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At the AFL-CIO National Summit on Raising Wages, Kellogg Conference Center at Gallaudet University

Richard L. Trumka • January 7, 2015 • Washington, DC

First, I want to thank Labor Secretary Tom Perez for opening the Summit today.  His leadership at the Department, his commitment to workers, and his energetic search for solutions were the perfect way to get things started today.

And to all the workers who have been a part of this momentous day, you have the gratitude of workers everywhere.  It’s not easy to take off from your job, to leave your homes, and to come to Washington D.C. and be a part of something like this.  So to Ray Roldan of Painters District Council 11, Shantel Walker, of Fast Food Forward, Lisa Henson, a Maryland corrections officer with AFSCME Local 1427, Colby Harris of OUR Walmart, Mike Cantrell of UAW Local 42, Lakia Wilson of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and Leon Speller of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 26, you have my heartfelt thanks.  Your involvement here today reminds everyone what Raising Wages is all about, and why it is so important.

And Senator Elizabeth Warren -- she’s an inspiration.  Her vision of a Raising Wages America embodies our highest ideals.  Senator Warren is that rare political leader: she shares our values, she really connects with us, she is a genius when it comes to policy, and she is tough as nails when it comes to politics.  Senator Warren, thank you.  You have always been and will always be a remarkable champion of working people. 

And the Roundtable.  That was outstanding.  Thank you all very, very much.  You know, I’ve been to a lot of conferences and workshops and things like that.  I’ve never witnessed anything like this Roundtable – an open discussion with people from every corner of this movement.  A worker talking with a think tank president, a mayor learning from an activist, a small business owner sharing ideas with all of you.  This was refreshing, and important.  American politics needs this to happen more often.  And speaking of mayors, a big thanks to my friend Mayor Walsh.  Marty runs a big city, but he came here to be one among many on this Roundtable.  We are very appreciative.

Last summer, when we decided to put this Summit together, we knew three things: one, that once again our productivity was up and our wages were flat.  America’s workers were creating more and more wealth for every hour we worked, yet most of us were slipping backwards.  Again.  The same story, over and over, year after year, with more and more suffering. 

Two, despite this grim, chronic news, or maybe because of it, there is something happening in America.  American workers are beginning to say “enough.”  We are beginning to rise up, to come together, to reject the idea that there is nothing we can do about falling wages.   We are tired of people talking about inequality as if nothing can be done.  The answer is simple—raise the wages of the 90% of Americans whose wages are lower today than they were in 1997.  Families don’t need to hear more about income inequality – they need more income. 

And three, we know that no matter what happened in the 2014 mid-term elections, 2015 would be a pivotal year.  It would be the year that politicians decided to stand up strong, or to retreat, afraid of responsibility.  To be very, very clear about what we need, or to be murky, saying a little of this, a little of that, and a lot of “maybe, kind of, sort of.”  To build our nation’s future, or to protect their own backsides with caution and corporate cash.

So we are here on January 7, right at the start of the New Year, to declare a Raising Wages agenda.  Its elements are contained in the comprehensive policy framework we are releasing today.  We intend it to serve as a guidepost for all policymakers and all political candidates.  We want to know more than what you think about these issues, but what you will do about them.  If you want to see us on election day, we want to see you out there with the Fight for 15, with the brave folks at Our Walmart, with the Fairpoint strikers. 

That’s accountability, and for office holders and candidates it comes down to a basic question: are you satisfied with an America where the vast majority works harder and harder for less and less, or do you propose to build an America where we, the people, share in the wealth we create?  This is the single standard by which we will judge leadership.

And the key word there is “we.”  We know that simple transactional politics are a dead end.  Not one of us can go it alone. We must unify on our common ground, raise the bar, then go out there and raise it even higher.

 In the past couple of years, I have seen collaboration like never before in the progressive world.  At the AFL-CIO, we made our 2013 Convention transformational by including hundreds of people and organizations who’d never been to a labor convention before.  We wanted to help unite the labor movement with all who share a vision of a better America.

We hoped for exactly what we’ve heard today—people who share our vision of a better America coming together and getting things done.  Faith leaders partnered with digital activists to help organize unions.  Economists and Working America field organizers stood together to increase minimum wages.  Business leaders raised their voices with workers to create reasonable work schedules.  And on and on.

We have to make it happen. We have to organize around a common purpose.  That’s what Raising Wages is all about. 

This Summit is about more than wages, though.  It’s about what wages represent. It’s a philosophy, a vision, and an agenda all rolled into one.  It’s a philosophy as old as America itself—that the people of America should share in the wealth we create.

And it’s an agenda for change that starts with the absolute truth that no one should make less than the minimum wage, everyone should make a living wage, and collective bargaining should be available for all workers.  But it’s an agenda that must go far broader and deeper than that.  Raising wages requires a comprehensive economic agenda.  

It means trade policies that lift incomes in America and around the world, rather than pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom.  It means strong, modern labor laws that give everyone who works in America a real opportunity to bargain for higher wages without fear.  It means treating Wall Street like it is part of America, not above America.  It means allowing workers to demand and win fair work schedules, paid sick leave, and overtime paychecks.  And raising wages means ending all tax benefits for companies that move jobs offshore.

There are many other elements of the Raising Wages agenda – quality public education, secure retirement, equal pay, and more.  But I want to single out two subjects that we don’t automatically think about as work and wage issues: immigration and race.

Let me put it plainly: our Raising Wages campaign can only be complete when there is justice for America’s immigrants and people of color.  We must have a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants, and we must be a country of dignity for all people, regardless of race or ethnicity.  Justice at work and justice in our community are intertwined, and both must advance for either to grow.

This is how the work begins.  At the end of this marvelous day, our challenges are clear.  We have come together in a collective voice, and we are ready to go to work.  In that spirit, I am announcing that the AFL-CIO is launching an ambitious Raising Wages Call to Action.

The foundation, and first call to action, is simple.  It’s something I said earlier – Raising Wages is the single standard by which leadership will be judged.  That means accountability, and it starts with something we all understand – presidential politics.  In 2015, the AFL-CIO and state partners will hold Raising Wage Summits in the first four presidential primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.  And we’re not waiting around.  The first State Summit will be in Iowa this spring.  Each Summit will bring together diverse voices, just as we did today, to lay out the entire Raising Wages platform and establish state-based standards of accountability.

Our second Call to Action puts everything we heard at the Summit today into practice.  We will bring to life what we heard repeatedly: that no one can do it alone.  Just as we have begun to undertake a number of coalition initiatives in five southern cities over the past year, beginning tomorrow, we will connect the Raising Wages campaign to seven additional cities around the country.  For several months, we have worked with our affiliates and community partners to determine where we can have the most impact.  In each of these seven cities, we will stand together with our affiliates and progressives already at work, and bring important energy, ideas, and resources to critical battles.

These seven cities, which we are identifying today, are just the start of a longer term effort to concentrate our work where it will be most significant.  And that work will take many forms and go in many directions – Raising Wages is a living, searching idea, and there is no shortage of need.  Workers organizing and bargaining to raise wages.  A faith-based project to help immigrants navigate their work status.  A City Council living wage campaign.  Nurses and neighborhood groups fighting for paid sick leave and equal pay for equal work – all of that and more.  We have worked out many preliminary plans with affiliates and partners and are eager to turn up the heat. 

I’ve spent my life in the labor movement, so for me, Raising Wages is grounded in one idea: Our collective voice.  The very best way to raise wages is to protect workers’ full rights to engage in collective bargaining and hold employers accountable for violations of these rights. 

People may have forgotten, but the law of the land is to promote the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain.  Not obstruct it, not tolerate it – promote it.  As a first step, the labor movement will work with our allies on strong federal legislation that: 1) establishes very tough punishments for employers who retaliate against workers; and 2) provides appropriate remedies for workers who are unjustly treated.  As we heard today from Colby Harris with OUR Walmart, America needs to explore every avenue to bring our workplace laws into the 21st century and ensure that the collective voice is a powerful tool and not just an abstract idea.

The collective voice is a powerful tool … and in America, it is the only tool to bring about lasting justice.  So I want to ask each of you to embody your democratic ideals, to work with the fervor that is in your heart, to push your capacity, to always ask, “Why not?  “What’s next?” and “What is possible?”

Because that’s what today is about.  Acting on what is possible.  Not waiting, not watching, not wishing.  ActingAs we bring the Summit to a close, let’s remember that Raising Wages is not a hobby – it is our mission.  This is a beginning, not an ending.  Let’s make it a beginning that all of America will feel the impact of.

I want to extend a very deep thanks to our host, Gallaudet University, to everyone here, and to all those watching on the Internet.  You have chosen to be a big part of a very big solution, and I know that together, we are going to make it happen.  Thank you.

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