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Remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, Labor Research Action Network, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Richard Trumka • June 18, 2013

Thank you, Jeff.  Jeff is a model for combining trade unionism, activism, education and scholarship.  He has been an invaluable resource to the building trades after 9-11, after Hurricane Katrina and long before.

Let me also extend thanks to Joe McCartin, the Kalmanovitz Initiative on Labor and the Working Poor and Georgetown University for hosting this important conference.  Joe, of course, is among the foremost historians of public employee unionism. And at the helm of the Kalmanovitz Initiative, he has created a place where trade unionists and scholars can go to develop new ideas and where all parts of the labor movement together with its allies and friends can meet, debate and emerge stronger from the dialogue.    

And let me thank you all for being here.  Let me be frank:  We need your help.  I am here to tell you that the American labor movement cannot and will not continue down the same well-traveled road -- but the path forward is far from clear.  We need you to help chart that path.   

And when I say we, I don’t just mean we in the labor movement, I mean we as a country.  The future of America is at risk because we have a democracy deficit and a solidarity deficit.  And nowhere is that truer in our national life than in the workplace.

Last year our unions lost 400,000 members.  While some of those members were lost to unemployment caused by the recession, at least half were part of the steady erosion of union membership dating to the 1970s.  Since 1979, in fact, we have lost approximately 200,000 members each year.  Over half of the private sector workers who were union members in 1979 – autoworkers, steelworkers, plumbers -- have been lost.

And the decline in private-sector membership has led directly to attacks on public-sector collective bargaining.  When Wisconsin became the first state to enact a comprehensive public-sector bargaining law in 1959, union density was close to 40% in the state. When Governor Walker gutted that historic law in 2011, density was less than 7%.  Public-sector unions cannot survive as islands in a growing non-union sea.  That is the real lesson of Wisconsin.  

And despite what Fox News will tell you, those numbers do not simply represent a loss of dues revenue for “big labor.”  Each of those numbers represents one less worker who can confidently say, “That forklift isn’t safe!”  One less worker who receives the training needed to advance in a career.  One less worker with a pension good enough for a dignified retirement.  One less worker with an effective voice on the job and in our political system.

But those numbers represent something broader too.  Those numbers help explain our economic failures and our imperiled democracy—and that is a story we need your eloquent voices to tell. 

Americans know our country is out of balance -- out of balance when the richest 1% take home 24% of the income and own 40% of all wealth.  Out of balance when corporations are able to spend an unlimited amount to influence elections.  Out of balance when the numbers that spell opportunity and possibility for working families every day simply don’t add up. 

The Occupy movement’s message about the plight of the 99% spread like wildfire because people understand intuitively that when the math of our lives doesn’t compute, something is fundamentally wrong.

Our nation is begging for a shared understanding of what’s wrong. 

We need you to explain the relationship between workers’ declining collective power, rising productivity, flat wages, and skyrocketing inequality. 

We need you to explain the direct correlation between falling union density and the falling share of income going to the middle class. 

We need you to explain that if the Supreme Court believes corporations are people, then the law needs to foster and truly protect democratic organizations that increase the participation, pool the resources, and amplify the voices of working people in the workplace, in the public square and in the political process.  And that means unions. 

And we need you to explain that America cannot succeed when we treat 11 million workers as a silent underclass -- and at the same time comprehensive immigration reform cannot succeed without strong worker organizations to help those 11 million workers down what may be a too-long path to citizenship and to ensure their economic and political assimilation, just as a growing labor movement assisted an earlier generation of immigrants, Italians, Irish, Poles and Russians.  

In other words, we need you to explain what’s at stake as our country enters its fifth decade of wage stagnation and its sixth year of mass unemployment.  We need you to help put the pieces together, to help America see the bigger picture—that until we fix the solidarity deficit and the democracy deficit, we won’t be able to do the things we have to do to prosper as a nation—to invest in education and infrastructure, to address the challenge of energy independence and the threat of climate change—to act together to build broadly based prosperity in the global economy.  

One consequence of the sea change that has taken place in the labor movement since the 1950s is that it has come to look more like you.  In 1979, only 33% of union members had any college education.  Today, it is almost 70%.  Combined, the two teachers unions, the AFT and the NEA, dwarf the next largest union.  Does anybody here think the ferocious attack on teachers’ unions is about education reform and does not have implications spreading far beyond the classroom?   And for the academics here -- if you think you are immune within the ivy covered walls, consider Governor Rick Perry’s vision for higher education in Texas, the movement toward massive on-line courses, and the casualization of your work through the growing use of adjuncts.  We are all in this together.

And the same is true of your students.  While many of their parents are under water due to a housing bubble that was unsustainable when real wages were flat, students are faced with crushing debt and uncertain job prospects.  Amid state attacks on collective bargaining and unions, this year the Wisconsin legislature is seeking to defund the nation’s oldest, state-wide student organization, the United Council of University of Wisconsin Students—creating, basically, a campus right to work law.  We are all in this together.

Yet while 60% of those under 35 have a favorable view of unions, only 4.1% of young workers belong to unions.  We need you to draw the connections between the challenges faced by students and workers and to strengthen the links between the student movement and the labor movement.

Most of all, we need your ideas.  We must build upon enduring values, but we must rethink what it means for working people to have a real voice and collective power that can truly generate shared prosperity in a new age. 

The American labor movement needs to make a profound turn. 

In my own view, the turn needs to be guided by three broad principles.

First, a foundational principle to address the democracy deficit:  We need to embrace a broad democracy agenda that places robust organizations of working people at its core.  We should not have to knock on doors every two years simply to register citizens to vote. We need universal voter registration.  And we should not need 60 votes in the Senate simply to drag our outdated labor law into the 21st century or get five members confirmed to the NLRB. A minority in the Senate should no longer be able to block change in a democracy.  

Second, we need to open union membership to any worker who wants to join and not just those who can withstand the trial by fire that is the current NLRB election process. 

But it is not enough to announce our door is open. We need to be able to integrate these new members into the democratic life of the labor movement. We need ways to address their needs outside traditional collective bargaining even as we refashion collective bargaining for a global economy.

We need to make these new efforts self-sustaining so we can continue to be an independent labor movement.

We need to do this through a process of experimentation that is already under way.  At the
AFL-CIO, we have been experimenting through Working America since 2003, and that organization already has over 3 million members.  The Communications Workers are experimenting with TU, an organization of T-Mobile workers jointly affiliated with CWA and ver.di, the German union that represents workers at T-Mobile’s parent company Deutsche Telecom.  The United Food and Commercial Workers are experimenting through Our WalMart.

The great chemist and peace activist Linus Pauling once said, “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”  And that is what we are attempting to do.  But we have to do it much faster.  And bigger.  And more boldly. 

Third, we need to better direct our still considerable resources where they need to be – to use the proud institutions created in a different time to build a movement for a new time.  We need as a labor movement to be more rationally organized in relation to the jobs America does today. The labor movement is still, by far, the largest and most powerful progressive organization in this country, with 14.4 million members and elected leaders and union halls nationwide.  But we are too divided and too defensive.  The AFL-CIO can no longer simply adjudicate jurisdictional disputes over pieces of a shrinking pie.  We need to serve as a forum and focal point for creative, collaborative and forward-looking organizing. 

Although our unions were built in the factories of yesterday, we need to help workers organize who will occupy the jobs of tomorrow.  With the assistance of one of our next speakers David Rolf, AFSCME and SEIU have organized over a million homecare and child care workers, two of our fastest growing occupations.  That effort is a source of inspiration, but we can’t imagine that the solutions found there can be used like a cookie-cutter elsewhere.  We need a deeper understanding of how the global economy is transforming work and employment relations in our country, but we also need to ask how we promote the cooperative, large-scale organizing needed to address those transformations.

The labor movement needs to be not where we have been, but where workers are most in need.  And that requires a recognition that worker organizations may take new forms to meet new needs.
 
The Restaurant Opportunity Center has built a dynamic and expanding advocacy organization in an industry where 40% of the workers earn the minimum wage or less – I am delighted that Saru Jayaraman is also here to talk about the work of ROC -- and that last week she moderated one of eight online conversations being hosted by the AFL-CIO about the challenges facing working people.  Saru is a real pioneer who is demanding answers to the questions that need to be asked about the future of workers.   

The AFL-CIO has entered into partnership agreements with several national networks of worker centers, including, for example, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and created a procedure under which dozens of worker centers have affiliated with state federations of labor and central labor councils.  But how do we thicken those relationships to both encourage experimentation and knit together a united labor movement?    

Those are some of the questions I hope we can explore together during the next panel and throughout this conference.  We need your ideas and we need to test them through action. 

And you can each, individually, participate in the AFL-CIO’s process of change.  I urge each of you to find a way to participate in a listening session in person or on line at www.aflcio2013.org.  That’s www.aflcio2013.org.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Ideas must work through the brains and the arms of good and brave men, or they are no better than dreams.”  That is the dynamic relationship between the academy and the labor movement LRAN was formed to further.  And it is a relationship more important now than ever.

Thank you.

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