Speech | Civil Rights · Quality Education

Trumka: Labor Educators Make Enormous Impact

Washington, D.C.

What a great video. John Legend is inspiring millions through his music and his activism. We are extremely grateful that he is partnering with labor to end mass incarceration.

Brothers and sisters, thank you all for being here, and for your leadership. As labor educators, whether you work in a union or not, you have an enormous impact on the future of the American labor movement.

I want to thank all of the UALE officers, including your president and AFT Education Director Cheryl Teare, for building a strong association of union, community and university-based labor educators.

I also want to thank those who will speak on the panel after me, AFT Secretary-Treasurer
Dr. Loretta Johnson, our own AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, Dr. Steven Pitts of the UC Berkeley Labor Center and CJ Jenkins, a young activist from Baltimore and a member of the Postal Workers Union. I know we’re all looking forward to hearing your perspectives.

At the AFL-CIO, we are delighted to be a part of UALE and pleased to have our Leadership Development Director Al Davidoff serve as a Vice President.

The AFL-CIO continues to be committed to education and leadership development. We are proud to be partnering with top notch educational institutions all across America -- Cornell, Penn State, Rutgers, Harvard, UMass, UCLA, Illinois, Oregon and many others, on our National Labor Leadership Initiative. These are powerful and effective collaborations.

Also, we are excited to offer Common Sense Economics to hundreds of thousands of workers and community partners. Your help delivering this program is essential, and I thank you for it. Let’s do more, everywhere we can. Everyone should understand how our economy is a set of man-made rules, not some act of nature. We have the power to change our economy and make it work for the working class. That message will help us defeat the poisonous ideas from the corporate right-wing, whether it’s on talk radio, or from anti-worker politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

No matter what candidate, or what election, America cannot afford to embrace racism and division. We must reject it, and that’s a big part of what I want to talk about with you today.

As a movement, we are evolving in a hundred ways. We’re growing stronger. I won’t get deeply into the nuts and bolts of that evolution, but I do want to acknowledge it. We’re breaking new ground. And we’re experimenting with new ways to build solidarity, including addressing issues of racial justice head on, both inside the labor movement and in society.

We can’t face the easy stuff and ignore the hard things. We won’t sit comfortably in the middle of the pack. We are committed to being the tip of the spear.

Let’s be honest. Race is a subject that makes a lot of people, black, white, all of us, uncomfort-able, or even resentful.

All of this can put people on their heels, and honestly we sometimes hear ignorant or insensitive comments from essentially good people. That’s OK, as long as we continue to evolve, to listen to each other and to come together.

We are committed to finding ways to be more inclusive, from training stewards to choosing local ballot initiatives to enlisting apprentices. All workers must play a role in pushing our labor movement forward. Anything less fails the test of this moment.

Brothers and sisters, I reject the idea that placing a value on one life diminishes the value of another. In fact, the reverse is true. Let me speak clearly about exactly what I mean: Anyone who says #blacklivesmatter is against anyone is wrong. #Blacklivesmatter is for all of us.

As a movement, our doors are open to everyone. We’re open to new immigrants in search of a better life for themselves and their families. We’re open to all working class folks who are being left behind in today’s economy. We accept everybody, we need everybody, and when it comes to continuing our shift toward a more inclusive, respectful and broader labor movement, we won’t give up one damn inch.

We will be a movement that fights systemic injustices that hurt all working people, like mass incarceration. We will continue this shift, because it is toward a labor movement that grows, a labor movement that wins and a labor movement that raises wages for workers all across this country, whatever we look like, whoever we love, however we worship and wherever we live.

America is stratified by race and income more than ever before. Every day, we see economic inequality and uncertainty feeding the divisions among us. These divisions are very real, and very dangerous. And they are being stoked by those who wish to profit from them, without any concern for the damage it is doing to our beloved country.

The truth is, Wall Street doesn’t give a damn what color we are. The only color they see is green. Their only motivator is greed.

They want us to be divided, to knock us down and make us poor, and they’ve been doing a pretty good job of it.

But it’s never been equal opportunity poverty. There are always some who are worse off, who are knocked down harder and kept down longer.

And that distinction makes all the difference.

That’s why it’s so important for us to listen to each other, to hold onto the things that lift us up and throw away the ideas that tear us apart. When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, that day when our brother killed our sister’s son, and when our sister’s son lay in the street in a pool of his own drying blood for hours and hours, America saw vividly how cheap some lives have become.

In response, a national movement for equality and justice has risen up from the streets of Ferguson. It is rising from New York City and Oakland, Cleveland, Chicago, Tallahassee, Birmingham, Dallas and hundreds of other cities and towns across this country. It is lifting all of us up.

I can speak about this with authority, because, for more than a year, we’ve been holding forums on race from coast to coast. We’ve had real and candid conversations with working people. We’ve listened. And we’ve learned from each other. Our affiliate unions and community allies, along with our team from the AFL-CIO Civil and Human Rights Department, have all made this possible.

We’ve held workshops on a wide range of subjects: implicit bias, dog-whistle politics, mass incarceration, and more. Thousands of labor folks have begun the education and training process to move us forward.

Our challenge and your challenge is to ramp this program up. Help us engage our members and our communities on issues of racial justice and equality.

This is tough and complicated, and we all have to be committed to this process. We are working to provide a range of tools to advance and deepen these conversations about race, and to lay out the steps we need to create a more just society.

If you have good ideas, exercises you’ve found successful, or really anything that would add to our growing curriculum, please share them with Carmen Berkley or Al Davidoff.

Our collective knowledge and experience is a tremendous resource. We certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we do want to pull the best ideas together and then provide the most effective tools and options for tackling this vital work.

Race and justice are not side projects of the AFL-CIO. These are at the core of who we are as a labor movement now and in the future.

Brothers and sisters, each of you has the capacity to change a union, a community. You stand at the gate, and that’s a tremendous responsibility. You know how hard this work can be, and you know how important it is. This transformation will keep us unified and enhance the strength we need so badly.

Strength to organize. Strength to grow. Strength to win in the workplace and on Election Day.

As I like to say, if some is good, more is better. We want more. We want better. We want raising wages. We want justice. We want equality. We want a better tomorrow!

Thank you so much. God bless you and the work you do.

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