Speech | Better Pay and Benefits · Labor Law · Civil Rights

Trumka to SMART: Change Comes From Standing Together in Unions

Las Vegas, Nevada

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the SMART General Convention:

Thank you, Brother Joe (Sellers). You are an outstanding trade unionist and a true friend. You, Brother Richard (McClees), Brother John (Previsich) and the entire SMART team are doing an incredible job leading this union forward. 

Your convention theme, “Focus on the Future,” is exactly what the labor movement must do in these challenging times. And quite frankly, we can all learn a lot from SMART’s experience. 

In an era where mergers are few and far between, this union found a way to come together and combine forces, building SMART into the powerhouse that it is today. It wasn’t easy. The Sheet Metal Workers and the UTU had different memberships and perspectives and real disagreements. But by putting egos aside and embracing your common values and common vision, you have positioned the members of SMART to win more at the bargaining table and in the halls of power. And let’s never forget Joe Nigro’s role in making that possible. 

Today, your apprenticeship programs are second to none. You are a force on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures across the country. Because of your leadership, New Mexico recently became the first state in the nation to require that fire control systems are properly inspected and repaired. In Washington D.C., you are the strongest possible advocate for modern infrastructure and rail worker safety. Your commitment to providing disaster relief within 24 hours is a model for the entire labor movement. Your capital strategies work exposed CBRE’s blatant misuse of mandatory arbitration. And your member to member substance abuse and mental health support program is providing hope and saving lives. This tremendous record of accomplishment was made possible through the combined strengths and expertise of the Sheet Metal Workers AND the UTU. That’s the power of SMART! 

As you may know, the AFL-CIO formed a Commission on the Future of Work and Unions. We have spent the past year looking at ways for working people to shape innovation and capture a bigger piece of the pie. President Sellers has been an invaluable member of our commission, sharing the details of your merger process with other union leaders and making the case for consolidation as a tool for building power. Brothers and sisters, you are very fortunate to have a visionary leadership team guided by Joe Sellers!

I will spend a good deal of my time here today focusing on the future. But I simply cannot ignore what is happening right now. The recent mass slaughter of innocent life in El Paso and Dayton is weighing heavy on my heart. It was less than two years ago that a madman stood from a perch just down the street at Mandalay Bay and committed the worst mass shooting in American history. Since then, there’s been massacres at schools and stores and synagogues. And our political system—with its division and distraction and outright incompetence—has failed to deliver a coherent solution to this national crisis. 

Americans are being scapegoated, minimized, dehumanized and told to go back where they came from. Racist dog whistles have been replaced with megaphones. Women are openly degraded and discriminated. The free press is under attack. The very foundation of our democracy is being chipped away. 

And America’s welcome mat, long a beacon of hope for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including my parents, is being bulldozed and paved over, replaced with a clear message: “you’re not welcome here.” The El Paso shooter traveled more than 600 miles to kill Mexican immigrants. Let that sink in for a minute. 

In moments like this, it is easy to say America has lost her way. But I think it’s even worse than that. The forces of greed in our nation, both elected and not, are pulling America apart...deliberately and strategically...in order to line their own pockets. 

Dr. King called the labor-hater and the race-baiter a twin-headed creature. He understood that the guardians of the status quo want us poor, weak and divided. Today, they are laughing all the way to the bank.

The cure for this cancer has always been the same: solidarity. 

I’m talking about real solidarity, not empty gestures and bandwagon posturing. The type of solidarity where the outcome is still uncertain—like with your merger—and it may cost you in the short-term. Solidarity is most important when times are tough and disagreements are strong—when it’s so dark, you can’t see your hand in front of your face.  How we respond to the challenges and opportunities of today...and in the days to come...will define who and what we are as a labor movement, as a nation and as a generation. 

Together, we are the strongest force for good in the history of the world. Apart, we are nothing more than competing tribes fighting over the scraps that fall off the table. 

Brothers and sisters, this is a moment for unions. We bring people together. We bargain contracts where no one, and I mean no one, is left behind. 

So my message today is this: If you want to change the direction of this country, if you want to beat back hate, if you want to save our democracy and win a new day for America’s workers, come join us in the labor movement! 

Brothers and sisters, are you with me? 

In the richest country in the world...at our richest point in history...every worker should be paid enough to support their family. One job should be enough! 

No one should go broke just because they get sick. 

No one should be afraid of dying at work or school or the mall. 

No one should earn less because of their gender. 

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. 

This is our time. This is our moment. This is our country. And we’re taking it back for the people who work! 

Brothers and sisters, I want to take a few minutes today to talk about the president of the United States. He is not normally a big part of my speeches for two main reasons. First, attention is his oxygen. And second, our movement is so much bigger than one politician, even a president. 

But Donald Trump needs to be challenged, confronted and more often than not, condemned. Our labor movement is a family. And like most families across America, we don’t always agree. 37 percent of AFL-CIO affiliated-union members voted for this president. In SMART, I know that number was higher. Honestly, I’m not surprised.

I wasn’t surprised that some working people turned away from a party that gave us NAFTA, taxed our health care plans and took Wall Street referees off the field. I wasn’t surprised that working people didn’t go running to a presidential candidate who called TPP the gold standard and said she would put coal miners out of business...and her running mate who is STILL one of the only Senate Democrats refusing to cosponsor labor law reform.

I strongly believe the 2016 election was an indictment of political elites in both parties that for too long have embraced policies that hold down wages, increase inequality, diminish opportunity and ship American jobs overseas. 

In between his divisive and hateful rhetoric, Donald Trump made promises that spoke directly to working people. He promised to protect American jobs, fix NAFTA and invest in infrastructure. He ripped Wall Street greed and pledged his commitment to changing the economic rules. Well, he’s changed them all right—but not to benefit any of us.

Wall Street got another windfall tax cut. The new NAFTA is still more NAFTA than new. We haven’t spent a penny on infrastructure and President Trump stormed out of a negotiation with Congress because his feelings got hurt. Can you imagine this happening at the bargaining table? 

Workplace safety regulations have been gutted. Trump’s appointed Supreme Court justices cast the deciding votes imposing national right to work on the public sector. The administration is proposing massive cuts to Amtrak and wants to replace union registered apprenticeships with what I like to call I-CRAPS. Let me be clear: The government should be focusing on actually enforcing our labor laws. Leave the apprenticeships to us! 

Just last week in Mississippi, immigration authorities came into OUR workplaces to deport OUR members. And Antonin Scalia’s son, a management side lawyer with a history of union-busting, may soon be the next Secretary of Labor. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, President Trump has spent much of his time in office tearing people down and ripping our country apart at the seams. He 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. That’s what bullies do. The biggest gap between the last two presidents isn’t policy—it’s decency.

But here is the good news. The change voters cried out for in the 2016 election can be found by standing together in unions. That’s why we are more committed than ever to helping working people win a voice on the job. And it’s why we are focused on passing 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. 

It protects the right to strike. It rolls back right to work. 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 across the bargaining table from them. 

So we need to contact our members of Congress. Republicans and Democrats. Tell them to do their jobs so we can do ours. Urge them to pass the PRO Act at once!

People want a voice on the job. Solidarity, the fundamental belief that we are stronger together than we are apart...and the core principle that led to the creation of SMART...is being embraced in every corner of this country. At a time when our politics and our culture wants us isolated and angry and ready to blame, working people are instead turning to each other. Union approval is at 62 percent, the highest in 16 years. 2018 was the biggest year for collective action in a generation. And MIT found that more than 60 million workers would vote to join a union today if given the chance.

Let’s go sign them up!

Let’s respond to hate with love!

Let’s respond to division with solidarity!

Let’s respond to fear with hope! 

Let’s respond to crisis with unshakable commitment!

Let’s strategize! Let’s organize! Let’s mobilize!

Let’s show this country what we’re made of! 

Part of focusing on the future requires a plan to do better in 2020. 

At our 2017 AFL-CIO Convention, we passed a resolution committing the labor movement to electing more union members to public office. 

In the nearly two years since, that’s exactly what we’ve done. 

In 2018, SMART members won state house seats in Arizona, Connecticut and Montana. You were part of a national worker wave. Because of our efforts recruiting, training and supporting labor candidates, we added more than 960 union members to the halls of power. 

And that’s led to the passage of pro-worker legislation from coast to coast and everywhere in between. 

Brothers and sisters, we need to do even more in 2020. 

I had the opportunity to speak before the most recent presidential debate in Detroit. I let all the candidates and the entire country know one thing: the labor movement will not settle for a union-ambivalent Democrat. 

We deserve better. We’re demanding better. And we can win better. 

Better than a president who promises the world and then gives us the shaft. Better than Democrats who take our money and then forget who got them elected in the first place. Better than cookie cutter politicians who think a rising stock market is more important than rising wages.

We need a pro-union president!

That means 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 and pro-union.

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 filling the NLRB, the Labor Department, every single government agency and the courts with champions of collective bargaining.

And 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.

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 so far, a handful of campaigns have secured union cards. I hope others will follow suit.

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 80 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, but CEO profits are at record highs!

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.

We’re going to fight for the best transportation and infrastructure in the world where trains have two qualified crew members...a conductor AND an engineer.

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 fix the roofs, ride the rails and lift the loads. We care for the sick. We keep America warm in the winter and cool in the summer. 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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