Speech | Better Pay and Benefits

Trumka at RWDSU Convention: Our Values Show Us the Way Forward

Atlanta, Georgia

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the RWDSU convention: 

Good morning, RWDSU! It is great to be with you today. Thank you, Stuart (Appelbaum), for that kind introduction. Let’s hear it for your president Stuart Appelbaum! Stuart and I have been serving together on the AFL-CIO Executive Council since 1998. He is a man of courage, conviction and compassion. I am proud to call him a brother and a friend. Now, you may not know this but Stuart recently spoke on behalf of the AFL-CIO at a conference put together by Pope Francis. I thought: who better to make our case at the Vatican than a progressive, gay, Jewish labor organizer from New York City?

On Tuesday, I will be speaking at Seton Hall University in New Jersey to reflect on what Pope Francis has meant to working people five years after his election. As a Catholic, I am grateful to have a Pope that shares my values. I also know “Standing for Our Values” is the theme of this convention. And I can think of nothing more fitting. Our values unite us. They sustain us. They provide light in darkness. Our values show us the way forward.

It is truly special to be with you in the great city of Atlanta. In his 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference here, Dr. King said and I quote: “We must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values.” Those words ring true today.

50 years later, our economic system is still designed to hold us down. Corporations and politicians have conspired to suppress wages, slash benefits and dismantle rights. It’s way too easy to have a dangerous workplace and way too hard to form a union. The richest 400 Americans hold more wealth than all 16 million African-American households combined. These outcomes are not inevitable. Our economy is nothing more than a set of rules. Those rules are written by the men and women we elect. They decide the winners and the losers. For too long, those rules have been written to enrich corporations at our expense. But here is the good news: we can choose to do better. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Working people are massively asserting our dignity and worth. We are standing up and speaking out. We are mobilizing and organizing and strategizing. And we are embracing the unassailable and majestic values that make our movement the single greatest force for social progress in history. It’s working! Union membership rose by more than a quarter of a million members last year. 260,000 more lives were transformed by the power of collective bargaining and lifted by unionism’s rising tide. And you helped lead the way. From H&M to Zara, from Autoneum to EchoLab, from poultry plants to car washes, the RWDSU is an organizing union!

I am particularly inspired by the work you are doing here in the South. Your Alabama council has doubled, growing from 5,000 to 10,000 members. And while you were organizing, you found the time and energy to make sure Judge Roy Moore never steps foot in the United States Senate. Finally, here in Georgia, despite resistance from local management and a difficult political climate, workers at Nestle said YES to the RWDSU.

One of those workers is Kim Carmichael. She’s been at the plant for 16 years. Currently, she leads the team that picks up orders for shipping. For much of her time at Nestle, she’s been driving a forklift. It’s tough work. And the hours can be long. She became increasingly frustrated with how management was dealing with workers. “We needed change,” she said. “Things weren’t being done fairly. You’d be getting different answers and even different discipline from different supervisors. It was frustrating.”

Kim met a union organizer and started going to meetings. And that’s when Nestle brought in HR reps to intimidate her. They told Kim the union was bad and that she would lose wages and go out on strike. But the workers hung together. And just last week, they secured their very first union contract.

Brothers and sisters, if we can organize in the South, we can organize anywhere. Our opponents are well-funded and ruthless. They’ve rigged the rules. They’ve called us names. They’ve lied. They’ve fired us. They’ve told us unions aren’t welcome. I say, bring it on! We've taken your best shot and we're still standing. We’re strong. We’re powerful. We’re united. And you ain't seen nothing yet!

We’ve been on our heels for too long. The RWDSU is proving what’s possible when we go on offense. Let’s drop our shield, pick up two swords and come out swinging.

We want a good job for everyone in America who wants to work. That means the freedom to bargain with your employer for a fair wage and a good life.

We want health care as a fundamental human right.

We should be expanding Medicare to cover everyone 55 and older. We should rein in the power and influence of drug companies. And we should repeal the tax on union health plans once and for all.

We want retirement security. Real retirement security!  Let’s expand Social Security and protect our pensions. Bigger and better, brothers and sisters.

We want the best infrastructure in the world. Roads. Bridges. Rail. High speed internet. Water that doesn’t poison our citizens.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s plan is just another Wall Street giveaway. It includes only a fraction of the federal dollars needed to rebuild our infrastructure. It pits rural and urban communities against each other. And it embraces privatization. We can do better. Congress MUST do better! We need trillions of dollars in investment. That’s trillions with a T. Let’s rebuild America with union labor and prevailing wages.

We want a fair tax system. That’s why we strongly opposed President Trump’s new tax law. It’s a windfall for the country's richest and most powerful corporate interests and actually gives employers even more incentives to ship American jobs overseas.

And speaking of outsourcing, we want a new direction on trade that upholds labor rights and ends special privileges for corporations. As a candidate, President Trump promised to bring work back to our shores. Yet more than 106,000 American jobs have been lost to foreign trade since the election. Our trade deficit with China recently hit an all-time record. And NAFTA continues to wreak havoc on our manufacturing communities.

Last but not least, we need to stop terrorizing immigrant workers. These are our brothers and sisters. I am sick and tired of the political games. I am sick and tired of employers cheating, exploiting and misclassifying immigrant workers. What hurts you hurts me. What’s lifts me up lifts you up. Let’s give immigrants a path to citizenship so we can all rise together as one American family.

These issues are the backbone of our political program. We are committed to electing leaders who share our values and support our issues, regardless of what party they belong to. And we’re going to hold every single one of them accountable once elected. This will help us build the political strength and credibility to finally level the playing field for working families. And while we’re at it, let’s elect more union members to public office!

At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. King spoke about the dreams he had for his young children. In 2016, our family was blessed with the arrival of my grandson Trey. He’s not even two years old yet. But it’s incredible to watch the world through his eyes. The wonder. The discovery. I can’t help but sit up at night and think about what kind of America he’ll be inheriting. Ultimately, Trey will be fine. He was fortunate to be born into a loving family with means and opportunity. But for millions of working people today, that American Dream simply does not exist. Brothers and sisters, WE HAVE TO BUILD IT! For Trey’s generation and mine. For millenials and baby boomers. For the white man working harder for less and the black woman making only 63 cents on the dollar. For the immigrant worker who lives in fear. For the LGBTQ person who wants nothing more than to be themselves. WE HAVE TO BUILD IT!

The title of Dr. King’s 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “Where Do We Go From Here?” It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves in the labor movement for some time. As we prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, where he sacrificed his life for workers’ rights in another great Southern city, I submit the answer is right in front of us. It’s in every union hall I visit and every picket line I stand on. It’s in the West Virginia teachers demanding better. It’s in the brave immigrants yearning to come out of the shadows. It’s in the working women who are saying #MeToo and enough is enough. And it’s in the determination of union members who continue to amaze me every single day.

Where do we go from here? WE GO UP! United by our values. Inspired by our mission.

Because we’re the ones who wake America every single morning. We tuck her into bed at night. We build the cars, planes and infrastructure, lift the loads, drive the buses and ship the goods, pour the molds, connect our cities and the world. We wash the cars and prepare the food. We teach, heal and make. We package, print and bake. From the East Coast to the West Coast, and down here in the South, we make America strong. We don’t duck and run. We don’t run and hide. We are the American labor movement, and we will not be denied! Thank you. God bless you. God bless the work you do!

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