Trumka at the Joe Rauh Lecture: Anything is Possible When Working People Stand Together

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the University of the District of Columbia Law School's Annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture:

Good evening. Dean Hutchins, thank you for the invitation to speak tonight. It’s a great honor for me to be here. 

Chip, my brother, thank you. We go back a long time. If it wasn’t for your dad, Jock Yablonski, and of course, Joe Rauh, I wouldn’t be standing here today as the president of the AFL-CIO, a federation of unions representing 12.5 million working men and women. And, if it weren’t for Chip, Jock and Joe and Danny Edelman, the United Mine Workers of America, my union for over 50 years, would not be the free and democratic organization that it is today.

This is the story I want to tell you tonight. It goes back quite a bit, but it’s one worth telling because, in many ways, history is repeating itself today. And, there are lessons from the past we can all heed. 

I was raised in a small sliver of southwestern Pennsylvania called Nemacolin. It was a company town. The coal barons owned everything except the church and the union hall. They even printed and paid in money that could only be used at coal-owned businesses. 

One night when I was little, I was complaining to my grandfather about the way the coal company was treating miners like him. He asked what I planned to do about it. “When I grow up, I could be a politician.” Well, that got me a playful smack on the head. Wrong answer. So then I said: “How about a lawyer, so I can stand up for workers?” Bingo. That’s what he wanted to hear. Then my grandfather said something that has always stuck with me: “If you want to help workers, you first need to help people.” It was a message about fairness, dignity and justice for all. 

When it was time to go to work, I followed my father and grandfather into the mines. That’s what Trumka men did. I also went to college at Penn State and then law school at Villanova. I often studied underground using the light from my helmet. I’m forever grateful for my time in the mines. It’s a job that teaches you the nature of hard work...of creating value out of a hole in the ground. That’s something that gets passed down to the next generation. It was certainly passed down to me and Jock Yablonski. 

Jock, who was also the son of a miner, got his start in the coalfields at a young age, too. As he rose up through the ranks of the Mine Workers, it became clear to him how a union should operate. He believed that working people should have a voice independent of their employer. And, that the union was there to serve the workers, not the other way around. 

When Jock ran for president of the Mine Workers in 1969, the need for democracy—both inside and outside our ranks—was greater than ever before. It was a time of great strife and grief across the country. This was the beginning of the Vietnam War. Nixon was president, though it was still a few years before Watergate. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been shot and killed the year before. The Stonewall uprising for LGBTQ rights took place that year, as did Woodstock and the first moon landing. The Civil Rights Act had been passed, but it was still a long way from being truly enforced. There were riots, marches and protests over civil rights and equality. 

Unions were rising up, too. The growth of the public sector throughout the 1960s brought demands for better wages and protections on the job. Remember, Dr. King was shot and killed while fighting for striking sanitation workers in Memphis. The strike was called the “I Am A Man” strike. People were striking to be recognized and have dignity at work. One of the sanitation workers was killed on the job, and it precipitated the strike that Dr. King attended and where he was ultimately killed. And then, in the fateful year of 1969, thousands of mineworkers marched on the state capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, demanding protections against Black Lung disease. Their uprisings ultimately got the governor to sign the first legislation in the country recognizing Black Lung as an occupational hazard.

As working people were fighting for democracy in the country at large, we were also waging a battle within our own unions. 

The president of the Mine Workers, Tony Boyle, had been around for a long time. He ran things a certain way, and a lot of people weren’t satisfied with his leadership. You couldn’t get a copy of the union’s constitution to know what your rights were. You couldn’t get a copy of your union contract to know what your benefits were. You couldn’t file a grievance, which, in a union, is how you can raise concerns over an issue with management. And then, there was the election tampering. For example, Boyle’s guys would say the union meeting would start at 6 p.m. So, you’d go campaigning and pass out materials until ten minutes or so before the meeting started. You’d walk in and the room would be empty. The meeting was over. They purposely told you the wrong time. 

But, that’s not all of the dirty tricks they pulled. 

Boyle was also using member dues money for his campaign. Just like in a public election, you need a separate pot of funds to run for union office. Yet, Boyle used official resources for campaign swag, like clocks with his name on them, given as gifts while trying to buy someone’s vote. To this day, I have a campaign pen in the top drawer of my desk. If you click the top, Boyle and the other names on his ballot are displayed. With each click of that pen, I’m reminded of why we can never give up the fight for justice.

Meanwhile, Jock wanted the average miner to know that being in a union meant you had a voice and could use it. And that your elected officers were there to serve. That democracy was alive in our union halls. That’s why he ran for president. 

The vote was held in November of 1969, and Jock lost. As you can imagine, the deck was stacked against him. We were trying to get a new election set up, but on New Year’s Eve, Jock was murdered in cold blood, along with his wife and daughter. 

Jock had set out for reform, and it cost him and his family their lives.

It was devastating, and it was demoralizing. No one was sure what was going to happen next. Then, we realized that Jock was a symbol of something bigger. He was a symbol of everything that we had been fighting for: A union that has your back. True solidarity, where your fight is my fight and my fight is your fight. And, thanks to this evening’s namesake, Joe Rauh, that all became clear again.

Joe helped bring Jock’s vision back from the brink. He was the constant that miners and their families needed. Joe was gutsy. No one could intimidate him. He was your guy—and you never doubted it. Everybody knew if Joe was representing you, then you’d have a loyal fighter until the end. He stood for us—and with us.  

For that, the other side lobbed attack after attack trying to discredit him. Throughout his career, they called him a commie and a fraud. But, no one had the guts to say he was a bad lawyer. Joe was one hell of an attorney, and he believed in the power of democracy. In equality. In fairness. This fight was in his blood, and you can’t turn away from it. 

So, Miners for Democracy became more focused, more clear and more determined. We fought for justice for Jock, and we fought for democracy for our union. Later, Joe worked to unseat Boyle and put him behind bars—and he succeeded not once, but twice, of having him convicted of murder. Throughout his career, Joe was a force for good. He was a force for working people. He was a force for the common man and common woman. 

As Joe made our case in court, Miners for Democracy took hold and grew. We worked to become a progressive force, moving our union forward and advocating for our members and our communities. We knew our voices together were stronger than the voices of one individual. 

Thirty-seven years ago, on Christmas week at the Charleston Civic Center in West Virginia, I raised my right hand and took the oath of office as president of the United Mine Workers. I was 33. It was one of the greatest days of my life. I was sworn in by my dad, who gave his heart and his life to this union. He died of Black Lung Disease like every male of that generation in my family. 

You could feel a changing of the guard that day in Charleston. And, just as Jock had taught us, we said the United Mine Workers union was put on this earth for its members to have a better life, not for its leaders to have a higher status. It was the first time we held our inauguration in coal country, and the event was opened up to the rank and file membership. And one thing I remember on that beautiful, sunny day, is that people, our members, stopped looking at their shoes. They didn’t look down anymore. This was their union. 

We had avenged Jock’s murder. Joe Rauh’s efforts and great legal work made that possible. 

So, what can we learn from these great leaders? That anything is possible when we stand together. It’s been half a century since Jock was killed, yet today we are experiencing a new democratic revolution. Workers aren’t looking down at their shoes anymore. Standing on the foundation of a democratic union movement, preserved by Jock and Joe and so many others, we are looking our employers squarely in the eyes and delivering a clear message: Enough. 

In the richest nation on the face of the earth, at its richest point in time, we are refusing to accept an economy where 40% of Americans don’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency. We’re not sitting quietly by when in the past 30 years, the top 1% has gained $21 trillion in wealth, while the bottom 50% has LOST $900 billion. 

The reality is that the systems and institutions we’re supposed to rely on are badly broken. Not because they’re old. Because they’ve been rigged. Our economy and our politics simply do not work for the majority of people because corporations and politicians have conspired to make it that way. 

In 1969, we didn’t have to convince our fellow miners that democracy was a good thing. Today, our job is much harder. A study from Joe’s law school alma mater, Harvard, found that only 30% of millennials believe it’s essential to live in a democracy. 25% actually said democracy is bad. 

I believe this reflects the simple truth that young people are becoming more disillusioned as they bear the brunt of our broken economy. However, it’s still a startling...and frankly, heartbreaking...statistic given what generations of people before us, like Joe and Jock, went through to secure and protect our democracy. 

So, it’s up to us to carry the mantle forward. Make no mistake, progress has been made, slowly, but surely. The protectors of the status quo told people of color they can’t integrate, but we won the battle. They warned workers not to form a union or else, but we did it anyway. They told LGBTQ people they can’t marry, but now it’s the law of the land. And, they’ve been telling immigrants and asylum seekers to stay away, but no wall is big enough to stop the human desire to be free.

Over and over and over again, ordinary people have proven we can win big lasting change. That’s why in my more than 50 years in this work, I’ve never been more optimistic than I am today. 

Look around the country. 50,000 UAW members won a strike against GM for better wages. 35,000 teachers in Chicago are on the picket lines as we speak, marching for respect on the job and better classrooms for their students. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement or young people coming together to stop violence and protect the planet—all of these are collective actions where people are saying: “The only way we’re going to get this done is if we stand together and lock arms with the people standing next to us.” When we do that, nothing can stop us. No crooked politician or corporate baron or self-interested union leader has ever been a match for ordinary people who’ve banded together. 

Not even a right-wing activist Supreme Court can bring us down. Last year’s Janus decision was part of an effort to fundamentally alter the foundation of our democracy, so it serves a single, solitary purpose—concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a select few. Yet, more than a year after that decision, guess what? We’re still standing strong! In fact, the two major AFL-CIO unions specifically targeted by this case, AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers, have actually grown. And, the labor movement has a 64% approval rating—the highest it’s been in nearly 50 years! At a time when our politics and culture want us more divided and bitter and ready to blame… working people are, instead… turning to each other… We are speaking out, and momentum is on our side. 2018 was the biggest year for collective action in a generation… Half a million people walked the picket lines… And, MIT found that more than 60 million workers would vote to join a union today if given the chance…

That’s because more and more workers know that unions provide better wages, better benefits, better flexibility, better retirement, a better life, and most of all, democracy on the job. 

Listen, times are tough. But, so are working people! And, we never give up without a fight.

Over the summer, we recognized the thirty-year anniversary of the Mine Workers strike against the Pittston Coal Company. It was the most trying—and rewarding—experience of my presidency and my entire career.

We had just endured Ronald Reagan’s shameless attacks on the air traffic controllers union. Union-busting was the flavor of the day. There were concessions everywhere. And Pittston decided to come after the health care of our retirees and widows. 

That was the final straw. Because here’s something you have to understand: These retirees had given their lives to the mines. They’d come home covered in coal dust, but filled with pride that their day below ground meant they could support their families. And, part of their hard work meant the promise of a pension when they retired.

For Pittston to try and take this away from them wasn’t gonna happen without a fight. Not on my watch. So, we went out on strike. 

It lasted for almost a year. But, with the help of the community, and the entire labor movement, we won and sent a clear message to every union-buster across this great country that we were not backing down. We were not giving up. We were not going to take it anymore! It was our “enough” moment. 

You see, workers are willing to endure hardship. We are the most resilient group of people the world has ever known. But what we won’t accept is the feeling of being unnecessary. What we won’t allow is for anyone to strip us of our value, our dignity and our worth. 

These are the lessons that Jock taught me. That Joe Rauh taught me. That a group of ordinary people can make an extraordinary difference. That the labor movement is the single greatest force for working people on the planet. And, that democracy is worth fighting for.

That’s what I hope you’ll take from this lecture tonight. You’ll soon be holding a law degree in your hands. This university will send you off into a complicated world with an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility to make a real difference.

How will you meet this moment? 

As the next generation of legal minds, you can challenge the forces that seek to tear us apart. You can help bring us together. You can advance justice, expand freedom and promote fairness.  You can do the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons. You can take the education you received here and apply it to real problems. Poverty, violence, racism, inequality, you name it. 50 years after Jock died and Joe helped us all move on, you can help strengthen democracy for generations to come. You can be lawyers for democracy. Thank you very much.