Speech | Better Pay and Benefits · Labor Law · Right to Work

Trumka: Organizing is the Lifeblood of Unionism

Tualatin, Oregon

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delvered the following remarks at the 2019 Oregon AFL-CIO Organizing Summit:

Thank you, Brother Tom (Chamberlain), for the kind introduction, and thank you for inviting me today. Brothers and sisters, you have a great leader here in Oregon. Tom and I just spent some time together in New Orleans at the State Fed/CLC Advisory Council Meeting. He was eager to share the incredible work you’ve been doing in this state.

When the AFL-CIO passed a national resolution focused on strengthening the labor movement at the state and local level, Oregon jumped into action. You adopted a series of recommendations designed to give our unions more power and more leverage. Small CLCs were turned into chapters. Three regional positions were created to expand your impact beyond Portland. CLCs were required to submit budgets and work plans and undergo quarterly reviews. And you did it all in just 8 weeks. Brothers and sisters, you’re a model for the entire nation.

Change is hard. But your willingness to embrace it is paying real dividends. You’ve had wins in organizing and bargaining and politics. You have a labor candidate school that is launching union members into the halls of power. You’re the muscle behind ballot initiatives giving workers more power and prosperity. Your Transportation Fairness Campaign is giving drivers at Uber and Lyft a voice in our economy.

And guess what else? You didn’t just survive Janus. You’re growing and thriving!

I had a high school football coach named Bear Stuvek. He taught me about perseverance, dedication and good, old-fashioned hard work. Bear used to put us through a drill called “Bull in the Ring.” I’m certain it would be banned today.

Twelve of my teammates would circle around me. Bear would count off...1, 2, 3, 4...1, 2, 3, 4. He’d call the ones. They’d come and hit me. Then the twos. Then the threes and so on. Bear would keep calling their numbers. And, I’d keep getting hit...harder and harder. Sometimes I’d be on the ground and wonder whether I should get up. Somehow I always did. Something inside me made me do that.

Before long, when Bear would put me in that ring, I’d start hitting back. I’d hit back with everything I had. I’d hit back until they finally got the message that while you may knock me down, you will NEVER knock me out. You won’t make me quit, give up or give in.

The labor movement...we are that bull in the ring. We’ve been getting hit over...and over...and over again. Every single day. From every goddamn direction.

Wages. Health care. Retirement. Overtime. Workplace safety. They’ve come after ALL OF IT. Measure 101 right here in Oregon is a perfect example. And Janus was supposed to be the knockout blow. The pundits had our eulogy ready and funeral arrangements were being made.

But something happened along the way. We punched back. We stood strong. We fought back.  Mark Janus had five justices in his corner...but we’re a movement of MILLIONS. And we’re not going anywhere.

Brothers and sisters, the labor movement is HERE TO STAY. We’re on the move. We’re in the streets in every city and every state. From Oklahoma to Oregon. Young and old. Black and white. Immigrant and native-born. Gay and straight. Rural and urban. Republican, Democrat and Independent.

Our enemies want a fight? I say, bring it on! We’re the true American patriots. We’re fearless. We’re strong. We’re powerful. We’re united. We’re rising in solidarity…REAL solidarity…where your picket line is my picket line, and my picket line is your picket line.

This is our country...and it’s time...high time...we took it back!

I was proud to be at this summit four years ago. The focus then was rightly on Janus and its predecessor case Freidrichs. We had to prepare ourselves for the inevitable onslaught by the anti-worker Supreme Court. Internal organizing ruled the day, and our public sector unions did an incredible job selling unions to the public and converting fee payers into full members.

Let me be clear: Whether you call it internal organizing or member engagement...demonstrating our concrete value, member by member, must be a full-time practice for every single union. And with Janus behind us, we can now turn our focus to the labor movement’s core mission: organizing new workers into unions.

Janus might have sucked the air out of the room for awhile. But now that we’ve put on our own mask, we are ready to assist others. And that starts with going after the 60 million workers who say they would vote to join a union today if given the chance.

Organizing is the lifeblood of unionism. It’s never easy. You face hurdles…stubborn obstacles and ruthless opponents. Sometimes the hurdles are even within our own institutions, and I understand how frustrating that can be for organizers...because your visions of progress are not always apparent to everyone.

And yet here you are, bright and early on a Saturday morning. If you didn’t want it bad enough, you’d still be back in bed.

I’ve been a member of the United Mine Workers of America for 50 years. I’ve experienced a lot of ups and downs in that half century. And I can tell you...without hesitation...that I have never been more optimistic about the future of the labor movement.

Something is happening in America, brothers and sisters. Fed up with an economic and political system that doesn’t work for them, workers are turning to each other—to us. Every single day, more and more working people are realizing that the single best way they can improve their lives...is to join a union.

Gallup recently put our popularity at 62 percent—a 15-year high. The Wall Street Journal reported that 2018 was the biggest year for collective action in three decades. There were strikes and organizing wins in every sector and every region. We elected more than 960 union members to public office. Workers are in motion.

So how do we turn this passion into progress? How do we convert massive collective action into life-changing collective bargaining?

We’ve got their attention. Now it’s time to make some moves. Unfortunately, labor law is designed for us to lose. The last changes were in 1947 and written to make it harder to organize. Current law does far too little to prevent employers from bullying and harassing workers when we try to form a union, and there is no binding process for reaching a first contract when a majority of workers make the decision to bargain collectively. The right of workers to make our voices heard through strikes, pickets and other activities continues to be fundamentally undermined by employers, politicians and the courts. Simply put, the system is broken, and the time for comprehensive labor law reform is right now. We are working on that in D.C. as we speak.

But in the meantime, we’ve got to get out there on the playing field. Here in Oregon, AFSCME is organizing the courts. AFT is making inroads at Oregon Health and Science University...work that was contracted out in the 1980s. Nurses are organizing in the central part of the state. And, cannabis stores in Salem are turning UFCW gold. We can’t let up. We need more campaigns. We need more elections. We need to be bold and take risks.

That’s why the labor movement is looking at new sectors to organize—from technology to clean energy. This is the kind of ingenuity and innovation we need to bring new people into our fold. We’re also looking at different industries and demographics, like what my sister, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer... and fellow Oregonian...Liz Shuler is doing to lift up the voices of workers in the video game industry.

We are also looking to improve HOW we organize. About a year and a half ago, the AFL-CIO got together with 26 of our affiliates, and together, we developed a new mobile site called Action Builder...strictly for organizing. We’ve taken the old ways of organizing...the wall charts and scraps of paper...and put them in an easy-to-use mobile site. All the information for your campaigns can now be at your fingertips...24/7...just like the rest of our lives. It’s already being used by a couple unions and a least half a dozen more are preparing to launch it soon.

As we look forward, I also can’t help but think back. I’m a student of the Civil War. It’s my hobby. I’m amazed that in every story, in every battle, they talk about the generals. But they never mention the foot soldiers: The common man and common woman who joined together to do uncommon things.

Let me tell you: That’s how I feel today. YOU are those men and women. YOU have the power to change the world. Because as unionists, as organizers and as activists...everything we do comes back to one simple mission: lifting up the lives of working people. The best and most enduring way to do this is with collective bargaining and a contract on the job, and that’s why this summit is so critical.

When you talk to your family and friends....when you talk to your coworkers...when you make the decision to fully participate in your union and get others to do the same...or better yet, join a union...that’s how progress is won!

Brothers and sisters, are you ready to organize?

Are you ready to mobilize?

Are you ready to win safe jobs and good pay and health care?

Are you ready to build a better life for our kids?

Are you ready to fight for the American Dream?

Brothers and sisters, hear me loud and hear me clear: WE ARE THE AMERICAN LABOR MOVEMENT AND WE WILL NOT BE DENIED!

God, I love this job. I run on your energy and passion. It gets me out of bed every morning. And I’ll tell you what...we’re going to need it in this next presidential election. That’s right. I want to say a few words about 2020. Because smart politics makes for good organizing.

I have a crazy idea: It’s time for America to have a pro-union president.

That means candidates talking to us and getting to know us. It means visiting our worksites and our union halls. It means marching on our picket lines. It means learning about our hopes and dreams and understanding our concerns.

It means an agenda that is unambiguously pro-worker. You cannot split the difference between Main Street and Wall Street. It means having a plan to make it easier to form unions and harder to bust them. It means knowing inside and out how our trade, tax, labor and immigration policies have been used to batter working families...and being ready to fix them on day one. It means championing a Workers’ Bill of Rights. And, it means committing to filling the NLRB, the Labor Department and an entire presidential administration with champions of collective bargaining.

The late governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, used to say that 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.

No more. The stakes are too high, and working people are drawing a line in the sand this time. 2020 must be different.

So, more than anything, the first test of whether or not you’ll be a pro-union president is how you treat the people who work on your campaign. To put it simply, you can’t be pro-union if you’re an anti-worker boss. So, here’s my message to every candidate for president: Show us how committed you are to unionism and allow your campaign workers to organize. Be more than just a neutral party. Be an active partner.

Many of the candidates I’ve spoken with have already made this commitment. And earlier this month, one candidate’s campaign workers became the first to secure union cards. I hope they are the first of many.

You see, we’re refusing to settle for less in this election. Not when...in some parts of the country...it’s still harder to form a union than climb a mountain. Not when a record 7 million Americans are more than three months behind on their car payments. Not when 62 percent of Americans haven’t seen a raise in more than a year. Not when Amazon doubled its profits, yet paid zero in federal taxes.

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 picket 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.

We’re going to fight for a real investment in our infrastructure…and that includes a Portland Major League Baseball stadium made...and maintained...by union power.

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 keep America great. We teach, heal and make. We package, print and bake. We build the roads, fight the fires and lift the loads. We stand tall. We don’t run and hide. We wake our country up every single day. We tuck her into bed at night.

This is our time! This is our moment! Get on board or get out of the way!

Thank you, Oregon! God bless you!

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