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Remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, 2011 AFT Winter Legislative Meeting, Washington, DC

Richard Trumka • January 9, 2011

Thank you, Randi, for that kind and generous introduction. I'm honored to be here with you today, as we square up for the battles ahead of us.

I'm honored to serve in the labor movement alongside Randi Weingarten. The AFL-CIO and all working people are fortunate to have Randi and her team of thought-leaders here at the AFT. Randi's taken a leading role in education reform—not with punitive quick-fixes, or by turning public education over to for-profit corporations who don't care one whit about students or learning. I'm talking about real reform based on commitment to deliver the best of public education to all children.

I never taught history in Brooklyn like Randi, but I know about quality public education. I come from a small town called Nemacolin in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania. That's where I grew up, that and a neighboring town called Carmichael, where I went to high school.

Now, I know that not all the 1.5 million members of the AFT are teachers. You do other important jobs in the public school system. You work at colleges and as nurses and in other health care fields. Some of you work for governments at the local, state and federal level. And some of you are home care workers.

But I want you to know about my schooling, because—like so much of the work of your members—it was both regular and extraordinary. What you do is regular, because America has hundreds of thousands of excellent teachers at schools in towns large and small. Extraordinary, because our entire public school system represents something that's altogether too rare these days—a long-term investment in the American Dream, made because we believe in the potential of every child, regardless of background, race or ethnicity or any other quality. Our public education system is a mark of our better selves.

I'm proud of that, just as I'm proud of my own education.

My education came from teachers I'll never forget, inspiring teachers in my corner of Pennsylvania along the Monongahela River who made history, literature and math come to life, teachers who came early and stayed late, who cared for me and my friends and neighbors, who coached us and pushed us to succeed. And my education proved to be a solid foundation that allowed me—the son and grandson of coal miners, a coal miner myself—to stand as an equal at Penn State University, where I earned a bachelor's degree and, later, when I earned a law degree from Villanova University.

Education is the great leveler. That's the truth. Broadly speaking, equality is the work of everyone in public service. For police officers, garbage collectors, firefighters and even a biologist working at a municipal water plant, the goal of the job is a public good.

The public good is a noble goal.

That's why, when I hear Mark Steyn on Rush Limbaugh's radio show spout off about "rapacious, public-sector, shakedown kleptocrats," I get angry.

When I hear Gov. John Kasich of Ohio say he will rescind collective bargaining rights of home health-care workers and independent child-care contractors, it makes me mad!

When Gov. Kasich goes on to say he will seek "equity" for civil servants by going after pay, benefits, job security and things like sick days, personal days and vacation days because—quote—"nobody in the private sector gets those things," I wonder why politicians like him want to tear down this nation!

This isn't happening in just a few states. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has a plan to privatize public education with a voucher system that will cover every single student—to hand public school funding over to private schools—and he has promised to gut state government by cutting the state workforce by five percent.

We're in a sad state, and I blame those, like Rick Scott and John Kasich, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who want to crush our hopes rather than build a brighter future.

Listen to these words from Gov. Walker—quote—"We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots."  

Well, actually, Walker puts our choice in a nutshell: Should all people who work for a living have decent pay and benefits, and a pension when they retire? Or none of us?  

In every state in this nation, we're faced with that same choice: Are we going to aspire toward the American Dream? That if we work hard, we can earn some measure of comfort and security for our families, and a decent retirement after a lifetime of work?  

Or will we cease to be a nation that aspires for a decent life? And become, instead, a nation of poverty for the many and fabulous wealth for a few?  

We know that answer. We're not ready to give up!  

Are you ready to fight for the American Dream?   Are you?  

Will you stand with me, with every working family in America?  

I hope you're ready, because the fight is on!  

Here's the sobering truth: Far too many seemingly reasonable people these days feel that austerity ought to be our universally shared value, that America needs some serious belt-tightening. To hear them say it, decent pay and pensions are too much for a people to ask.  

In their words, the middle class life has somehow become equated with luxury! Of course, we need to cut back, they say! We're too poor to afford decent lives! Lay off those teachers and cut Social Security!  

Is that what we're ready to believe? That we'd all be better off if we expected less?  

Maybe that would be true if America were poor. But our collective poverty is a myth, just like the myth back in the 1980s that tax cuts for the rich would trickle down to the rest of us. It didn't happen. That's when the wealth of America's richest began to jump by leaps and bounds—and when household debt for the rest of us soared while our earnings didn't budge.  

In the 1990s, we heard the myth that closing factories in America and exporting jobs would somehow create millions of new, better jobs. Fifteen million unemployed workers can tell you exactly how that one panned out. America lost 40,000 manufacturing plants—and more than 6 million manufacturing jobs—over the past decade alone.  

And so now we've got this new austerity myth: We're too poor for a middle class.  

Bull! Our per capita gross domestic product last year was almost $46,000, the highest in the western world. That amounts to about $119,000 for the median household.  

We're still the richest nation on earth!  

The rich have been getting richer for 30 years, and the money came from the rest of us. The portion of national income held by the top 1 percent in America is right back where it was in 1932. It's no wonder that the rest of us are hurting.  

And we are hurting. In addition to the 15 million Americans out of work, millions more hold part-time jobs while searching for full-time work. Economic insecurity is the new normal.  

And that brings me to a very painful point: The dire budget numbers of state and local governments are all too real, and so are the single-minded and destructive attitudes of too many state legislators and governors.  

To beat back these attacks, we need to work together in solidarity with all working people, with children and parents and social service clients, with people of faith and small business people and communities of color -- with our entire communities. As we organize and mobilize—we need all the help we can get. If we truly tap the strength of our numbers and allies at the grassroots, we can win.  

Just as we fight for a quality education for all children—not just some--we must also fight for a decent life for  all working people.  We have to resist the urge to only pursue our own agendas, and we have to keep struggling for our shared vision of the American Dream.

The entire union movement must unite to defend your pay, your benefits and your retirement security—because those are hallmarks of the American Dream. And we believe in that dream, in a nation in which we respect the work of our public employees, a nation in which we lift up all workers, not just the people we work for, a nation in which we move forward, past the politics of hatred and division, toward broad-based prosperity that enriches us all.    

I know that you're all getting ready to go back out to your members, to the fights you face in your states. You're ready. You've heard from economists and strategists. You've seen polling numbers. You've talked tactics.   

You know, and I know, that you're not alone. The 12 million members of the AFL-CIO stand beside you, shoulder-to-shoulder—with your leadership.  

Other workers need you, too. Construction workers need you to stand up and raise your voice in defense of prevailing wages and against the shady practices of cut-rate contractors. Millions of jobless workers need you. Manufacturing workers need you.  

Teachers: Home care workers need you. Nurses: Teachers need you.  

But most of all, unorganized workers need you.  

We've got to raise our voices for all workers, because there really is no "them" and "us" when it comes to working people. It's all us.

We've been listening to union members and activists as we build our campaign to respond to the state-level attacks on workers. And I have to tell you, some of what I hear worries me. Too many of our members are falling victim to the divide and conquer strategies of the corporate agenda. We hear public employees ask why they should worry about what's happening to construction or manufacturing workers. We hear blue-collar workers ask why they should care about teachers or nurses.  

If the labor movement should know one thing by now, it's that united we stand and divided we beg. This can't be a parochial fight. It has to be as broad as each of your states, as broad as our country. Private-sector workers are getting beaten down, too—and have been for years. We're all in this together—and we won't win unless we're united. Will you fight the big battles for everybody?  

Roll up your sleeves! Because it's time to go to work! For two years, our opponents have had the luxury of standing on the outside, and shouting in.  

Now, they're on the inside, and we can see them for what they are. Mean. Spiteful. And small-minded.  But we have to paint that picture for our members who're less active, for our neighbors and friends who're less aware.   

It's up to us to take back the political momentum, to change the story of the year, to expose the myths and the lies. We need to do what we do best. Organize and educate. To get out in our workplaces.  To get out in our neighborhoods.  To get out in the streets when we need to.   

I believe that people across this nation can feel buyer's remorse, can begin to understand that they got hoodwinked by those endless TV commercials against working family candidates.  

But it'll take work. Well, we're no strangers to work. Whether you're organizing member lobby days or conducting outreach to groups in your communities, you've got to get to work with a will.  

And we'll all keep pursuing the American Dream together, keep fighting for it together, shoulder-to-shoulder, because we know that if we want it, we've got to work for it.  

Keep working for it.

Thank you. God bless you, and God bless America!

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