Trumka to Washington State Labor Council Convention: This is a Moment for Unions

Seattle, Washington

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks Washington State Labor Council Convention:

Thank you, Brother Larry (Brown), for that very kind introduction. You and sister April (Sims) have done an incredible job bringing this state’s labor movement together. That’s what leadership is all about. It’s great to be back in Seattle. This is a union town! 

I know you are marking the centennial of the 1919 Seattle General Strike. What a legacy. On Saturday, I’ll be heading to rural Virginia to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Pittston Coal Strike, a worker uprising I was proud to help lead. I carry those workers with me each and every day. I think about the courage they had. What kept them going—month after month—in the face of one of the most powerful companies in the country? In that same vein, what led an entire city to walk off the job 100 years ago? And, what is motivating teachers...and hotel workers...and Amazon employees to say enough is enough?

I would argue the answer is solidarity, the fundamental belief that we are stronger together than we are apart. 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 nearly half of non-union workers would vote to join a union today if given the chance. 

I got my start in the labor movement more than 50 years ago. And I’ve never been more confident in the power of working people.. Something is happening in America. You can see it. You can hear it. You can feel it.

Yet even on our brightest days, it is impossible to ignore the daily atrocities committed in the land that we love. 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. The courts have made it easier for politicians to practically handpick their constituents, instead of the other way around.

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.”

Some 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. 

The Washington State Labor Council recognized this dangerous path from the very start. You warned us that the rise of right-wing populism would require a robust counter attack. Not on behalf of one issue or one group. This fight has to be bigger. All of us or none of us. 

Your work on Initiative 1000 is a reminder that labor and civil rights have always been intertwined. 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. Donald Trump is a symptom of the problem. He capitalized on anxiety, fear and divisions that have been sowed by the ruling class since the dawn of time. They were alive and well in Seattle in 1919...and the coalfields of Virginia in 1989…and remain on every street corner in America today. 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, 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. 

The steelworker who lost his job to unfair trade. The nurse who worries about her son being shot by another student at school, or profiled by a police officer on the way home. The immigrant housekeeper who is forced to hide in the shadows every time the government threatens an ICE raid. The gay or trans kid who wants nothing more than to be accepted for who they are. The autoworker concerned about automation. The coal miner who wants to combat climate change but also wants to keep their pension. Every parent who dreams of giving their children a better life. This is our story. This is our country. 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 die on the job. 

No one should make 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! 

When it comes to putting unions front and center, the Washington State Labor Council has been a great example for the rest of the country. Seattle is one of the three cities we have chosen through our Presidents’ Organizing Initiative. I know Brother Larry and Sister April are very proud of this. Unions from across the labor movement are coming together right here in Seattle  to organize, win and support each other’s work.

How many of you followed the strike at an Amazon warehouse in Minnesota last week? It was inspiring to see those workers take on this corporate giant and walk off the job for safe and reliable working conditions.

That strike built on the progress being made for in Seattle. Amazon had been contracting out janitorial services for its headquarters to an anti-union third party vendor called SIS Security. Over the past few years, workers have consistently fought for Amazon to hold its security contractor responsible for better working conditions with the goal of organizing with SEIU Local 6. Well, in May of this year, the workers finally won when Amazon ousted SIS and replaced it with two unionized contractors. 

Amazon employees have also shown signs of standing together, embracing the type of solidarity and collective action popping up at Google and in the video game industry. Both the Presidents’ Organizing Initiative and the AFL-CIO Commission on the Future of Work and Unions are looking for ways to capture this momentum and expand the labor movement into these rapidly growing industries. 

But to be successful, we need the ability to organize on a level playing field. And that’s why I am so excited that your senator, Patty Murray, recently introduced the most important piece of legislation in a long, long time. It’s called the PRO Act—Protecting the Right to Organize. In other words, letting 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. 

In other words, it makes the fight fair again. 

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! 

We are also going on offense to win a better, fairer, NAFTA. Listen, I know this is a city that has a long history with NAFTA and the WTO. And, I know how difficult these fights have been here, especially with some of our friends. 

Let’s be clear. We support trade. 

For too long, if you opposed a trade agreement for any reason, you were belittled as a protectionist. But our movement is trying to shape globalization...not stop it. 

We are working to change the debate by focusing on trade rules, the structures that, for too long, have killed jobs and lowered wages.

This isn’t a matter of whether or not to trade. Of course, we should open up new markets for our products and do business with people all over the world. 

The real challenge is to advance trade policy that creates shared prosperity and makes the world stronger and safer. By that standard, NAFTA has been a miserable failure. 

Unfortunately, the current new NAFTA proposal being championed by the Trump administration falls short of what we need. It lacks any real way to enforce higher labor standards. A trade agreement that can’t be enforced is completely useless. Let me put it another way: Would you ever accept a collective bargaining agreement that is unenforceable? I didn’t think so. 

It is time for all three countries to go back to the drawing board and come up with an agreement that actually works for workers. Bring us a deal like that, and we’ll support it.

But if the president insists on a premature vote, we will have no choice but to oppose it.

Workers are fed up with this race to the bottom. We’re fired up. And, we’re not gonna take it anymore!

We reject those who tell us the NAFTA model is “inevitable.”

We reject a world of obscene inequality and choose a world of broadly shared prosperity.

We deserve better. We demand better. We’re fighting for better. And, we’re going to win better!

Protecting the right to organize and winning a new direction on trade is part of our broad vision a more united America. 

But for too long, we’ve been operating with the wind in our face. Every step forward is followed by two steps back.

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

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

Just weeks after our convention, you elected Washington State Labor Council all-star and OPEIU member Teresa Mosqueda to the Seattle City Council. 

In 2018, because of our efforts recruiting, training and supporting labor candidates, we added more than 960 union members to the halls of power. And this year, 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 into 2020. 

There are many candidates running for president. Some are new faces. Many are friends...even good friends. One is your governor. But, this election is so much bigger than any individual.

2020 cannot be about personalities. It cannot be about friendships. It MUST be about workers. 

We must aim higher and demand 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. 

So, here’s my message to every candidate for president: 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 few 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. 

2020 must be different. 

The stakes are too high, and working people are drawing a line in the sand this time. 

We’re refusing to settle for less in this election. 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?

A century after the Seattle General Strike and 30 years after Pittston, we’re going to do right by those who fought before us.

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.

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 build the planes, fight the fires and lift the loads. We care for the sick. We mine the coal. 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!