Speech | Better Pay and Benefits

Trumka to Roofers and Waterproofers: American Dream Built Through Solidarity

Las Vegas, Nevada
President Trumka addressed the Roofers and Waterproofers convention.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the Roofers and Waterproofers Convention: 

Good afternoon, brothers and sisters. It is a privilege and an honor to be here today. Thank you, Brother Kinsey (Robinson), for that overly kind introduction. You’re a great leader and a true friend. As I begin, I want to recognize all the support you’ve given to the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance over the years. You understand the importance of preserving our outdoor heritage through collective action. You’ve helped make USA one of the most prominent forces in conservation. And most of all, you’ve helped bring union members together in common passion and purpose to enjoy and protect the land that we love. Thank you, brother. I look forward to our next hunt.

The theme of your convention—Recruit, Train, Retain—is a rallying cry for the entire labor movement. To succeed, we must grow. To grow, we must secure our ranks. And to secure our ranks, we must demonstrate value to our members. These are the building blocks of trade unionism. Recruitment, training and retention is how we win a future that is fair and just for working people. It’s how we make the American Dream a reality for more families. And let me tell you this: No one does it better than the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers. No one!

I have a woman on my staff named Prairie Wells. She’s a third-generation union member. In 1980, she was living with her mother and sister in Lake Placid, New York, around the time of the Winter Olympics.

Her mother Sarah had just endured a difficult breakup with Prairie’s father. They had nothing. Sarah moved her girls to Rochester with little more than the clothes on their back. At a Halloween party that year, Sarah bumped into an old friend from high school who had started a business and could use a good hand. Opportunity knocked. And Sarah answered. She became a roofer and a member of Local 22.

It was the hardest work she had ever done. “Oh my dear,” is how she described her first week on the job. During her lunch break, she would sometimes rest in her car and fall asleep. One of her union brothers would always wake her up. “I had backup,” Sarah said.

Before she found this union, Sarah described herself as “broke and broken.” But a union card changed everything. Now, Sarah could take her kids to the doctor when they got sick. She got regular paychecks. She got an apartment of her own. She was able to keep her car and pay the bills.

But union membership was more than dollars and cents for Sarah. She walked taller. She held her head higher. She treasured the peace of mind that comes with being able to support your family through hard work. Sarah would often drive around town and point out the fruits of her labor. The roller skating rink where Prairie and her friends hung out—her mom installed the roof. And everybody knew it! “The union changed my life,” Sarah said.

Brothers and sisters, I share Sarah’s story as a reminder of why we each carry a union card in our pocket...of why we organize and mobilize and fight together.

These are extremely difficult times for our country. Our economy doesn’t work for too many of us. Our politics are badly broken.

But there is still one force for good...one united front advancing the cause of social and economic justice...fighting for dignity and hope...and that's the labor movement!

It's each of you, brothers and sisters!

We have the power to reclaim America for the people who build it and make it work! For Sarah...for every mom and dad who’s given everything they have just to survive!

It’s time to fight like hell...to end the injustice still plaguing us...to end the indignity we still face...to end the inequality still wrecking our country...to end the egregious idea that exploitation is the cost of doing business.

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

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

You know, there are some folks out there who could learn a lot from people like Sarah...from just about anyone in this room. Just a few weeks ago, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, tweeted what he seemed to think was a profound question.

How can we raise wages for working people? What's one thing we can do? A unicorn for the middle-class, he called it.

Brothers and sisters, we don’t need a unicorn to lift people out of poverty. There’s no secret here. We know the answer. WE ARE THE ANSWER! If you want an economy that works for working people...if you want a society that is fair and just...if you want opportunity and mobility and dignity, then you can start by giving everyone in this country the right to bargain with our employers for good wages and benefits. You see, Eric Schmidt already had his unicorn. All he had to do was Google the American labor movement.

And if he did, he’d know that unions are on the rise. Something is happening in America, brothers and sisters. It's one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in my 50 years in the labor movement.

262,000 working people joined unions last year...and three quarters of them were under 35. Our approval rating is at a 15-year high and rising. Half of all non-union workers would vote TODAY to join a union if given the chance. That’s more than 60 million people—the population of Italy.

After the Supreme Court ruled against us in Janus, many pundits wondered if it would be the death of the labor movement. Well, brothers and sisters, they got their answer!

Just look at Missouri. The state legislature there tried to ram through a so-called “right to work” law. They tried to override the will of their constituents and strip working people of our economic rights. We didn’t stand for it. We fought back by doing what we do best. We organized!

We needed 100,000 signatures to put right to work on the ballot. We got 300,000!

We visited 1,000 worksites. We knocked on 800,000 doors. We made a million calls. We mobilized our brothers and sisters. We talked to our neighbors, union and non-union alike.

And on August 7, we sent that egregious law into the ash heap of history. It wasn’t even close!

Democrats voted no. Half of Republicans voted no. Two out of every three Missourians who cast a ballot voted no.

The Chamber of Commerce said that, for every punch they threw, working people threw ten more back. Even the Wall Street Journal warned CEOs that unions are on the attack.

Hell yeah, we are!

By crushing right to work in Missouri, the labor movement made it crystal clear that no politician or Supreme Court decision is going to stop us from organizing and fighting for working people.

We’re riding this wave into November, mobilizing the largest and most strategic grassroots electoral campaign in our history.

Working together, we can fill the halls of power with union members and allies...no matter what political party they happen to belong to.  

Each of you in this room...you can get us there. You are our greatest asset. We need your passion. When you talk to your coworkers...when you talk to your friends and family...that’s how progress is won!

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of Republicans who treat us like punching bags. And I’m just as tired of Democrats who treat us like ATMs, cashing our checks and then forgetting who got them elected in the first place.

So my message to you is this: don’t vote Republican or Democrat. Don’t vote liberal or conservative. Don’t vote red or blue. VOTE UNION!

For higher wages and quality, affordable health care...vote union!

To protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security...vote union!

For the freedom to organize and bargain collectively...vote union!

For the infrastructure we deserve...vote union!

For trade that actually lifts workers up...vote union!

For our members...for America...for each other.


Brothers and sisters, when I think about the attacks against us...from corporations...from the Supreme Court...from too many politicians...I get angry. And sometimes, I even get discouraged.

But on the darkest of days, I remember something my grandmother used to tell me. Stana tupe benne. In Italian, it means: from everything comes some good.

Now you might be wondering….what good can come from right to work and Janus and the proposals to gut our financial, health care and retirement security?

The answer is this. The vicious attacks on our unions have brought us closer together.

Our bond is stronger. Our memory is longer.

Remember, throughout the entire history of our movement, we’ve never had anything handed to us.

Every speck of progress was clawed from the hands of those who said we were asking too much...who tried to destroy us with one hand and dismissed us as radicals with the other. They considered us a conspiracy in restraint of trade. They said dignity...fairness...a safe job...were too much to ask.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition, we steadily built a fairer economy and a more just society...because we had one advantage on our side: Solidarity.

American greatness...American decency...the American Dream itself was built through solidarity...as workers joined arms and marched forward as one in common cause.

Each time they fired us...or shot at us...or told us to sit down and shut up...we grew stronger.

Bonded by a common struggle, working people kept fighting and discovered a fundamental truth that carries us to this day: You can’t stop ALL of us.

We are an unassailable force when—and only when—we stand together.

I remember back when my son Richard was young—maybe three or four years old. He and his buddy Chad were driving around in the backyard in one of those battery operated jeeps.

He must have heard me talking on the phone, because he drove up and asked: “Dad, what’s a union?”

So I told him to get out of the jeep and try to push it up the hill in our backyard. He strained and struggled, but he couldn’t get it up the hill. Then I told his friend Chad to give him a hand. Working together, they got the job done. I looked right at my son and said: “That’s a union...people doing things together that they can’t do alone.”

On the shores of Lake Ontario, Sarah Wells found hope and a better life in that union.

In the coalfields of Pennsylvania, my family found purpose and a path forward in that union.

On the roofs of Spokane, Washington, Kinsey Robinson found his voice in that union.

I know each of you could tell a similar story.

And as long as I have breath in these lungs, I will not rest until EVERY WORKER has that same opportunity.

So, our enemies want a fight? I say, bring it on! We've taken their best shot, and we're still standing.

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.

Because we’re the ones who wake our nation up every single morning. We tuck her into bed at night. We build the roofs and mine the coal. We lift the loads. We pour the molds. We connect our cities and the world. We teach, heal and make. We package, print and bake. We make this country strong. We don’t duck and run. We don’t run and hide. We’re the American labor movement, and we will not...WE WILL NOT...be denied!

Thank you. God bless you all!

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