Worker Empowerment and Infrastructure Investment Go Hand in Hand

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the 2021 Amalgamated Transit Union’s Legislative Conference, which was held virtually:

Brothers and sisters, hello! 

Thank you, Brother John Costa, for your kind words of introduction. 

I am proud to work closely with you, International Secretary-Treasurer Ken Kirk, International Executive Vice President Javier Perez, Jr. and the entire Amalgamated Transit Union.

It’s an honor to address your legislative conference.

And there is no better lawmaker to join us today—and no better champion for working people in Washington—than Senator Sherrod Brown.

Senator Brown is more than a supporter of the labor movement. He’s a stalwart. 

Like all of us, Senator Brown believes in the dignity of work.

Dignity comes from family-sustaining wages and good benefits. 

Dignity comes from the promise of a good retirement with a well-funded and well-earned pension after years of late nights and early mornings.

Dignity comes from the guarantee of safe workplaces. Safety on the job must always be a priority. All of us should return home to our families when our shift ends.   

For too many workers, that promise is too often denied.  

In America, not a day goes by without an act of gun violence. 

Gun violence has a ripple effect. The pain tears through communities. It inflicts lifelong trauma in survivors. It creates an unfillable void in the hearts of loved ones.

And yet gun violence keeps happening here because America keeps doing nothing to stop it.  

Something is wrong. 

We need to get to the root of the problem. Because far too often, gun violence is a workplace issue.  We cannot grow numb. We need to find out why our neighbors keep resorting to their very worst impulses. What are the causes and conditions of these massacres? 

While each mass shooting is its own individual tragedy, there are common threads. Isolation. Untreated mental health and addiction. Hate. Fear. Economic hopelessness. And yes, easy access to deadly weapons.

Friday was National Gun Violence Awareness Day. For ATU members—for every member of the labor movement—this year’s memorial hit home and it hit us hard.

All of us have been to a union meeting. A union meeting is a place of solidarity and a cradle of democracy. 

On May 26, at a San Jose rail yard, a union meeting became the site of a mass shooting.

We lost nine members of ATU Local 265—nine of our brothers. We mourn their loss. We pray for their families. And we pledge to do better for those of us blessed to be alive today. Our obligation is to honor our fallen brothers as fathers and sons. Brothers and friends. Humans with hopes and dreams.

Let’s never forget: Our federation is family. And families must come together on dark days and in times of grief.

Grief is something working people have felt a lot of over this past year.

Today, I’m also thinking of Tiran Billups.

Tiran began his career as a bus operator in 1996 with New Jersey Transit.

He proudly served as the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 819.

When this pandemic hit, he fought to protect front-line workers—his brothers and sisters—with PPE and safety measures.

COVID-19 took Tiran from his family—and this family—in June. 

Along with Tiran, at least 140 ATU members have lost their lives to COVID-19.

While the pandemic started more than a year ago, ATU members never stopped.    

We honor the dead by fighting for the living. Those were the instructions Mother Jones gave us. And ATU will answer her call because ATU members always—always—deliver for the communities we serve.

Brothers and sisters, it’s time to get America back on track. It’s time to build back better with unions. The PRO Act is how we do it.

The PRO Act is more than legislation. It is a generational opportunity. An opportunity for the labor movement and those who hope to put a union card in their pocket. 

Sixty million people would join a union today if given the chance. An MIT study confirmed that.

Well, the PRO Act would allow workers to form a union freely and fairly. It would make sure that workers can reach a first contract quickly after our union is recognized. It would end the practice of hiring permanent replacements to punish striking workers. It would hold big corporations responsible—and it’s about damn time we do. And it would finally end right to work—a relic of the Jim Crow era designed to divide us and make us poorer.

Last week, the New Hampshire AFL-CIO beat back another attempt to ram through right to work in the Granite State. For more than six months, labor leaders and union members across New Hampshire rallied together and contacted our representatives about this anti-worker legislation.

While this victory is a testament to the strength and will of working people, we should not have to fear that big corporations and anti-worker politicians are going to pass right to work in New Hampshire—or anywhere. 

When we pass the PRO Act, we will end right to work and put it in the ash heap of history where it belongs.
But there is another takeaway from this victory. The governor of New Hampshire is a Republican. Both the New Hampshire Senate and House of Representatives are controlled by Republicans. Working people prevailed because banding together to form a union is not red or blue—it’s red, white and blue. 

A recent Morning Consult poll found a staggering 73 percent of voters—including 59 percent of Republicans—support the right to collectively bargain. The PRO Act will strengthen and expand the right to collectively bargain. That’s why, in a rare bipartisan vote, the House passed the PRO Act again in March.  

And that’s why President Biden—the president we elected—included the PRO Act in the American Jobs Plan.

Let’s not forget President Eisenhower—a Republican who put union members to work building America’s Interstate Highway System—said, “Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.” 

President Biden realizes today what President Eisenhower did over a half-century ago: Worker empowerment and infrastructure investment go hand in hand.

But for decades, other nations have invested in infrastructure while America talked about it. Our lawmakers picked tax cuts for millionaires over transit systems for the masses. The cost of that negligence and incompetence is more than money. It’s deteriorating transit systems and crumbling infrastructure. It’s runaway inequality. It’s America falling behind and leaving working people behind.

That’s why ATU never stopped pushing for robust investment at the federal and state levels. ATU members are ready to start operating and maintaining new trains and buses and subways.

The days of delays and indifference must end.

With $85 billion alone for transportation, the American Jobs Plan recognizes the needed investment in our communities—both big and small. 

The PRO Act and the American Jobs Plan are essential pieces of legislation for essential workers. 

Both meet the mark for ATU members and America’s workers.

For the past 15 months, ATU members have been on the front lines of this public health crisis. Your service has allowed fellow essential workers to get to hospitals, grocery stores, warehouses and other workplaces. And you took us home when our workday was over. 

You continue to bear the brunt of this unprecedented pandemic economically and emotionally.

ATU members are undoubtedly saving lives and helping us in our decades-long fight to win a Workers First Agenda. We are on the cusp of rebuilding transit systems and returning power to the hands of workers.

Our opponents will do everything to stop us. They are ruthless and well-funded.   
I say, bring it on. We've taken your best shot for decades. ATU members are still standing tall today. 

Solidarity is the strongest thing in this world. 

And ATU is ready to get America moving again.

We’re the ones who wake America up every single day, and we work through the night. We drive the buses. We operate the subways and streetcars. We get Americans to the places we need to go. 

We’ll stand strong. We’ll never run and hide. We’re the American labor movement, and we will not be denied!

Thank you. God bless you!