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National AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka speaks
at U of M

From the Minneapolis Labor Review, December 18, 2015

Editor’s Note: Richard Trumka, president of the national AFL-CIO, delivered an address in Minneapolis November 18 at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. His speech, “The Right Deal for America, and the Political Path to Get There” is reproduced below.

In honor of the late U.S. Vice President and U.S. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, the AFL-CIO in 1985 endowed the AFL-CIO Chair in Labor Policy at the Humphrey School.

Richard Trumka speaks at the University of Minnesota.

The Right Deal for America, and the Political Path to Get There

By Richard Trumka, President, AFL-CIO

Brothers and sisters of Minnesota’s powerful labor movement, students, faculty, visitors and particularly my sisters and brothers of AFSCME Local 3800 who made possible this event and so many others at this great institution, thank you for such a warm welcome.  It’s wonderful to be with you.

Also, I want to thank you, Kyle [Makarios] for your kind words of introduction, and for your role in the academic community here.  In fact, you help make Minnesota a model for how education, working people and also businesses and economic thinkers can work together for the common good.

And of course I must recognize Morrie Kleiner, who holds the prestigious AFL-CIO chair in labor policy here at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.  Morrie, it’s great to be with you, my brother.  Thank you for all you do.  All working people are honored by the work you do here at the Humphrey School.

It’s an understatement to say we at the AFL-CIO are proud of our connection to the Humphrey School.  We watch and study your work with keen interest—whether it’s advancing early childhood education, partnering with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve to promote collective bargaining, or lifting up working people in the Twin Cities and around the region.  You’ve got a good thing going on.

We need there to be a lot going on.  And by “we” I mean all working people in America, union, non-union, never-heard-of-union.  By “we” I mean everyone whose life would change dramatically for the worse if we lost our paychecks.

Some people don’t need to work a day in their life.  We don’t need to worry about them.  They’re doing great.  But the situation isn’t so hot for the rest of us, and that has got to change.  It will change.  We’re going to change it.

Here at the Humphrey School, you concern yourself with solutions.  I’m eager to hear from you about what works and what we need to change.

I should mention, also, the hard work and creative political advocacy of AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler.  Maybe some of you have met her, especially the young workers here.

A few weeks ago, Liz gave a powerful speech on issues affecting working women, and the whole of American society.  And this week she’s working jointly with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on finding ways to advance those important policies.

And that gets me to an important subject, because policies are important, but so are the political routes to enacting them.  We cannot simply talk about our ideas.  We also must address the political hurdles we face, because they are many and tough as hell.

You see, some people don’t embrace our value of a full and democratic society based on broadly shared prosperity.  I’m talking about the 1% who have used every political and economic tool to drive down wages and divide working people.  They aren’t finished.  They’re still coming after each and every one of us who counts on a paycheck to live.

And so I’m going to talk about our tools, about unity, activism and the collective voice, and how we will use those, to surpass the hurdles we face today as well, and those we will face in the future.

Hubert Humphrey talked about the test we must set for ourselves: not to march alone but to march in such a way that others will wish to join us.

That’s a founding principle of unity.  And we see it working today in the rise of the collective voice in America.  We see it in the rising collective voice right here at the University of Minnesota, where workers are sitting across from managers to win fair pay, fair benefits and a secure retirement.

In fact, brothers and sisters, this year 5 million union workers all across America are bargaining contracts.  This is the biggest year for collective bargaining in our nation’s history.  All of us helped our employers pull through in the hard times.  The worst of the recession is behind us, and we want a fair share.

In the first six months of this year alone, working people in all kinds of jobs have won a pay increase, on average, of 4.3%.  We won it the old-fashioned way—by standing in solidarity for it.

That’s not all.  2015 has also been the biggest year for raising non-union wages in recent history, through both grassroots activism and electoral politics.  We have seen higher minimum wages all across the country.  Right here in the Twin Cities, you’ve got a powerful and growing campaign for a $15 minimum wage.

 That’s fantastic.  Half a dozen cities are on track toward a $15 minimum wage, joining another half-dozen major cities that already have it.  And for the first time in history, federal legislation was proposed at the same level.

This spring, 2 million retail workers stood together and won raises from Walmart and Target and Marshalls and TJ Maxx.  When Ikea raised wages earlier this year, the results were so good they raised wages again.  And just last week, workers at an IKEA in Massachusetts went on strike for union recognition—so they could bargain for even better wages. 

Our work raising wages has opened millions of eyes.  People now see hope.  We see solutions. We see a path toward a better future.

Raising wages is how we lift up our families and our communities.
And raising wages will kick-start the greatest engine of economic growth the world has ever seen, a well-paid American workforce!

Richard Trumka speaks at the University of Minnesota.

But we face a complex political landscape.  To shed a light on that dynamic, I want to tell you a story.  This comes from the United Packinghouse Workers of America, the men and women who turned cattle and pigs into beef and pork.

Like most of America, just a few short generations ago, packinghouse workers were divided by race, the term was a “Jim Crow” local.  Does anybody here know what a Jim Crow local is?

Well, for those who don’t know, I’ll explain.  It meant there were two local unions, side-by-side, in the same plant, a black local and a white local, separate and unequal.  In one instance, the white local earned a nickel more an hour, a nickel, and when business slowed, the black workers got laid off first.

On first blush, it seems the white local had it good.  After all, they got a nickel more an hour and layoff preference, but the truth is they struggled, too, to earn enough to raise families and to have a good life.  Those were hard jobs that didn’t pay much.

At the bargaining table, every time the white union got tough, the managers would tell them to go ahead and strike. You see, those managers had confidence in the divisive power of that nickel.  Those managers were confident that enough black workers would cross the picket line to keep the plant open.  And that threat never failed to bring the white local to heel.
And then, after the white local settled for a pittance, the black local got the same deal, only a little worse.

Think about how powerful that nickel was, how it kept the white families in poverty and the black families broke.

And yet instead of standing in unity, the whites jealously guarded that nickel, because it wasn’t much, but it was something.  They were scared to lose it.  They justified it.  And you can bet those black workers resented it terribly, every single day.

But then, this is a true story, the black workers convinced a few whites that the nickel wasn’t a bonus, but a foot on the necks of all of the workers.  As long as the nickel divided them, the workers couldn’t stand together.

And so finally, the white local voted down the nickel, and dissolved the two-tier system into one, and both groups bargained together, and won twice that nickel for everybody fair and square.

Those Packinghouse Workers knew the meaning of unity.  They understood it, and lived it.  They looked at the big picture, and saw what was really dividing them.  They faced it, and they dissolved it.  And if you think it was easy for the white local to give up that nickel and join the black workers on faith alone, think again.  That took courage.  That took trust.

America needs that same unity today, the same courage and trust, because we are divided left, right and center.  The latest attempt to divide us has made its way to the Supreme Court.  It’s a case called Friedrichs versus the California Teachers Association that threatens to weaken the rights of teachers and nurses and other public employees.  The corporate right-wing wants to pit public workers against private workers but we will not let them.

Just like those workers in the Jim Crow locals, the differences between us are illusions, but illusions that create real pain and real suffering.  And it is these illusions that the right-wing is quick to take advantage of.

Cynical and hateful politicians like Donald Trump play on our fears that we could lose what little we have.  That’s why they target immigrants, and women, and people of color, and public workers, and union workers, and you name it.

They are sophisticated when it comes to using fear and division.  They’re sophisticated and ruthless, but they can be beat.  We can beat them with unity.

Yes, it takes courage and trust and faith in solidarity.

The truth is, America does better when we all do better, but we must stand together.

We’ll stand with teachers, taxi drivers, meatpackers, and everyone else who works for a living.

We’ll stand with #blacklivesmatter and police officers on the beat.  We’re all brothers and sisters.

We’ll stand with unemployed veterans and immigrants who want a better life.

We’ll stand, really stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, on picket lines, your picket line and my picket line.  We’ll stand together when it’s bright and sunny, and when it’s hard, when it’s raining and dark and cold.

There’s one way to win, and it’s together.  Together for as long as it takes to win what we need in America, good pay, good benefits and a better life!

Across America, working people are building political power.  As president of the AFL-CIO, it is my honor to stand with those workers, but don’t for a minute think we are or would claim to be the master of this movement.  It’s big.  It’s powerful.  It’s an honest-to-God groundswell with the same integrity as the movement that created industrial unionism in America nearly a century ago and that won so many civil rights victories a few generations later.

And yet, our corporate opponents have political power, too.  It’s declining, true, but it’s still powerful, like a dinosaur that has lived past its time.  It’s big.  It’s vicious.  But it’s ready to be pushed into extinction.

And so we go forward with our campaigns to raise wages and for other good policies, even as we fight against bad policies like destructive Wall Street trade bills full of corporate entitlements.

President Obama and the Wall Street and Washington elite are trying to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

It’s a big test.  It’s a big test because the TPP is a symbol of everything I’ve been talking about. Who will write the economic rules in America?  Working people are sick and tired of these trade deals that rip apart the fabric of our nation.  We’ve seen the shuttered factories and dying towns.  We’ve talked to the workers who lost everything, only to be told they should retrain in another field for half the pay.

Less than two weeks ago, after six long years, the Obama Administration finally released the text of the TPP.  It would hurt all of us who depend on a paycheck to survive.  It would drive down wages, kill jobs, give corporations special rights, hurt consumers, and jeopardize the public health.

And none of us should forget: The damage doesn’t stop there.  By destroying jobs, the TPP would further ruin America’s tax base, and that would bring more trouble to great public institutions like the one we’re standing in right now.

We intend to end the era of disastrous trade deals, and we intend to end it now.  And I want you to join our coalition.  Everybody.  Students and seniors and workers.  We are going to fight like hell against the TPP, and kill this bad trade deal once and for all. 

We are reaching out to build a winning coalition, a coalition strong enough to beat back bad policy like the TPP and respond to Friedrichs and other attacks on our freedom to lift up our jobs and communities.

We know our opponents will try to find ways to divide us, metaphorical nickels, if you will, but we also know how to call out division for what it is, and then have to courage to stand together.

Economic inequality in America is bad, even as our economy produces more wealth than any nation ever in history.

We intend to build a coalition strong enough to put together the policy components of the right deal, one that can raise wages, one that can bring us a new day and a bright future for everyone who works for a living.

Thank you, and God bless you.

After his speech, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka (center) posed for a photo with Bobby Kasper, president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation (left) and Bill McCarthy, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

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