Trumka: No System Can Endure If It Doesn't Provide For the Workers Who Make It Run

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks as prepared at the 26th Annual Stanford Directors’ College. You may watch President Trumka’s speech here.

Hello, everyone. And thank you, Michael Callahan, for that kind introduction. 

It’s wonderful to be back with my friends at Stanford, although I’m sorry we can’t be together in person today. 

As working people continue to help our country turn the corner on this pandemic, I hope this is one of the last times we’ll be forced to gather virtually.

I’ve thought a lot about the lessons of this disruptive year. I’m sure you have, too. 

Among them is the reality that a disease that conspired to keep us apart has in fact rekindled our faith in what is possible when we’re together. 

When we’re united. 

When we share the same physical space, of course—but also when we all push in the same direction.

The technology that has transformed our world has long demonstrated the value of being interconnected. What the pandemic has taught us is that we’re also interdependent.

When a contagion circulates in the air between us, we have no choice but to rely on one another. 

My safety is your safety. Your health is my health. 

My decisions and your decisions determine the destinies of so many others.

What the pandemic proved to us is something this country has always preached: divided, we fall. 

Without unity, we cannot survive. And if we turn our backs on one another, there is a tangible price to pay.

This unprecedented experience also showed, in the starkest terms, how fragile we are. 

I came up in the mines of southwestern Pennsylvania. I can’t claim to know much about coding, but I know that one bug can bring a whole program to a halt, just as one virus can shut down an entire respiratory system and one infected person can put an entire household at risk—or even an entire community.

Today, my friends, I want to remind you that our economy works the very same way.

We all want the enterprise to be healthy. But that’s only true when all facets of the economy are healthy. 

We all want our economy to be stable and prosperous. But that’s only true when the people who make it work feel that stability and share in the prosperity.

Right now, our economy is sick because working people are being silenced. 

When our economy is sick, our democracy is weak. 

My friends, absolutely nothing threatens our democracy more than inequality. It’s not even close. 

And when inequality widens, capitalism itself goes on life support.

That’s the reality at this moment in America. That is the crisis we must solve together—you, your boards, and us: the workers who make it all run.

When I say “inequality,” I mean three things: Inequality of wealth and wages. Inequality of opportunity. And inequality of power. 

We won’t solve the inequality of wealth and wages and the inequality of opportunity unless we confront the inequality of power.

Simply put, workers are too weak. Corporations are too powerful.

The longer this imbalance continues, the heavier the burden becomes. 

And if we keep doing the same thing and pretending massive social power gaps are inevitable or harmless, our economic and political systems will come crashing down on us. 

Believe me: the scourge of inequality threatens the very survival of our democratic institutions.

The facts are the facts. If you look at a CEO’s pay stub and compare it to one from 1978, today’s would be 940 times bigger. 

But what about a worker’s paycheck? Did it go up in similar fashion?

We all know that it hasn’t. 

In those 40-plus years, workers’ wages have gone up just 12 percent. Twelve. 940 to 12.

The gap between what CEOs make and what workers make used to be 30 to 1. Today it’s almost 300 to 1.

In 2020, a year of undeniable hardship, CEO pay jumped nearly 16 percent. The average worker’s compensation didn’t even rise by two percent. That was for those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs. 

And in the last decade, the average director on an S&P 500 board received a raise of more than $30,000 every year. The rank-and-file worker’s pay didn’t even rise by a thousand bucks.

That’s what I mean when I say the imbalance is getting bigger. The weight is getting heavier. And the day when everything implodes is getting closer. 

And at the current trajectory, there’s simply no other way this story ends besides widespread disaster.

That’s why America’s labor movement is committed to bringing economic justice to every workplace. 

We’re committed to guaranteeing social justice for every working person, regardless of whether we carry a union card. It’s why we’re fighting so hard to strengthen collective bargaining power. 

No system can endure if it doesn’t provide for the workers who make it run.

I know that is not lost in this room. Organizations like the Business Roundtable have started to shift their sights from shareholder value to stakeholder value. They recognize that this is part of what it means to be a fiduciary. They recognize that inequality is not in their interest—or any American’s interest. 

This epidemic of inequality has strained the social fabric of the nation. 

It has fueled anger and frustration and a rising tide of despair, addiction and depression—even death. 

It has even tempted some Americans to support nativist politics and excuse white supremacism. 

If we were sitting together today, we would be in the shadow of Silicon Valley. Technology in particular has a responsibility to steer us toward a better day. 

Tech isn’t inherently good or bad. Deployed well, it drives unprecedented productivity. Used poorly, it can drive people out of their jobs and into the streets. 

It can bring us together or it can tear us apart—and we have to design it as a force for good.

Low-wage employers like Uber and Amazon deliver people and goods in fast and convenient ways, but they should not be allowed to hide behind new technology or legal tricks as an excuse for treating people poorly.

We have to recognize the reality that tech can contribute to extreme economic uncertainty and anxiety when workers aren’t involved in shaping it. 

When there isn’t input from diverse perspectives.

When too many are cut off from the profits we generate.

Earlier this year, the AFL-CIO launched our Technology Institute. It will serve as the labor movement’s hub on these issues. By growing labor’s technological expertise and capacity, we will expand our power and relevance. And demand our seat at the table. 

But the challenge is not just fairly deploying 21st-century tech. It’s updating early-20th-century labor laws. 

Workers can’t organize in the present under the rules of the past.   

Let’s learn the lesson of the past year: We’re all in this together. The people who stock our groceries and protect our grid. The coder and the construction worker.

We all have a stake in America. And we all do better when we all do better. That’s solidarity. And it happens to be great economics. 

When we raise the bar, the entire economy improves. Wages go up. Consumers have more money to spend. Businesses thrive. And employers feel the competitive pressure to pay more. 

If we facilitate wage-driven growth, as we did after the New Deal, our economy will be more stable. And it will be much more enduring than financial bubbles or other sugar highs.

A workforce that is well-compensated, that has high productivity, that has dignity—that comes with having a voice and collective bargaining power. 

That’s how we compete in the world. And we believe that’s not too much to ask.

This is the basis for the PRO Act, which can help move our economy back to stable condition from the low-wage, race-to-the-bottom model sending our country deeper into crisis.

It has passed the House—twice in fact. Along with voting rights and police reform and a 21st-century infrastructure package, the PRO Act is stuck in the Senate. 

But if it gets to the Oval Office, President Biden will sign it. And I believe we all share an interest in getting it there, because we all share an interest in a healthy economy and democracy.

The PRO Act is about empowering working people with freedom. 

The freedom to band together on the job. 

The freedom to have a voice at work. 

The freedom to form a union without the anti-union propaganda, the blatant intimidation and the fear of retaliation.

If you tend crops in North Carolina or clean hotel rooms in New York City, if you’re an engineer in Silicon Valley or an autoworker in Mississippi, you should have the right to bargain with your coworkers for a better life. 

And employers must abide by that right. Some might say this is radical. I say it is fundamental. And regardless of where we stand, it’s already the policy of the United States.

Sixty million people would join a union today if given the chance. An MIT study confirmed that before the pandemic, and I’d wager that number is even higher today. And more than 60 percent of Americans support the PRO Act.

But outdated laws and anti-union attacks are robbing too many workers of the union difference. 

The PRO Act will finally allow workers the freedom to form a union freely and fairly. It will finally make sure that workers can reach a first contract quickly after a union is recognized. 

And it will finally end “right to work”—a relic of the Jim Crow era designed to divide us and make us poorer.

We talk about the future of work and the future of democracy. What I want you to remember is this: these are one and the same. They're not different challenges. They, like all of us, are interconnected.

The reason I’m fighting so hard for the PRO Act—and why I think you should be, too—is it’s where everything we care about comes together:

Our democracy—which relies on the voice of the people. In a union, everyone gets a vote, and each vote counts the same.

Our economy—which thrives on fairness and opportunity but crumbles under the weight of inequality.

Our safety—which should never be at risk in our workplaces. 

The PRO Act is also about our dignity—as workers, as coworkers, as human beings.

No handouts. Nothing unearned. Just leveling the playing field and rewarding hard work the way it should be rewarded. 

It’s about working people getting our end of the bargain without having to beg for what we’ve rightfully earned.

Look, maybe you and I don’t see eye-to-eye on every point of labor policy. But I know you believe no one should be forced to work in unsafe conditions that result in injury—or worse. 

I know you believe there is inherent dignity in hard work. 

I know you believe in the promise of capitalism. 

I sure as hell know you believe in the worth of our democracy.

And so, my friends, a system as unequal and unstable as ours is a house of cards on the brink of collapse.

If you don’t agree with every suggestion or solution that the American labor movement is offering to eliminate inequality or level the playing field, I respectfully ask: what’s your solution? 

In the face of COVID-19, many corporations declared “we are all in this together.” Now it is time to show us.  

How do we honestly make workers’ lives better? 

How can we look back on January 6 as a grave warning sign never to be repeated again—rather than the beginning of the end?

What will we do in this moment? 

Like so many of you, I was—and still am—a student of law. Despite being a very proud graduate of Penn State and Villanova Law School, I do know the motto of Stanford: "The wind of freedom blows."

Stanford students are summoned to use their knowledge to serve others, spread prosperity and safeguard democracy.

You and I should also answer that righteous call together. We need to.

When the wind of freedom blows, we extinguish the flames of fear and hate.

When the wind of freedom blows, our political, economic and social systems don’t just work for some—they work for working people.

Because when the wind of freedom blows, working people don’t just get by—we get ahead.

That should not be controversial or political.  

We all want to lift up our communities. We all want our families to feel secure. We can do that together. Indeed, together is the only way we can do it.

Inequality is a choice. So is doing better. 

Let’s choose the better path that empowers working people with real freedom in our workplaces. 

Thank you.