Speech | Better Pay and Benefits

Trumka Talks Democracy at United Steelworkers Swearing In Ceremony

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the swearing in ceremony for officers of the United Steelworkers: 

Brothers and sisters of the executive board and officers of the United Steelworkers, I’m proud to stand with you today.

First off, Brother Leo [Gerard], I want to thank you, your fellow officers and your entire executive board for your leadership and service to the working men and women of the United Steelworkers, the AFL-CIO and indeed the world.  Each and every one of you is a trade unionist to your core, and I’m proud to stand alongside you in our movement for working families.

When I came into union politics more than 40 years ago, it was because I believed in a movement called Miners for Democracy. Before democracy won out, you couldn’t see your own contract. If you thought you had a grievance, you’d be told, “No. You’ll have a grievance when I tell you you have a grievance.” It was a recipe for corruption, and all the ills that go along with it: worse pay and more accidents and injuries, more roof falls, more Black Lung and more death.

Brothers and sisters, I don’t need to tell you the crisis of unionism we face in America, and I don’t need to tell you this comes down to a need for democracy. We need it here in the United States, where every single worker needs the freedom to negotiate in a union with employers about pay, workplace safety, benefits and retirement. You don’t get something when you don’t ask for it. Asking for it… standing for it… and fighting for it… is how we’ll win it.

The same is true when it comes to our political work on Capitol Hill and in state houses and county courthouses and city halls all across this country, and quite frankly across the continent.

That’s why when it comes to electoral programs and advocacy, we’re putting our issues out front, leading our politics. We don’t work for anybody but workers. In the service of workers, we will work with anybody, because America needs more politicians of every stripe who will put the interests of working people front and center. I’m serious about this. We want more pro-union Republicans and fewer corporate Democrats, so we can write new economic rules to level the playing field for working people.

Last year about this time, some independent trade unionists from Mexico came to the Washington, and we met at the AFL-CIO to talk about, among other things, the need for independent and democratic unionism in Mexico. Among those union leaders were several representatives of Los Mineros, who told something of their struggles against company unions.

To be honest with you, those Mexican trade unionists have been on my mind a lot over this past year, especially after the White House reopened the North American Free Trade Agreement.

There’s no easy way for me to say what happened next. You know as well as I how Los Mineros tried to negotiate a contract with the owners and managers of the Media Luna mine owned by a Canadian mining company called Torex Gold. You know, as I do, how a corrupt company union signed a contract with the mine instead, guaranteeing low pay and dangerous conditions. You know that 600 workers went on strike for a democratic voice on the job on November third last year, how gunmen killed two brothers.

In January, a courageous activist named Quintin Salgado was on his way to the strikers barricade when he was stopped, pulled from his vehicle. His cell phone was destroyed. He was beaten and threatened. He continued his activism. A week later, on January 22, Quintin was killed.

Brothers and sisters, there is one great battle from the southern border of Mexico to the Bering Strait, and it is for democracy, a voice on the job, good pay and a good life for working people. Democracy is messy. It’s loud. It’s imperfect, as are all human endeavors, but it is also excellent. The fight of Los Mineros for democratic unionism is my fight, too. I know the United Steelworkers are neck-deep in this struggle, and God bless you for it.

Back during the days of the Miners for Democracy, before we had regained control of the UMWA, the United Steelworkers was a beacon of hope, an example of how unions could and should be run, openly and democratically. In fact, your democratic tradition is the longest in our labor movement, dating back nearly 75 years. Your commitment is clear and powerful: one member, one vote. That’s as simple as it is beautiful.

A spirit of openness and democracy in our unions and in American society will lead us toward greater power in the workplace, and in our politics. We will bring that spirit to the NAFTA negotiations, and to our work in electoral politics. With it will come our passion and fire. Openness and democracy will lead to greater diversity. We need it. We have plans to achieve it, and I know you do, too. All of this together will help us organize in growing sectors of the economy, and educate more people about the transformative potential of a contract on the job. Democracy leads to activism and engagement.

I want to celebrate your activism and engagement. I want to congratulate all of you the honor you have to serve your union and our movement. And I know you will foster its growth. Thank you. 

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