I Don't Advocate Class War, But...


And I'm glad to be speaking with you at this moment—a time when the breath-taking attacks on working people are matched only by their incredible courage and historic activism.

Who would have predicted six weeks ago that every time you turned on your computer or radio or television, or picked up a newspaper--for weeks on end now--the news would be focused on a term that defies the brevity of the sound bite -- collective bargaining? 

The actions of CEO-backed Republican governors and legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, Florida and so many other places have thrust this obscure subject into the spotlight. 

We have wanted this debate for years.  Now it's here, and guess what? The American people have said Yes to collective bargaining! 

By its name alone, the definition of collective bargaining seems apparent enough. But lately, the term is gaining meaning from its context, its enemies and its champions. 

Just why are the politicians, whose campaigns were funded by corporations and CEOs, fighting so hard to take away collective bargaining rights? They claim it's necessary to close budget holes—but they make this claim after giving huge tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy. 

Just why are firefighters, nurses, teachers, police officers, construction workers and other regular folks willing to march and rally for it, to pack capitol buildings day and night for weeks on end? 

It's because of the two things you've gathered here to discuss: the basic legal rights of working people and the fundamental dignity of work. 

At the core of the world's great faith traditions is the moral imperative to treat workers fairly, to extend justice into the employment relationship. 

That tenet is echoed in U.S. law, particularly in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which unequivocally states: "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining." 

Those aspirational lines have been celebrated for generations as an affirmation of the basic rights and freedoms of working people—fundamental human rights necessary to a middle-class economy with shared prosperity. 

If the stunning energy and solidarity displayed in cities like Madison, Cleveland and Indianapolis have a historical parallel, it would be the surge of organizing, strikes and legislative and political action across America in the years before the National Labor Relations Act's passage. 

But the energy and solidarity and commitment to improve the lives of working people didn't fade away after that 1935 victory. It powered more gains. It powered our successful struggles to win civil rights legislation, to create Social Security, to protect workers' safety and health on the job. 

We created agencies like the Mine Safety and Health Administration because the dignity of work means no one should be forced to risk life or limb for the privilege of having a job. 

My grandfather and father were coal miners, and I followed them into the mines near my hometown of Nemacolin, Pa. I'm speaking as someone who has been trapped on the wrong side of a roof fall. Even while you worry about your life, your thoughts are filled with practical concerns. There's nothing theoretical about it. A mine shaft has finite supports. If those supports fail, the roof will fall. The trapped air behind the fall has a limited supply of oxygen. 

In my case, the roof fall wasn't deadly, and we escaped. But we had generations of miners to thank, those who had organized and mobilized and won federal laws designed to allow us to come out with our bodies and lives intact. 

The rallies and protests we're seeing today from Trenton to Miami and from Sacramento across the Midwest are laying the groundwork for a new surge of justice for workers and a new period of American prosperity. Once again, the operative tool will be workers' ability to bargain collectively for a voice and a better life -- because working people who cannot bargain must beg. And that is not a role we can accept. 

Today, it's easy to see each political battle separately -- as a win or a loss. But future generations will recognize the incredible grassroots uprising of this moment as an inflection point – a moment when the arc of history bent toward strengthening the freedoms of working people and ensuring the dignity of work. 

Don't misunderstand me.  We have a long way to go. Americans desperately need good jobs and economic security, but too many politicians, in Washington and in the states, are hiding behind deficit hysteria. 

The farce is easy to maintain, because too often journalists aren't differentiating between political spin and fact. Nobody is pulling back Oz's curtain. 

Look at what happened this past December.  As re-energized House Republicans waited to take power, Congress passed the extension of unemployment insurance—but only after agreeing to tie it to a broad slate of tax cuts for the super-rich. Journalists and pundits invariably described the deal as a simple compromise, a package of pork for "interest groups." I can see why it's tempting, in some vain effort to appear impartial, to describe it that way—but the package wasn't even-handed in any sense. 

The unemployment insurance extension was fair. But the tax cuts for the wealthiest are a danger to our future prosperity and an ugly violation of the American Dream, made all the more apparent by the budget holes federal, state and local politicians are using to attack workers. 

Anyone who pays a lick of attention can see that if balancing budgets were an actual priority, we wouldn't act this way. We wouldn't be using budgets to tear down middle-class families, steal workers' rights, undermine job growth and weaken or destroy unions. 

Have you taken a look at the budget plan Republicans in Washington are proposing? It would take an axe to services that working families rely on every day—everything from early childhood education and college aid to food safety, job safety, job training, child nutrition, transportation, infrastructure—and more. On its heels is their desire to whittle away any security we might have in retirement by cutting Social Security and Medicare. 

And if anyone has any doubts, let me assure you: The AFL-CIO will oppose any and all cuts to Social Security or Medicare—no matter who puts them forward. Destroying economic security for our seniors is bad policy, and it's just plain wrong. 

Future generations will shake their heads and wonder why it took so long for Washington to act on the priority concerns of working families across the United States. Thirty percent of the voters in November had a family member out of work last year.  The last three elections—in 2006, 2008, and 2010—have all been about jobs. Nearly 15 million people have been searching fruitlessly for jobs for years now. Millions more are underemployed. Accountants working as telemarketers. IT professionals taking jobs as hotel porters. 

But still politicians who were elected thanks to CEOs see budget crises everywhere they look—not a jobs crisis. And if their budget cuts cost even more jobs? Well, "so be it," said House Speaker John Boehner. 

Until we stop catering to America's corporate CEOs, until we stop trying to drive down working people, until we stop our race to the bottom, then energized, mobilized, united working people will demand that we as a nation affirm the value of work and the basic premise of American life. 

And what is that basic premise? It's that each of us, if we work hard and do our part, can earn for ourselves a measure of economic security, an education for our children and some dignity in our old age. 

Several months ago, an opinion column in the New York Times carried the headline: "Who Will Stand Up to the Super-rich?"   

Now, I don't mind rich people being rich. I don't advocate a class war. But America needs to regain a fundamental balance. We can't have so much at the top that less and less is available for everyone else. We're all in this together, and it is wrong to believe that we can continue to have such huge income disparities without paying a price in terms of our democracy. 

The Obama administration has been trying to restore balance in our economy and the rights of workers to organize and bargain for a better life—and one of the best examples is his appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. I'd like to take a moment to recognize the leadership of Wilma Liebman, who chairs the board and who speaks here tomorrow. Thank God we now actually have an NLRB that believes in balance and rights. 

My friends, America's workers are standing up, standing together. And I'm asking you to stand with us. It's up to us. 

All of us who care about our country being its best moral self, all of us who believe in the best America has to offer, must engage with each other, with business owners and public leaders, with faith leaders and community activists to create strong communities to fight for good jobs and justice. 

If we need a measuring stick to assess ideas and actions, it should be this:  Does it increase or decrease economic inequality?  Does it widen or narrow the gap between rich and poor? 

And we have to fight not only for principles but for practical measures to help working people in their day-to-day lives—that includes the freedom to bargain collectively, because with it we do much than raise our wages and improve our benefits. 

We support our families. We improve our workplaces. We strengthen our communities. We professionalize our jobs with training and standards. Teachers bargain to lower class sizes. Nurses advocate for patient care. Working together, we raise standards for all working families. 

It is up to us to bridge the disconnect between political leaders and the needs and priorities of working families. 

We must seize on the momentum from Madison and transform this moment into a movement. 

In Madison, I saw students and Steelworkers who had been sleeping in the capitol building for what felt like forever. I saw teachers and snow plow drivers with their families. I saw people from all walks of life---people who had no direct personal stake in the Wisconsin fight. 

The crowds swelled that first weekend—by the tens of thousands. Then we topped 100,000.  And the rallies spread—to Ohio, to Indiana, to every single state in the nation. 

This wasn't one union calling on members to turn out. It wasn't the AFL-CIO making the call. It wasn't the Democratic Party, or the Obama organization. This was a bottom-up, grassroots movement, a true spontaneous outcry against our disastrous winner-take-all political culture. 

One legislative setback is only a chance for us to galvanize our will. The protests in Madison haven't stopped. A victory can never be more than a starting point for more organizing, more activism. 

All across our country, the labor movement and hundreds of our allies, and hundreds of thousands of workers—in numbers not seen in ages—are turning their energy into real action. 

In dozens of states, they're pushing for legislation to solidify our rights and save our communities. In Wisconsin, they're collecting recall petitions to oust CEO-funded politicians.  And after Gov. Scott Walker zeroed in on workers' collective bargaining rights, more than 20,000 Wisconsinites joined Working America, the AFL-CIO's community affiliate for people without a union. Faculty members at two University of Wisconsin campuses just voted to join AFT-Wisconsin. More than 40,000 officers of the Transportation Security Administration are voting right now on whether to join AFGE, the nation's largest union of government employees. These are just a few examples of what the nationwide interest in collective bargaining is sparking. 

Nationwide, working people will mobilize on the days surrounding April 4 to continue to build this powerful movement for the future we must have.  

Join with us.  Be a part of April 4th.  On campuses, students and professors are holding teach-ins. In worksites, in diners and coffee shops, in homes and in congregations, working people will gather to talk about the attacks on workers, the right to bargain and what we can do  to prevail. Together. 

Why are these events being scheduled around April 4? Because on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.  He gave his life helping 1,400 Memphis sanitation workers—public employees—win the basic right to have a union and bargain collectively for a voice on their jobs and in the economy. That was their cause. That was what those powerful "I Am a Man" signs they carried were all about. Dignity.  Respect.  A voice.  

We remember that day. We remember that cause—it's burned into our memories. And my friends, if we do what we must, the future will remember our actions and our movement in just the same way.

Photo courtesy of AFL-CIO

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  • While I find Trumka's words far better than anything that George Meany or Lane Kirkland could have said, it would have been nice had he mentioned the co-relation between the obscene costs of the wars, including Libya and the effect it has had on the national and state budgets!

    Even the conservative Samuel Gompers was quoted as being more in favor of schools than for weapons of war.
    Today's labor must begin seeing the need to help end the wars as they are destroying our economy and the conditions of ALL workers!

    Posted by Pancho Valdez, 03/25/2011 12:49pm (12 years ago)

  • This is an incredibly positive piece of writing,powerful in working class content,and very instructive in answering the questions of recruitment and increased quantity and quality of positive working class unity in all: the present,past and especially future movements.
    The only possible weakness,would be the international connectedness with movements in Tunisia,Egypt,Palestine,Israel,Libya and other conflagrations,combined with our national immigration policy crisis in the U.S.
    Essentially,and in line with the focus on action of working people,brother Trumka closes urging unity with the dictates and precepts of April 4 and the powerful nexus of the African derived people of the U. S.,and what they have and will supply in the struggles around the state capitols. Certainly here, we recall the marked attack against anti-communism leveled by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he extolled the Communist of our age and U.S. labor,civil and human rights, the inimitable,W.E.B. Du Bois.
    Let us remember,at this time of upsurge,Shirley Graham Du Bois's memoir,on Him,His Day is Marching On.

    Posted by peaceapplause, 03/23/2011 3:32am (12 years ago)

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