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On Raising Wages as the Standard for 2016 Presidential Candidates

Richard L. Trumka • April 28, 2015 • Washington, D.C.

Thank you, Liz [Shuler], for your words of introduction. Before I get into the main substance of my remarks, I want to acknowledge Workers Memorial Day. Today, we remember the 150 men and women who die every day from a workplace injury or occupational disease.

Please join me in a moment of silence in their honor.

[Moment of silence.]

Thank you.  The arrival of spring in Washington has brought baseball—as well as the other D.C. obsession and America’s second-favorite pastime: presidential politics.

The election is more than 18 months away, but already ideas are percolating and candidates are stepping forward to announce for the presidency.

Working people are stepping forward, too.  We are not waiting for an invitation.  We have created an agenda for shared prosperity called Raising Wages. It will be our inspiration and our measuring stick throughout the presidential campaign.  Raising Wages is grounded in a fundamental idea—that we can become a high-wage society, a society in which the people who do the work share in the wealth we create.

That idea faces a political landscape characterized by two powerful forces: one, there is an enormous need in America.  Our nation is struggling, and has been struggling for almost two generations.  Two, there is an equal amount of skepticism in America.  For decades, we have given politicians the benefit of the doubt.  Today, there is much more doubt than there is benefit. 

As the presidential campaigns begin, workers have a very clear question: Will candidates be and think and act big enough to seize this historic opportunity?

Will they look past what Washington says can’t be done and do what America needs? Will they overcome our skepticism?  Will they present a vision that’s authentic, bold and unequivocal?  Will our candidates meet the moment?

It is early, and although many candidates are already in the race, the field remains open.  And the labor movement's doors are open to any candidate who is serious about transforming our economy with high and rising wages.  We want to talk to candidates who will deliver and who we can trust to always be on the side of all working people.

Over nearly two generations, national leaders have either taken steps that worsened inequality or fiddled around the edges, trying to raise wages in an economy fundamentally built to lower wages. President Obama has spent much of his presidency getting our nation out of a deep economic crisis.  Now we have an economy where GDP is up, and the stock market is up, but wages remain flat—and this has happened again and again since the 1970s.  Once again, America is emerging from an economic crisis—but those of us who count on paychecks are not.  And that's not an accident.  Workers are being held down on purpose.

For almost two generations, our economic policies—the very structure of our economy—have been designed to push incomes down for the vast majority of working people.  This was planned. It’s not the accidental result of the wandering and clumsy hand of capitalism.

Since the 1980s, the growing political power of the wealthiest among us has rewritten our labor laws, our trade laws, our tax laws, our monetary policies, our fiscal policies, our financial regulations, all to push wages down and to increase corporate profits, to put speculation over private investment and tax cuts over public investment.      

The results: Runaway inequality.  Unemployment.  Falling wages.  Rising economic insecurity, collapsing infrastructure.  Deteriorating national competitiveness.  All driven by gigantic imbalances in economic and political power. 

One simple comparison captures the whole story: since 1978, CEOs have increased their own pay by almost 1,000 percent.  In the same 37 years, the wages of 90% of us have gone down.  That is a violation of the American Promise.  It’s not just the poor who are falling behind, it’s the middle class, too.

And now, this story threatens to grow in scale, with Fast Track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

But all across the country, workers are leading a fierce and broad social movement to defeat Fast Track.  We are rebelling against corporate-written free trade agreements—and we are succeeding.  The TPP is the latest example of a long-term approach to trade that, starting with NAFTA, was designed to drive wages down, create special rights for corporations and export jobs.  

The labor movement opposes Fast Track.  We expect those who seek to lead our nation forward to oppose Fast Track.  There is no middle ground, and the time for deliberations is drawing to a close.

In the 2016 campaign, there will be no place to hide for those who aspire to lead America. The problems of income inequality and stagnant wages are so clear, so abundant, that only direct, sweeping action to change the rules will put our nation on a fresh path of progress.

We are hungry for a path to a prosperous 21st century.  And America’s workers know that the first step on that path is Raising Wages.

Yes, Raising Wages includes lifting national wages—but it’s far broader than that. We want earned sick leave and paid family leave.  We want full employment, fair overtime rules and fair scheduling so people don’t have to guess whether they’ll get enough hours to pay the rent.  We want student debt relief.  We want to tax Wall Street to pay for massive investments in infrastructure and education, so Wall Street serves Main Street, not the other way around.  And we want to be able to bargain collectively with our employers for good wages and benefits without fear of retaliation.

We want to raise wages.  And that’s exactly what we’re doing, despite policies designed to hold us down. Working people, and the collective voice, are rising.  Look at the people who work at Walmart, McDonald’s and Target, and TJMaxx and Marshalls.  In those fights alone, a combined 2 million people have won raises in just the past few months.  It’s not enough, but it’s a start.  We are fighting in new ways with new ideas—and starting to win.

We are swarming ballot boxes, city halls and state houses.  Initiatives to raise the minimum wage won last November in every state they were on the ballot.  Red State, Blue State, it didn’t matter, from Alaska to Illinois.  Cities across the country have been adopting universal earned sick leave.  San Francisco passed a retail workers bill of rights.  Seattle raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

And working people are bargaining with employers like never before.  In 2015, more union members will bargain for new contracts than in any other year in American history.  Five million union members are negotiating this year for contracts with employers in every conceivable industry.  Together, through collective bargaining, we are asking for a raise.

Five million workers sitting down with employers to bargain in a straightforward way, to make the case to raise wages.  That’s what the collective voice is about.  That’s what American democracy is about.

Our whole country deserves that same conversation.

Working people, together, are rising.  The question is, will our candidates listen?  Will they seize this opportunity?  I wonder, and so do the vast majority of working Americans.  The truth is we’re skeptical.

Are we wrong to be skeptical?  I don’t think so.  A surging army of workers, activists and families are tired of taking “maybe” for an answer.  We’re tired of scared politicians who won’t stand up for what’s right.  Listen to this: About one-third—30%—of working class voters after the last election said they couldn’t see any significant difference between the two parties.

Both parties, they said, side with the wealthy over working people.  Both parties are too close to big corporations.  Neither party cares deeply enough about creating jobs.  Neither party cares enough about raising wages or protecting Social Security or Medicare.

Of the working class voters we surveyed, 80% of Democrats and Republicans, 80%, say both parties do far too much for Wall Street and not nearly enough to help average folks.

That’s what America thinks.

Are we wrong?  I don’t think so. Anyone who thinks it’s OK for women to get 78 cents on the dollar is willingly betraying the American Promise.  Anyone letting corporate America write our economic rules while expressing surprise at the outcome is willingly betraying the American Promise.

That’s why we’re skeptical.  And our skepticism will only be overcome by an honest conversation about how we can all benefit from what we produce and expand the American Promise.  We want to make our case and get an authentic, meaningful response.  That’s what we want from employers, and that’s what we want from our presidential candidates.

That’s why we at the AFL-CIO are creating Raising Wages Summits in each of the first four presidential primary states.  At these summits, beginning next month in Iowa, working people will make the case for a raising wages agenda.  Together, we will declare the standard by which presidential aspirations will be judged.

And that brings me back to the opportunity in front of us, both for our country and for the men and women who might want to lead it.

To candidates who have just discovered that there is an income inequality problem in America, we say “welcome.”  We encourage them to dig deeper, to understand and respond to the history, the intent and the impact of this problem.

And we say to them, we appreciate your words of acknowledgment.  But, now what?  After almost two generations of intentional assault on our incomes, our families and our dignity, working people are not going to be satisfied with words of acknowledgment.  We want action.  We want big ideas, and we want structural change.  We want Raising Wages.

That also means no candidate can be all things to all people and still meet this standard.  Standing with working people once in a while won’t work.  Candidates can’t hedge bets any longer. 

Workers have swallowed the politics of hedged bets for almost two generations.  We’ve waited for the scraps that remain after the pollsters shape the politics.

Those days are over.  America doesn’t need relentlessly cautious half-measures.  Any candidate who wants to appeal to workers has to put forth a bold and comprehensive Raising Wages agenda.  They must be committed to investing in a prosperous future for America.  They must have an authentic voice and a commitment, from the candidate down through his or her economic team, to see this agenda through to completion.

We have an agenda for shared prosperity, and we want the same from candidates.  They must address essential questions like these: How will you make sure the incomes of working people regain lost ground and grow?  How will you show us that corporations will no longer write America’s economic rules?  How will you establish public investment in America’s common goals as a priority over narrow special interests?  How will you make sure we all rise together with justice in our communities, dignity for immigrants and fairness for all, regardless of gender or sexuality, race, ethnicity or wealth?

We call on all of America’s working men and women—Democrat and Republican, white collar, blue collar and no collar—to join us in supporting the candidate who can and will deliver on the American Promise.  That is the standard.  We will not settle for less.

Thank you.

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