Speech | Better Pay and Benefits

Trumka at UMWA Inauguration: Listen to Working People

Morgantown, West Virginia

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the United Mine Workers of America inauguration of international officers and district representatives:

Good morning, brothers and sisters. Brother Bob (Phalen), thank you for that introduction. Senator (Joe) Manchin, Congressman (David) McKinley, Sister Sara (Nelson), thank you all for being here to mark this auspicious occasion. And to the newly elected leaders of the UMWA: President Cecil Roberts, Secretary-Treasurer Levi Allen, Don Barnett, James Gibbs, Donnie Samms, Chuck Knisell, Steve Earle, Gary Trout, Larry Spencer, Mike Dalpiaz, Rick Altman, Roy Fernandez, Tanya James and Jody Dukart...congratulations. You get to represent the greatest union members in the world.

36 years ago, on Christmas week at the Charleston Civic Center, I raised my right hand and took the oath of office as president of the United Mine Workers of America. I was 33. It was one of the greatest days of my life. I was sworn in by my dad, who gave his heart and his life to this union...and Biondi Vecchiolla, a pensioner from my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, who was a mentor and a friend. I am older today than my father was then. Man, how time flies.

Earlier this year, I received my 50-year pin in this union. The UMWA is who I am. It’s who I’ll always be. My job at the AFL-CIO has afforded me the opportunity to meet with presidents and prime ministers. I’ve traveled the world. But no association has ever given me more pride than being president of the Mine Workers. At my inauguration in 1982, in a room filled with emotion and passion and hope, I said: “I do not hesitate to proclaim to the world that you represent the best that America has to offer.” Brothers and sisters, I feel the same way today.

Standing before you, it’s impossible not to be filled with immense gratitude. I’ve been so blessed. I think about the great partners I’ve had in this journey. People like Cecil Roberts, John Banovic, Jerry Jones, Carlo Turley, Paul Lemmon, Rich Barchesi and Bob Long. These are the men who raised me, who inspire me and who taught me about unionism and life.

These are the men who helped put this union back where it belongs: in the hands of its members. Before democracy won out at the UMWA, 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.

I’m a student of the Civil War. It’s my hobby. I’m amazed that in every story, every battle, they talk about the generals. But they never mention the foot soldiers. The common man and common woman who joined together to do uncommon things. That’s what we did with Miners for Democracy. We said the UMWA was put on this earth for its members to have a better life, not for its leaders to have a higher status. And you could feel a changing of the guard that day at the Charleston Civic Center. It was the first time we held our inauguration in coal country. It was the first time this event was opened up to the rank and file membership. And one thing I remember on that beautiful, sunny day, is that people stopped looking at their shoes. They didn’t look down anymore. This was their union.

That is the legacy you are charged with carrying on today. And I can’t think of a finer group of men and women to do it. The most important piece of advice I can give you is to listen more and talk less. Leadership is listening. Democracy is listening. That's how we are able to understand the message people are trying to tell us.

Working people are delivering a message in America today. We are sick and tired of an economy and a political system that doesn’t work for us. We are embracing the fundamental truth that the best way to raise our own standing in life is by standing with the person next to us.

For the past two years, pundits have been trying to figure out exactly what happened in 2016. Well, the people in this room can tell you the answer. 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. Donald Trump offered a different face and a different voice and promised to deliver change to working people, and especially to our coal communities. Well, he’s changed things alright, further entrenching power in the hands of the wealthy elite.

Brothers and sisters, the change voters cried out for in 2016 can be found by standing together in unions. 262,000 new members joined us last year. Three-quarters of them were under the age of 35. Gallup just put our popularity at 62 percent—a 15-year high. New research from MIT shows that half of non-union workers would vote for a union today if given the chance. And I am confident that we’re going to build on this momentum next week by electing union members and our allies to office all over the country, no matter what political party they happen to belong to.

I stand before you today as hopeful as I was Christmas 1982. Collective action is on the rise. Unionism is on the move. And the United Mine Workers of America, as always, is at the center of it all. God bless this union. God bless this country. And God bless each and every one of you.

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