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Remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, 2013 Conference on New Models for Worker Representation, Chicago

Richard L. Trumka • March 7, 2013

Thank you, Bob.  And thank you for bringing us together, Thank you also to the Illinois Labor Education Program, the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies, the Illinois AFL-CIO and the Chicago Federation of Labor.  I’d also like to thank the University of Illinois in Chicago for hosting this important conference.

We’re here to talk about new models, new ways for workers to gain representation, because what’s happening with working people in our country cannot go on. I’m talking about record inequality, about the diminished power and fractured lives of working men and women.

This subject -- new models and new ways to represent workers -- carries an implicit criticism of the model the labor movement uses today.  Some people think accepting criticism is a mark of vulnerability, but I’m not concerned about appearing vulnerable. Working people and labor unions have been vulnerable for years. And no amount of bluster or head-in-the-sand insistence that everything is fine will change that reality.

So, yes, working people in America and our unions are vulnerable, but vulnerability presents us with both a challenge and an opportunity.

I’ll begin with a hard look at the landscape for worker representation in America. It’s not flattering. To be blunt, our basic system of workplace representation is failing to meet the needs of America’s workers by every critical measure.

The numbers give us all the proof we need.

Not even 7 percent of the private workforce in America has the security and stability of a union contract.  For the past few decades, falling union membership in the private sector was offset by the growth of public unions. But public union membership is now falling, too, partly from job losses caused by the recession, but also because of political attacks. I don’t have to cite chapter and verse. You know, just as well as I do, that private sector union growth paved the way for public union growth.  Now the reverse is proving true.

And last year, the American labor movement lost another 400,000 members -- 400,000.

These statistics frustrate me, because they obscure the people behind them. This isn’t about fewer dollars for the salaries of union officers, despite what Fox News says. Each of those numbers represents a person who has lost a job or who no longer has a voice at work. Think about all those conversations at kitchen tables—all those families who fear what comes next—who worry about how to keep a home or what to do without health care.  

Union density has been falling for years, and so has the fate of America’s middle class. A chart of union membership rates and the fortunes of America’s middle class shows twin red lines, falling together. The two are connected.  It could not be more clear.  And what that means is because America’s workers have less representation – less voice -- their productivity has become detached from their income. Workers produce more but earn less. Retirement security has fallen. The gap between the wealthiest and working people is as bad as or worse than it has been at any time in the past century.

This is bad for our economy.  It’s bad for America.

The loss of those union members also weakened the institutions of the labor movement. And the loss of those members has made it harder to organize to win the things our economy needs. The labor movement seeks public dollars for infrastructure because those dollars create jobs, true, but also because world-class infrastructure will make America more competitive. We want everyone in America to have access to health care and quality public education—of course that’s good for working people—but we would all be better off in a country where all of us are healthier and have a real opportunity to learn.

Working people want to revive American manufacturing and restore quality public services because that would create jobs. We want prosperity and economic growth—the kind of broad, sustainable prosperity built from a virtuous cycle of investment that fuels innovation that fuels more investment.

Let me tell you a story. In the book, Hard Times, the great voice of working people and proud Chicagoan Studs Terkel, recalls a small town newspaper publisher named Fred Sweet in Ohio who had supported an organizing drive at a factory there by reporting honestly about it, which didn’t sit well with business owners. The head of the biggest department store in town told Fred to get off his union kick, and then pulled his ads from the paper.

Well, the organizing effort continued, and the workers finally won a fair contract, but the paper went out of business. A few months later, the owner of the department store grabbed Fred to tell him how great it was to have all those workers pouring into the store with bigger paychecks every week. Business was booming, the store owner said. “You were right,” he said. “I was wrong.”

That town’s business community learned an important lesson. But who remembers the lesson today?  America is once again like that small Ohio town before the organizing effort.

And part of what we have to do is tell that story.  We have to explain to people who genuinely fear for their future that their insecurity is not caused by the firefighter who still has a pension; by the union auto worker who still has job security or by government spending that protects the most vulnerable, builds critical infrastructure and creates jobs.  We have to explain that the insecurity is caused by an economy and a political system that have been thrown out of balance and that a voice for workers is the solution, not the problem.

So what else should we do? Well, I can tell you what we won’t do. Our job as leaders of the American labor movement is not to tidy up the offices, lock the doors and turn out the lights. The future is what we make of it.

We have to start with the fundamentals. The potential for any organization that improves the lives and conditions of working people in America could hardly be better.

First, America’s workers are ready for something that works. Think about it.  Decades after wages flat-lined, working people continue to produce tremendous value. Young people continue to go to college, racking up mountains of debt in the hope that a college degree will lead to a better life. Immigrants keep coming to America, despite our broken and cruel immigration policies. And, incredibly, those brave workers represent one of the few bright spots in organizing for the American labor movement. Unionization among Latinos is growing. We support those workers, and together we will make it possible for more of them to form unions without fear as we fight for a path to citizenship for 11 million people who are American in every way but on paper.

Second, the labor movement remains the largest and strongest force for progressive change in America.  We have 14 and a half million members.  We have union halls across the country where ordinary people can meet and talk and organize a march.  We have democratically elected leaders who can speak for and mobilize working people.

Third, together with our allies, we are the majority -- as November’s election demonstrated.  Our network of coalition partners is diverse, strong and growing. At our AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting last month, we rededicated ourselves to a process through which we are strengthening the ties between local labor councils in cities like Chicago and state federations in states like Illinois and other progressive groups like the NAACP, NCLR,  Mom’s Rising and the Sierra Club.

This is about more than occasional transactions. We’re building enduring relationships -- and we’ve only just begun. Our union halls everywhere must be the places where people who care about our communities and our country gather in coalition.

So the fundamentals remain strong.  Our task now is not to have all the answers but to be open to new answers. Our job is be the kind of institution that fuels a movement—that helps workers and activists try new ideas, to take risks and be willing to fail and to bounce back from failure to try again and again and again.  

Listen, at this moment, we may not be able to imagine all the new models of worker representation that will emerge in response to our crisis.

But three things are obvious to me.

First, we must find a way to allow millions of America’s workers to join the labor movement without forcing them to survive trial by fire in a workplace organizing drive.

We are not going to rebuild the labor movement solely through NLRB elections and voluntary recognition by employers, no matter how smart and strategic our campaigns—particularly now when three Republican judges on a single court of appeals have essentially rendered our nation’s labor law unenforceable by invalidating the President’s recess appointments to the NLRB. The AFL-CIO’s door has to be—and will be—open to any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace. 

We have created one new form of membership in Working America. For 10 years, Working America canvassers have been bringing people into the labor movement who don’t have the benefit of a union on their jobs. Every week, at front doors and in informal gatherings at congregations and beauty salons all over America, those community organizers talk to thousands of people.  

Now, with 3 million members, Working America is starting to reach people where they work. Around the country, workers in industries – the film industry, construction and retail workers, for example – are joining Working America industry committees as a way to get closer to unions and begin to take collective action.

We are building other new forms of membership through partnership agreements with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.  In 2006, here in Chicago, the AFL-CIO adopted a new policy extending affiliation to worker centers across the country from New York to California.

And we are making union membership available to workers -- even if they do not neatly fit the legal definition of an employee.  AFSCME and SEIU did that with hundreds of thousands of homecare and home-based childcare workers across the country.  The Writers Guild is doing that for writers in the entertainment industry.  In New York City, taxi drivers formed the Taxi Workers Alliance a little over 10 years ago, and the Alliance has now spread to other cities.  Ninety per cent of New York’s cabbies are immigrants, largely from South Asia—Bangladesh, Pakistan, India.  Their union now has an organizing charter from the AFL-CIO, the first we have issued in decades—even though the law considers the drivers to be independent contractors.

Those are just some of the new ways we can make union membership accessible to more workers.

Second, we must organize more strategically.

Many of our unions were created over 100 years ago when the economic and demographic landscape was very different.  We can’t just defend our historic industrial and geographic bases when global forces far outside our power to control are eroding, if not destroying, those bases.  Unions and our progressive allies need to collectively redirect our energy to focus on where jobs will be in the future and which workers can successfully organize and gain representation in the new global economy.

Third and finally, we need to change our internal structure to deploy our collective resources more efficiently.  We must do this to defend workers’ rights and to be relevant to the 120 million workers in America who have no voice at work.

We see from what happened in Michigan with the passage of so-called right-to-work legislation that state-level attacks cannot be defeated only by unions operating within one state.  And we also know that workers cannot be organized on any scale by even our largest unions acting alone. 

In fact, global cooperation is essential, as the Machinists found in helping Ikea workers organize up and down the east coast, as the Auto Workers are finding in helping Nissan workers come together in Mississippi and Tennessee, and as the Communications Workers are finding in the formation of a new union, TU, together with ver.di, Germany’s largest service union, to organize and represent all Deutsche Telekom/T-Mobile workers in the U.S.

The federation structure of the AFL-CIO was designed mostly to protect unions from one another, to protect jurisdiction and to prevent raiding.  But the task ahead is too big for a fragmented and compartmentalized labor movement.  So we must change.  We need a labor movement that can truly act collectively to represent all workers, and we intend to create one. 

Almost 25 years ago, my predecessor, George Meany, told the delegates to the 1979 AFL-CIO Convention: “The labor movement cannot be content with defending the status quo, or reliving past glories. We must constantly look to the future, develop new leadership, adapt policies to changing conditions and new technologies, but—always, always—with unswerving loyalty to the mission of the trade union movement as the instrument for improving and enhancing the working and living conditions of those who work for wages.”

We could read this quote as comforting.  We could read it as affirming that the labor movement has never been blind to the challenges we face.  I do not read it that way.  I read George Meany’s words as a warning—a warning that words may sound good but in reality be nothing but excuses.  And the time for excuses is over. 

So let me give you one last number: 4.2%.  That is the percentage of workers between the ages of 16 and 24 who were union members in 2012.  And it is the lowest percentage among any age group and represents a .2% drop since 2011.  We all know that students are on the front lines of every social movement, but right now, when those students leave school and enter the workforce, they are not joining unions.   

But I know that America’s young people—brimming with talent and hopes, facing student debt, unpaid internships, dead end jobs and an uncertain future—will demand something better.  A better country, a better world, but most of all, a better workplace. 

That’s already happening here in Chicago in classrooms and factories and warehouses.  And workers, businesses and communities are coming together in the labor movement in Chicago to invest in infrastructure and to create new educational institutions, like the Austin Polytechnical High School—but also to stand together with workers who stand up for themselves on the job in places as diverse as the Chicago Public Schools and Walmart warehouses. 

For the national labor movement to play its part in helping workers organize, we must open up union membership and make the benefits of representation available to all workers. We need to create new models of worker representation. We need to be more strategic and forward-looking. And we need to face this challenge collectively, all of us who are fortunate enough to represent working people today and all of us who care about the future of workers, including all of us in this room.   

What will it be? Will the Taxi Workers Alliance prove to be the model?  Will Working America?  Our Walmart? Warehouse Workers for Justice? The Restaurant Opportunity Center?  The Fight for 15? Or innovative efforts to help car wash workers organize in LA, New York City and in a partnership between the Steelworkers and ARISE here in Chicago? 

When we restore worker representation, we can restore the American Dream, the dream that each and every one of us, if we work hard and play by the rules, if we do our part, can have a piece of the good life, that we can earn fair pay and raise a family if we want one, have quality affordable health care and look forward to a dignified retirement, and that we can pass along a better life to our kids and grandkids.

We are tied together -- the 4.2%, the 400,000, all of us.  We'll restore the American Dream, because we're the ones who make America work.  We wake her up each day.  We tuck her into bed each night.  We teach her students.  We drive the buses.  We sail the ships.  We build the bridges and put out the fires.  We bake the bread and clean the streets.  We do the work, and work connects us all.  Each and every one of us.

Over 100 years ago, the only unions were of skilled craft workers.  No one thought industrial workers could organize. 

Then a man from a small town in Indiana, Eugene Debs, created a new model, a union of all railroad workers.  And when, in a small town just south of where we sit today, 4,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike to protest a cut in wages, Debs led a national railroad strike in defense of the Pullman workers.  The strike led to federal court injunctions, armed intervention, and the jailing of Eugene Debs, the leader of the Railway Union.  From his prison cell, Debs declared:

            “Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians.  But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.”

The armed might of the federal government broke the National Railway Union.  But the idea of an industrial union—a union of all workers in an industry, could not be broken—and four decades later provided the answer in the industrial age, in Steel, Auto, and Rubber -- helping to pull our country out of the Great Depression, and creating the American middle class.

Of course, in human affairs, nothing is as certain as the setting of the sun.  But this much I can guarantee:  Our institutions, our unions will experiment, will adapt to this new age, will change,  and with your help, your ideas and your innovations, working men and women will guide our country toward a better future.  Thank you. 

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