Trumka to UAW Convention: Unionism Will Transform America

Detroit, Michigan

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the 37th UAW Constitutional Convention:


Good morning! It’s great to be with you! What a welcome! Thank you… and thank you, Brother Dennis [Williams], for your generous introduction.

Brothers and sisters, your president isn’t one to talk much about his legacy, but I want to say a few words about him. I’ve watched his stewardship of the UAW. He has made hard decisions. He has made responsible choices at every turn. When it comes to your contracts, he knows how to make solidarity real… to translate it into dollars and cents at the bargaining table. That’s a big deal. Dennis is a powerful union leader, a close ally of mine and a tremendous friend. I’m proud to call him my union brother. As I get into my remarks, Dennis, I just want to say thank you, congratulations on your term as president of the UAW, and God bless you, brother, for everything you do and everything you are.

The UAW is an awesome union. You show us all what unionism can be. You show us with your contracts, your organizing and your mobilizing… and you show us with your long and passionate commitment to social justice. From the way you lifted up the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the entire civil rights movement, to the brave stand you took with Owen Bieber back in 1986, partnering with my union, the United Mine Workers, to help end apartheid in South Africa.

Brothers and sisters, the well-being of working people in America is tied to the well-being of the United Auto Workers. When you thrive, we all do.

And I want you to know that the entire AFL-CIO stands with you in every one of your fights. Whatever you need is what you’ll get.

Over the past few years, the UAW has engaged in some high profile organizing campaigns. You’ve added something like 20,000 members since your last convention. That’s powerful. It’s also true that you’ve gone up against some incredible anti-union campaigns. Some of those votes came up short, and that’s painful… especially for each and every worker in Tennessee and Mississippi and all the places where people still want and need the security that comes with a union contract.

You know, someone with a short-term point of view might score those organizing drives as losses, but I want you to consider what happened with teachers in West Virginia this year... in Oklahoma, North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky and across red state America. I want you to consider how unionism has been growing as a mass movement in this country. I believe your campaigns… ALL OF THEM… have helped unleash a new and growing movement for solidarity in America.

You lit that spark.

This is big, and it’s just the beginning.  

Something is happening in America! Unionism is on the rise. Our popularity has been growing for years. It’s well over 60%, the highest in nearly two decades, and it’s even higher among young workers. Listen to this: 75% of workers under 30 have a favorable view of unions, including 55% of young Republicans. Recently, 15,000 people formed unions in just a single week… and thousands of those workers were Harvard grad students who joined the UAW!

That was a major victory at Harvard. You had another at Columbia and another with university workers in Washington State. You’ve organized new members at agricultural plants and auto parts suppliers.

And when you went down to Canton, Mississippi and fought hard for Nissan workers against a wall-to-wall campaign of frankly illegal and immoral intimidation, you let regular working people know that the rich and powerful don’t hold all the cards. We will win some. We might come up short, but we’ll be back. And we will always stand up and fight for what we believe. Always. They don’t get to make every decision. This is our country, too!

Brothers and sisters, unionism is the key. When we stand together, we have the power.

We’re not going to be held down or pushed around. We refuse to be walked over, talked over or told to sit down and shut up.

It is time… it is high time… for us to take America back! We’re the ones who build the cars and teach the classes. We make the roads, bake the bread 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. We’re the American labor movement, and we will not be denied!

Brothers and sisters, I want to talk for a moment about your auto contracts, because with them you illustrate something very important.

Back during the financial crisis, the UAW made deep sacrifices to give your employers a path forward. Your research team did its homework. Your bargaining teams did as well. It wasn’t easy, but you helped get America’s auto industry back on its feet… and by doing so, positioned yourself to win a better piece of the pie in your last round of bargaining.

Workers who had been making $19 an hour will take home $31 by the end of this contract. And on top of that are your hard-earned profit-sharing checks.

Let me tell you something: $5,500 at Chrysler… and that’s in a down year... to more than $11,000 at GM... is a lot of money. Those raises and those profit-sharing checks are life-changing. Your contracts lift up families, communities and our entire country.  

With our unions, we have the power to transform lives for the better. A lot of people don’t understand that. Too many political pundits divide working people by race and class and a dozen other distinctions, but I’ve seen how collective bargaining can change all that and bring the most diverse people together around a common purpose.

Our unions can and will transform lives… and unionism can and will transform America.

As we stand together… as more Americans see us exercise our collective power… more people will be inspired to join us.

Our job today, and every day heading into the midterm elections, is to turn our activism into real political power by continuing to build momentum for an independent and issue-based agenda for working people. We want… and we’re going to win... a new set of economic rules so regular people can get ahead.

And after the election, we’re going to turn around and use our electoral momentum to win more organizing fights and win better contracts! We’re building a better America!

That’s what President Trump promised us, but that’s not what he’s delivered. Instead of progress, we got a historic, budget-busting tax giveaway for multinational corporations, Wall Street and billionaires. Instead of new economic rules, we got repeated efforts to dynamite the Affordable Care Act, and as a result we’ve got rising out-of-pocket costs and unjustifiably high prescription drug prices, and we’re still staring down the barrel of a wholly unfair tax on middle class health care plans, which will only push prices for working people even higher.

Instead of leveling the playing field for working people, we’ve endured rollbacks on Wall Street reform and a Supreme Court stacked against us… a Supreme Court that’s likely to side with the corporate right-wing in Janus any day now. That whole case from beginning to end is nothing more than a gross attempt by a dark web of anti-worker interests to attack the political power of unions.

But let me tell you something. We will not fear the attacks against us. We won’t fear right to work. We won’t fear Janus. We won’t fear any of it. Our movement is bigger than our institutions. Our power comes from the connections between us. Our solidarity is bigger than any politician or judge or disgruntled public employee. It can’t be measured. It can’t be seen. But I can feel it, and I know you can, too.

The corporate billionaires can’t touch our solidarity... . yet when they attack our institutions… when they attack our ability to fight for our members and our communities… when they attack our ability to harness political power for working people… we’ll fight back. We will fight back against every attack on working people, and we’ll fight hard… we’ll fight to win!

As we fight… as we educate our members… as we campaign this summer and fall, we’ll spell out our independent worker agenda again and again. We don’t work for any political party. We work for workers, because we want more Republicans who will break rank and stand with working people. And while we’re at it, we want fewer Democrats who take our money and energy and then forget who got them elected in the first place.

We want working family champions. Bold, fearless leaders who say “UNION” loud and proud, and not just on Labor Day.

Today, we have too many politicians who think inequality is inevitable. They claim the free market will solve all of our problems. They worship at the altar of tax cuts. And they tell us we have no say over whether our job is outsourced or automated.

Well, I’ve got news for them. The economy ain’t like the weather. It’s shaped by rules, which are set by the people we elect. We’re going to elect folks who will write new economic rules, so working people can choose unions without being terrified and terrorized. We want good trade, so Mexican trade unionists can lift pay there without being murdered and wages can rise here at home. We want Wall Street and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, so every community in America can have world-class public schools, safe roads and bridges and clean drinking water. And we want technology to be used as a force for good, not greed.

That’s not too much to ask. We want everybody to have access to the American Dream. We want regular people to be able to work hard and get ahead. We want fairness. We want dignity. We want health care when we need it and a secure retirement after decades of hard work.

We’ll fight for it. We’ll stand for it. We’ll march for it. We’ll chant for it. We’ll rise in solidarity… real solidarity… where your picket line is my picket line, and my picket line is your picket line. We’ll join! We’ll fight! We’ll win! For you. For me. For every one of us and every worker in America!

We’re living in a time of great political change, brothers and sisters. Let’s lead our country forward. Let’s continue to build an issue-based movement. Let’s keep talking to our members. Let’s fight for those who fight for us.

The corporate right-wing is going all out for our blood, but take heart because America is hungry for unity. The road ahead is hard, but nothing… and I mean nothing in this world can beat working people standing together. We’re the most powerful force there is… when we’re organized, mobilized and primed to act.

It’s time, brothers and sisters. Our opponents are rich and ruthless. They’ve rigged the rules. They’ve held down our pay. They’ve attacked our health care. They’ve tried to kill our pensions, destroy our jobs and leave us begging for scraps.

Well guess what? Their time is up. Unions are on the move. In every city and every state. Young and old. Black and white. Immigrant and native-born. Gay and straight. Rural and urban. Republican and Democrat. We organized 262,000 workers last year alone. And we’re just getting started.

Our labor movement is ready. We’re spoiling for a fight. I say, bring it on! We've taken their best shot, and we're still standing. We’re fearless. We’re strong. We’re powerful. We’re united.

And you ain't seen nothing yet!