Speech | Trade · Better Pay and Benefits · Labor Law

Trumka on New NAFTA at Maryland/DC AFL-CIO Convention: We Are Not There Yet

Hanover, Maryland

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the Maryland State and DC AFL-CIO 32nd Biennial Convention:

Sister Donna (Edwards), thank you so much for that introduction. You and Brother Gerald (Jackson) are doing an incredible job leading this federation forward. It is an honor to be here at a union casino and a union hotel. What a great place for a convention. And what a great time to be in the labor movement.

I’ve been in the trenches for more than 50 years, brothers and sisters, and I’ve never been more excited. We are rising. We are fighting. We are demanding better. From Baltimore to Bowie. From the Eastern Shore to Washington, D.C.

At a time when our politics and our culture wants us isolated and bitter and ready to blame, working people are, instead, turning to each other. 

Union approval is at 64 percent, the highest in nearly 50 years. 2018 was the biggest year for collective action in a generation. More than 60 million workers would vote to join a union today if given the chance.

And how about those elections? We took out an anti-worker governor in Kentucky. We re-elected a pro-worker governor in Louisiana. We captured a labor-friendly legislative majority in Virginia. And we elected a brand new class of union member candidates. All told, more than 400 of our brothers and sisters won public office in 2019. They will now join the nearly 1,000 card-carrying union members elected last year, including 12 members of the Maryland State House and 5 members of the Maryland State Senate.

This election was just the latest criscendo in an ongoing surge of collective action by working people. 85,000 workers went on strike in just a single week this October. We’ve walked off the job to win better contracts at Marriott and GM. Teachers are continuing to challenge the status quo in Republican states and Democratic cities alike—showing the entire country what’s possible when we stand together.

This uprising is alive and well here in Maryland. Baltimore teachers and musicians stood strong during tough contract fights and in the case of AFM, an illegal lockout. UAW members at Volvo near Hagerstown went on strike and won better pay, benefits and job security. And I was privileged to experience the determination of working people firsthand when nurses rallied outside John Hopkins Hospital during a heat wave this July. Man, that was a hot day!

Nurses are the most trusted public servants in our nation. They treat the sick. They comfort our families. They support our communities. And they deserve a voice on the job!

We know it won’t be easy. Johns Hopkins has spent millions of dollars to prevent nurses from organizing. Management interrogated nurses and took steps to block workers from having conversations about forming a union. They’ve even gone so far as to fire union supporters.

But here’s the thing...no corporation or institution is stronger than a committed group of working people willing to risk everything for each other. And when that group of people happens to be nurses, you better believe we are going to win. 

It won’t be fast. It won’t be easy. But with National Nurses United leading the way, we’re going to make John Hopkins a union hospital!

Something is happening in America, brothers and sisters.

In the richest country in the world...at our richest point in history...workers are deciding that one job should be enough!

That no one should go broke just because they get sick.

That no one should earn less because of their gender.

That no one should be fired for who they are.

Everyone should have a voice.

Everyone should have a fair shot and a fair shake.

And everyone should be able to form a union.

Brothers and sisters, are you with me?

This is our time.

This is our moment.

This is our country.

And we’re taking it back for the people who work!

The labor movement’s recent success is a reminder that when we sacrifice the comforts of today for the progress of tomorrow, real change is within our reach. So we’re telling everyone within the sound of our voice: If you want power—join a union.

Of course, with more than 60 million workers saying they want in, you’d think unions would be growing at an exponential rate. But our badly outdated labor laws, which haven’t been
strengthened since 1935, continue to make the job of organizing unreasonably hard. Employers like Johns Hopkins hire high-price attorneys and consultants to scare workers into accepting business as usual.

That’s why we need to pass the PRO Act—Protecting the Right to Organize.

The PRO Act would let us do our jobs without interference from anti-union employers or anti-worker politicians.

We have wanted labor law reform for a long time, so workers can fairly choose to form or join unions. Well, sometimes you've got to knock on the door before you get in. We've been knocking. How many of you remember the Employee Free Choice Act? It was the first major piece of labor reform legislation in a generation or more, and we came up just a few votes short.

In the years since that setback, the labor movement has never stopped educating working people and legislators about the importance of raising wages through fair and modern labor laws.

The PRO Act protects the right to strike. It includes first contract arbitration, substantial relief for workers whose rights have been violated and real penalties for employers who break the law.

And here is one of the most underrated pieces of this legislation. It removes the employer’s standing in representation cases. The choice to form a union should be that of workers alone. They don’t ask for our input when making a decision about work. So they have no business attempting to influence who we choose to sit at the bargaining table.

The PRO Act is our strongest bill yet—and just last week, we reached 218 cosponsors, a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives. I am hopeful Speaker Nancy Pelosi will bring it up for a vote soon. 

We’re making progress on labor law reform. And we’re making progress on trade. I want to address some of the rumors floating around about the future of NAFTA. Here is what I know to be true. First and foremost, corporate-written trade has been a disaster for working people. Maryland has lost more than 70,000 manufacturing jobs in the era of NAFTA and trade with China. The GM plant in White Marsh. The iconic Luke paper mill, which faced constant pressure from Chinese imports. It never stops. So the labor movement jumped at the chance to make trade work for working people. 

We’ve been lobbying the White House specifically on NAFTA for more than two years, slowly but surely moving the ball down the field. But we are not there yet. Let me repeat: we are not there yet. I know from experience this can be one of the most dangerous points in a negotiation. An agreement is in sight so you fold on core issues in order to get across the finish line. I will not allow that to happen.

We are in a position of tremendous strength. Our allies on Capitol Hill understand that getting this done right is more important than getting it done fast. So until the administration can show us in writing that the new NAFTA is truly enforceable with stronger labor standards, there is still more work to be done.

Close is not good enough. Not when millions of jobs are at stake. Not when lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. Not after 25 years of devastation and destruction. We are ready for a victory on NAFTA. Bring us a deal that's good for workers and we will use our voice and muscle to pass it. 

But we cannot and will not support any deal that does not deliver for working people.

On NAFTA...and the TPP fight before it...and every battle we face, unity is the key to our success. United we soar. Divided we crumble. 

When our public sector brothers and sisters faced the threat of Janus at the Supreme Court, we rallied to their defense. And guess what? Despite that horrible decision, public sector affiliates are growing. Turns out people like their union! 

When the Trump Administration tried to water down registered apprenticeships in the building trades—the best training programs in the world—we all made our opposition clear to the Department of Labor.

And when Donald Trump shut down the federal government, forcing hundreds of thousands of federal employees to go without a paycheck, including 90,000 people here in Maryland, the entire labor rallied and fought until the president finally caved. 

The people who want to destroy the labor movement have always tried to rip us apart. Public against private. Rural against urban. Immigrant against native born. Ravens against Steelers. We cannot fall for it. There is no stronger bond than the one we have as union members. We hold each other’s futures in our hands. 

I know my partner and sister AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler was here this morning. She has a unique ability to bring our diverse unions together. She is a bridge builder. She understands that solidarity will position us to tackle the biggest challenges of our time—from inequality and climate change to automation and equal opportunity. 

The late great Elijah Cummings said his mission was to make people realize that the power is within them and that they too can do the things they want to do.

That is our mission, too. That’s how we’re winning today. And that’s how we’re going to take back this country in 2020.

We know it won’t be easy. Watching the news these days can be almost too much to bear.

Americans are being scapegoated, minimized, dehumanized and told to go back where they came from. Voting and the free press are under attack. The very foundation of our democracy is being chipped away.

Our nation’s welcome mat, long a beacon of hope for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including my family, is being bulldozed and paved over, replaced with a clear message: “you’re not welcome here.”

The president uses his Twitter account to demean and divide rather than inform and inspire. He routinely picks on the most vulnerable among us—women of color, people with disabilities, transgender Americans, immigrants—even Gold Star families.

And what about the promises to protect American jobs, invest in infrastructure and change the economic rules? Well, he’s changed the rules all right—but not to benefit any of us.

Wall Street got another windfall tax cut. Workplace safety regulations have been gutted. They stole our overtime pay. And a management side lawyer with a history of union-bashing and busting is the new Secretary of Labor.

Brothers and sisters, enough is enough. We’re demanding better. We deserve better. And in 2020, we’re going to win better.

But I also have a warning for the Democratic Party.

We are not your ATM. You must work for us, not the other way around.

We’re setting the bar high—higher than it’s ever been.

Put plainly, my message today is this: If you want our endorsement...if you want our vote...if you want our support...then show us that you’re unambiguously pro-worker and pro-union. Tell us about your plan to make it easier to form unions and harder to bust them. Show us that workers are more than a section on your website or a line in your biography. Make growing today’s labor movement a top priority.

The late governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, said you campaign in poetry...and you govern in prose. But for too long, our elected leaders have campaigned in promises and governed in excuses.

Or worse.

We’re refusing to accept business as usual. Not when...in some parts of the country...it’s still harder to form a union than climb a mountain. Not when 40 percent of Americans don’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency. Not when in the past 30 years, the top 1 percent has gained $21 trillion in wealth, while the bottom 50 percent has lost $900 billion.

Working people built this country from the ground up. We keep her running every day. Yet far too often, we’ve been disrespected, disregarded and abandoned. So, we are demanding from a president the same thing we demand of ourselves: Hard work. Integrity. Honor. Guts. Grit. And, sacrifice. It doesn’t matter if there’s a D, R or I next to your name. If you refuse to truly make the cause of workers your own, then we cannot endorse you.

But...if you join us...and fight for us…and walk in our shoes...we will move heaven and earth to elect you. And together, we can put this country back where it belongs...in the hands of the workers who make it go.

We’ll march for it. We’ll organize for it. We’ll fight for it.

Brothers and sisters, are you ready to fight? ARE YOU READY TO FIGHT?

We’re going to fight for higher pay.

We’re going to fight for better health care.

We’re going to fight for a secure retirement.

And, we’re going to fight for an economy where every worker...every single worker...has the freedom to form a union and bargain collectively.

We’ve earned it, brothers and sisters. We teach, heal and make. We package, print and bake. We put food on the table. We care for the sick. We build the cars and fight the fires. We serve our nation with dignity and pride. We stand tall. We don’t run and hide. We wake our country up every single day, and we tuck her into bed at night!

This is our time! This is our moment!

WE are the American labor movement...and we will not...WE WILL NOT...be denied!

Thank you, brothers and sisters! God bless you!

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