Speech | Civil Rights

Trumka: We are Living in "The Fierce Urgency of Now"

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka today delivered the following remarks at the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference:​

Good afternoon brothers and sisters, and let me officially welcome you to the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference.

Thank you for being here today. Thank you for your work, your solidarity and your activism.

Look at this room! You are the future of the labor movement. Our movement. And, there’s no question that each and every one of you is needed now more than ever before.  

We are living in what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.” One year before he was killed, Dr. King issued a warning that “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Brothers and sisters, this is that time. This is a time to take risks. This is a time to get uncomfortable. That’s when real progress is made. Don’t get me wrong: The attacks against us are vicious. Workers’ rights. Civil rights. Voting rights. Women’s rights. They are all being threatened as we speak. The labor movement will always mobilize and organize to defend ourselves, our communities and our values. But we cannot afford to confuse protecting what we have with winning what we need. Dr. King’s example calls upon us to stop looking at our shoes and start reaching for the stars.

Because let’s be honest: What’s working for us right now?

Not our political system, when 800,000 federal workers—disproportionately black and brown—and even more subcontractors are locked out of their jobs as the government shutdown continues into its 28th day.

Not our economy, when one in seven Americans hasn’t seen a raise in more than a year and five in seven Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

Not the American Dream, when women, particularly women of color, still aren’t paid what they’re worth.

The systems and institutions we’re supposed to rely on are broken. Not because they’re old. Because they’ve been rigged. Our economy and our politics don’t work for working people because corporations and politicians have conspired to make it that way. They want us poor. They want us weak. They want us divided. So, we have to fight back.

For years, we’ve been told that we can’t. But I remember the simple rallying cry of a community organizer from Chicago, someone who actually honored the Oval Office. Barack Obama was right then, and we must heed his words today: Yes, we can!  Yes, we can! Yes, we can!

The protectors of the status quo told people of color they can’t integrate, but they did.

They told women they can’t vote, but they did.

They warned workers not to form a union or else, but we did it anyway.

They’ve been telling immigrants and asylum seekers to stay away, but no wall is big enough to stop the human desire to be free.

Something is happening in America, brothers and sisters. Something we haven’t seen since Dr. King stood in President Lincoln’s shadow and told us that he had a dream.

Collective action is on the rise across America: #MeToo. Students for safe schools. Black Lives Matter. Teachers striking in red and blue states. Federal workers and subcontractors taking to the streets demanding that Congress and the president do their jobs.

And, all of you, standing in solidarity with tens of thousands of Americans: Women, men, people of color, workers and students, straight, gay and trans...a MOVEMENT of people taking over our nation’s capital and demanding that our voices be heard!

But, brothers and sisters, we can’t let this momentum die. When I first got into the union movement, my dad put a pencil down in front of me within arm’s reach. He said: “There are two kinds of leaders. One who accepts where the pencil is...and one who claws and fights to move the pencil even further. Don’t be the first guy. Be the second leader. Push your limits. Take a risk. Move outside your comfort zone, so you can create real and lasting change.”

Brothers and sisters, the status quo is easy. Do nothing and you get nothing. You stay the same. It’s the fight that’s hard. That’s what working people are after right now. Because we’re the ones hurt most by the status quo.

Brothers and sisters, this is a time—THE time—to capture “the fierce urgency of now.”

This is our moment to fight for an America where workers are paid fairly and treated with dignity and respect.

Our moment to fight for an America that builds bridges, not walls, an America that welcomes immigrants and refugees and all those yearning to be free.

Our moment to fight for an America that invests more in education than incarceration.

Our moment to guarantee the right to vote. The right to form a union. The right to love who you love and not be fired for it. The right for a woman to be paid the same as a man for doing the same job. The right to be safe in our communities and not be arrested or harassed or shot because of the way we look.

Brothers and sisters, are you ready to fight for the America Dr. King dreamed of and died for?

Right here. Right now!

That’s exactly what we're going to do! We'll march for it. We'll sing for it. We'll shout for it and stand for it. And the harder it is, the louder we'll sing, and the longer we'll stand!

It’s only January 18th, and we have a mountain of work ahead of us. But, I take comfort in Dr. King’s famous words: “The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around...But only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Brothers and sisters, it’s pitch black outside, and those stars are twinkling!

So, let’s stand together and scale that mountain.

Let’s stand with workers on the picket lines—like the 30,000 teachers in Los Angeles striking right now for higher pay, a voice on the job and a better learning environment for their students!

Let’s help register voters so that we can put the kind of pugnacious voter suppression we saw in Georgia and Brother (Andrew) Gillum’s Florida in the ash heap of history!

Brothers and sisters, I don’t accept an America that treats people who look like me better than people who look like you. Do you? I don't accept an America where too many black and brown people are struggling to get by. Do you? I don’t accept an America where trans people are dying in the streets and children are being locked in cages. Do you? I don’t accept an America where it’s harder to form a union than bust one. Do you?

My promise to you, today and every day, is that we are in this fight to win it. And, I mean really win it! We won’t be in the middle of the pack. We’ll be the tip of the spear.

So, stand up if you’re ready to march. Stand up if you’re ready to fight. Stand up if you’re ready to win.

We make America great. We keep it safe. We teach, heal and make. We package, print and bake. We build the roads, fight the fires 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 fearless. We’re strong. We’re powerful. We’re united. We’re the American labor movement and we will not...WE WILL NOT...be denied!

Thank you, and God bless you!

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