Speech | Right to Work

Trumka Lays Out Roadmap for Labor's Future

Los Angeles, California

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka today delivered the following remarks to 750 labor leaders, activists and staff from California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Alaska.

Thank you, Brother Tom [Chamberlain], for your kind words of introduction and for inviting me to this important and timely gathering.

The subject of this conference gets at the heart of where our labor movement is, and where we need to be. It forces us to confront our real priorities. It requires us to lean into our faith in the power of solidarity and our deep sense of mission.

Brothers and sisters, we are the beating heart of the American labor movement, but our movement is much bigger than the individuals in this room or all the union members in America today. Everyone who works for a living shares our basic economic interests. Our movement is growing, and our unions are rising in popularity, because we are showing America how solidarity works, how raising wages works. It’s not enough for us to say it. People need to experience it. We need to show it, and show it again and again and again. And that’s what we’re doing. Just look at how voters have been raising wages from the bluest to the reddest states—through ballot measures, legislation and union organizing victories. Real people have been getting better pay. That’s progress. But it is only a start. We want more. We want broadly shared prosperity.

The right-wing corporate CEOs and the wealthiest 1%—the vast networks who have made it their mission to destroy us—are feeling emboldened. These folks never need to work a day in their lives, because their money works for them. The policies they push have one goal, and that’s to make them richer and us poorer. To make them stronger and us weaker. That’s what we are up against. But let me be clear: I will take our solidarity over their money any day of the week.

Last year, President Lee Saunders of AFSCME spoke at the AFL-CIO headquarters as our officers and staff prepared to participate in AFSCME Strong, the internal organizing program that talks directly to union members about the value of standing together. As he addressed the packed room that day, he said something very powerful. He said he welcomed the challenge to his union posed by the lawsuit then in front of the Supreme Court at the time—Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

He welcomed the challenge, because—while AFSCME is strong—it must be stronger. That means connecting, talking, listening, organizing and mobilizing. He knew that either we grow or we die. And he understands that engaged and involved union members know union dues are a vital investment, not an added expense.

The same is true about the AFL-CIO and every union in America.

When I talk about the economy, I make the point that it’s not like the weather. It isn’t like rain on a picnic. It isn’t something that simply happens to us. We can change it with our activism on the job and by electing people to write new economic rules to benefit working families.

Inequality is not inevitable. Flat wages are not a natural phenomenon. We have the power to change the rules of our economy and in the process, change the course of history.

We have the power to grow unity in America.

We’re under attack! So what else is new? We decide what our labor movement will be. We’re ready to take on the opposition. I want them on the field of play feeling great. I want them on their best day. We don’t want them to have any excuses. We’ll meet them, fair and square. And then we’re going to beat the tar out of them!

When it comes to the right-wing attacks on our unions, we’ve got to encourage our members and each other to let go of our fear. Fear doesn’t do us any favors.

We will not fear these threats, but we will fight them. We will aim to defeat every attack on either the institutions of our labor movement or the core values we hold dear—values such as freedom, equality, justice, fairness and the rights to assemble and speak freely.

We will use every fight to organize internally by educating our membership about the threats we face and our sole mission is and will always be to build real power for working people each and every day so we can lift each other up. That’s it. That’s our purpose.

It won’t be easy, but our agenda unites us. Safe jobs. Good pay. Health care. A secure retirement. And a better life for our kids. That’s the American Dream, and it’s not too much to ask.

Brothers and sisters, listen close. We will not settle for merely surviving as a labor movement. That’s not enough. We will thrive!

We’re playing the long-game. There is no end to our fight. As long as men and women work, we will come together in unity—28 states have passed right-to-work laws. Politicians are talking about introducing national right-to-work legislation. It’s a chilling proposal. They have one goal—to weaken the institutions of working people so they can pay us less, make us work in ever more dangerous conditions, keep us apart and keep us down. But let me make a point about right to work that we should never forget. Right to work does not take collective bargaining rights away from a single worker. And it does not force a single union member to stop paying dues unless they want to. In other words, right to work cannot and should not stop us from doing our job—organizing new members, engaging with current ones and providing the best representation in the world.

In 2016, despite powerful opposition and a daunting political environment, working people raised pay by 3%—the highest in years. We’re still pushing up. We’re finding ways to grow power. We’re finding ways to unite for what we want and need.

This environment is a powerful laboratory, forcing us to adapt. It’s making us stronger. I can feel it. We are in the heat of the fire, and like tempered steel we will come out stronger!

Just remember: We’re the ones who plant the crops and push the mops. We dig the coal and build the roads. We form the wheels and make the tires. We load the trucks and drive them, too. We face each challenge. We never run and hide. We wake America up every single morning, and we put her to bed at night. We stand strong. We stand together. We stand united! We’re the American labor movement, and we will not be denied!

Today, you’ve heard from some powerful union leaders and veteran campaigners. Our campaigns director David Boundy knows how to win. He’s a pro. You’ve heard from President Ted Pappageorge of Culinary Local 226 about strategies to build union power in tough circumstances. You’ve no doubt shared your experiences and ideas and picked up some new ones.

There has never been a more important time in America for workers to assert our collective power. It won’t be easy, but I have never been more confident that we are ready to meet this moment. The future is ours to shape. And it all starts with solidarity.

Solidarity is most important when times are tough and disagreements are sharp—when the sun isn’t shining, when good people want to duck their heads and hide.

The subject of this meeting—how to build strength for working people in the hardest political environments—is the definition of solidarity.

Now the really hard work begins. How all of us respond to the challenges and opportunities of today and in the days to come will define who and what we are as a labor movement and a nation.

Don’t ever lose sight of the big picture: The momentum is swinging our way. Collective action is on the rise. America is in the midst of an overdue national conversation about income inequality.

A powerful majority of Americans support unions, and our popularity is growing, especially among young people.

We know the way forward. Collective action is part of the national conversation now, and that’s a good thing.

We’re not complacent. We’re ready for a fight. Our opponents are bold. They’re well-funded and ruthless. I say, bring it on! We've taken your best shot and we're still standing. Strong. United. Together. Forever.

Thank you. God bless you, God bless your families and members and all the work you do!

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