or a pre-existing condition.

We should be expanding Medicare to cover everyone 55 and older. We should rein in the power and influence of drug companies. And we should repeal the tax on union health plans once and for all!

We want real retirement security. It’s time to protect pensions and expand Social Security! Bigger and better, brothers and sisters!

I’m ready for real progress. I want trade deals that actually work for working people. NAFTA is crushing America’s manufacturing. President Trump said he’d win workers a better deal. Well, guess what? More jobs were outsourced in 2017 than any year in the previous five and our trade deficit is at its highest level since 2008.

We want the best infrastructure in the world. Roads. Bridges. Airports. Seaports. Rail. High speed internet. Clean and safe drinking water. It’ll take investments in the trillions with a T, but those investments will pay dividends for generations.

Donald Trump has talked about being a “builder president.” That’s what he’s said again and again and again. Mr. President, it is time to put up or shut up. Let’s start breaking ground. Let’s start laying bricks. Let’s rebuild this country with union labor, let’s do it now!

Our test of 2018 and beyond, will be to keep raising the profile of our union movement. I believe we’re ready to do it. America’s working people came together and charted a path forward at last year’s AFL-CIO Convention in St. Louis. Now we’re hitting the ground running. We’re ready to make progress. Each election, each time we organize internally, each legislative battle will showcase our growing clout. Yet I believe you’ll see the impact of our momentum on an even broader level.

When more union members fill the halls of power…when wages rise and inequality shrinks…when we have more pro-labor Republicans and fewer corporate Democrats…when a growing number of young people see the value of democracy and know we can and will change the rules of this economy…when we stop defining victory as not losing…and, most of all, when more working people realize our own value and the power of solidarity…that’s when you’ll know unions are truly on the rise.

Let’s show America what victory looks like!

It’ll take work. It’ll take risk. It’ll take solidarity. But we can make it happen by standing together, marching together, fighting together…shoulder to shoulder…arm in arm…as long as it takes…let’s do it! To take America back! This is our time. This is our moment. We’re ready for a fight. Our opponents are bold. They’re well-funded and ruthless. I say, bring it on! We've taken their best shot and we're still standing, still getting stronger! Thank you. God bless you. God bless the work you do!

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