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Remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, McBride Lecture, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

Richard Trumka • September 14, 2011

Thank you, Marty [Marty Wolfson, director of the Higgins Labor Studies Program], for that kind introduction and for the great work of the Higgins Labor Studies Program. With its education, outreach and research, the Higgins Labor Studies Program promotes the Catholic social teachings that work must be valued, workers must be honored and justice must be done.  

This program continues the work of America's leading labor priest, Msgr. George Higgins, who, as best I know, never turned down an invitation to march on a picket line, support an organizing campaign or offer a prayer at any gathering of more than a dozen union members.  

He wrote about workers' rights so often that one of his pieces was entitled: "Why There's So Much Ado about Labor in My Column." His answer said it all: "I am convinced that we are not likely to have a fully free or democratic society over the long haul without a strong and effective labor movement."  

If Monsignor Higgins were with us here tonight in person as he is in spirit, he would be encouraged to see so many outstanding scholars and activists for the causes that were closest to his heart.  While I wish I could acknowledge all of you by name, I do want to recognize two leaders who represent the variety and vitality of today's labor movement.

Nancy Guyott is the first female president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO – and the youngest in almost 50 years. She's a member of the United Steelworkers and AFSCME, a former state Commissioner of Labor and a graduate of Harvard and the Indiana University School of Law.

Jim Robinson, the director of United Steelworkers District 7, joined the union on his first day at Inland Steel in East Chicago. Recognizing a natural leader, his coworkers in the basic oxygen furnace department made Jim their safety committeeman, and he's served the union ever since. While working for the union, Jim attended the Loyola University Chicago School of Law – and graduated at the top of his class.

The United Steelworkers have generously supported this lecture series, and you could say the labor movement has endowed this great university. Many of your parents and grandparents climbed the ladder of opportunity with a helping hand from their unions. That's how I – a coal miner's son and the grandson of immigrants from Italy and Poland – graduated from college and law school while working in the mines during the summers. And I went on to a life beyond my bravest dreams.

Last Thursday night, I sat in the gallery at the U.S. Capitol, alongside the First Lady, several corporate CEOs and best of all – some working people from across the nation. I had the honor of hearing President Obama address Congress and the country about the jobs crisis. I've come a long way for a guy from Nemacolin, Pennsylvania – but believe me, I never forget that   I'm representing the more than 12 million members of the AFL-CIO and all of America's workers.

President Obama spoke eloquently of the America where my generation grew up: "an America where hard work and responsibility paid off, a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share – where if you stepped up, did your job and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in awhile.  If you did the right thing, you could make it; anybody could make it in America."

My generation – and your parents and grandparents – could make it in America because of the labor movement. For the quarter century after World War II, our economy grew steadily, and every sector of society – the rich, the poor and the ever-expanding middle class – saw their livelihoods increase at about the same rate. Because a third of the workforce belonged to unions – and set the standard for the entire economy – Americans reaped the rewards of working harder and smarter.

Tonight, I want to talk about how a revitalized labor movement can build a growing, generous and optimistic America again. Your generation can -- and must -- lead the way.

We could talk all night about what social justice means, but it certainly doesn't mean the economy we are enduring in America today.

In our homes and our houses of worship, we've all been taught that, after faith and family, work is the most central thing in our lives. It's how we support ourselves and our loved ones; how we connect to our fellow men and women; and how we contribute to the world and leave a legacy for our lives.

But more than 25 million Americans are looking for fulltime jobs but can't find them. The official unemployment rate is more than 9 percent among all workers, more than 11 percent among Hispanics, more than 16 percent among African Americans and more than 21 percent among young people who have high school diplomas but aren't attending college.

When President Obama put his hand on the Bible on January 20th, 2009, the financial system was having a heart attack, the economy was hemorrhaging 700,000 jobs a month and the question on everyone's mind was not how soon we would recover from the recession but whether the nation was reeling into another Great Depression.

Now we're in danger of a double-dip recession. President Obama has correctly called on Congress to pass a jobs bill that will jumpstart the economy, put working families back on their feet and rebuild our schools, our highways, our airports and our broadband capacity.

President Obama's opponents are saying that America can't afford to go back to work. They're saying America is broke. They're wrong – our country is still the wealthiest in the world.

But, while America isn't broke, something is being broken in America – our sense of justice; our expectation of fairness; and our confidence that, for all our quarrels with each other, we really are all in this together.  That's what's broken.

For the past 20 years or more – with the exception of the late 1990s – most Americans' wages have been flat or falling. Almost all of the increases in income have gone to the wealthiest 10 percent, and 56 percent have accrued to the wealthiest 1 percent.

It used to be that corporate CEOs earned about 50 times as much as the average American worker. Now, the CEOs of the nation's Standard and Poor's 500 companies make, on average, 319 times more than the average American worker. In other words, they make more money in one day than their employees earn in an entire year.

Here at Notre Dame, you learn that learning should be put to use for a greater good. But it seems that, as well-educated as many of today's CEOs certainly are, some of them haven't learned three simple but powerful words – "giving something back." That's why, of last year's hundred highest-paid corporate chief executives in this country, 25 of them took home more in salaries and perks than their companies paid in 2010 federal income taxes.

Remember that when you hear some corporate conservative say that America is too broke to repair the roof on an inner-city school or to keep an outstanding algebra teacher on her job.

America isn't broke, but the basic bargains of American life are being broken. Fathers and mothers are having a harder time finding, keeping and moving forward in jobs that can support their families. American dreams like those that propelled our parents and grandparents are being dashed against the rocks of our economy.

Decent jobs with economic security are being cast as more than America can afford or workers deserve. Low-wage, part-time, temporary, no-benefit work is being touted as the "new normal" for our economy. Conservative politicians and many in the media have been taking aim at any group of working Americans who still enjoy family-supporting jobs with stable health coverage and retirement plans.

First, it was the auto workers. In spite of what the auto industry means for the Midwest and our entire manufacturing base, we were told that we could do just fine without a domestically owned auto industry. Fortunately, President Obama rescued the industry, the industry is recovering and hundreds of thousands of jobs have been saved.

Then, it was America's teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses and other public service employees. Starting here in Indiana – and spreading to Wisconsin, Ohio and other states – governors have been seeking to strip state and local government employees of their American rights to form unions and bargain for better lives.

And, then, this summer the target became telecommunications workers at Verizon. Even though their company is profitable and their CEO enjoys a lavish compensation package, these workers were told to accept cutbacks in their pay, benefits and working conditions.

The auto workers, public workers and telecommunications workers who are under attack all are union members. Union members built the American middle class. We will always be under fire from those who want to downsize the American Dream. And we will always keep fighting to defend and expand the great American middle class.

Throughout our history, the labor movement has had three great strengths. We bring people together to fight for something greater than themselves. We promote upward mobility – so those who have climbed the ladder of opportunity can help those on their way up. And we are practical and adaptable, forging answers from the challenges at hand.

As we defend our sisters and brothers in besieged industries and occupations, the American labor movement is retooling and revitalizing ourselves. The students, steelworkers and state employees who have crowded the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, and marched in the streets of Columbus, Ohio, are waging a struggle that will shape your generation's future. 

At a time when the unemployment rate among young people is higher than any other sector of society, no generation has a greater stake in fundamental change.

Yes, you are fortunate to be attending a great university. But, in today's economy, whether young people have a four-year degree, a two-year degree or a high-school diploma, you still have a stake in building an economy that works for everyone and where everyone works. After studying hard and working summers, after accumulating a mountain of debt, even college graduates are finding that job offers are few, starting salaries are shrinking and more than half the jobs that they land don't even require college degrees.

Two years ago, the AFL-CIO conducted a survey of young workers. We found what you know too well: Young Americans' employment, income and benefits have fallen sharply. Young people are less likely than older workers to be covered by health insurance or have retirement plans on their jobs. In fact, only 31 percent of young workers said they make enough money to pay their bills and put money aside. More than 40 percent had no paid sick days. And nearly two in five had to delay their education or career training because of financial difficulties.

In the past, the labor movement has let you down. We weren't visible or vibrant enough to inspire young Americans to reach out to us to build the America we all want. You know, sometimes when I say I work for the AFL-CIO, people – especially young people – say, "Oh that company with the duck – AFLAC."

More people know about that duck than about the AFL-CIO. Especially now that our numbers have declined, fewer people even know a union member. We need to show young people that the labor movement is still relevant in today's changing economy and can be your instrument for improving your lives and changing our economy.

We must bore in deep on America's changing demographics and shifting workforce. We have to reach out to young workers, not only by blogging and using social media like Facebook and Twitter, but by encouraging young trade unionist groups to form in every community and focusing hard on the needs of young workers. New workers are stepping into one of the cruelest economies in generations—the "gig economy," some call it, offering young workers not jobs but a succession of short-term temporary no-benefit "gigs." That requires a different kind of outreach and organizing.  

If you'll permit me to make a shameless plug, the AFL-CIO is inviting hundreds of young activists, workers and leaders for our second Next Up Young Workers Summit two weeks from now, in Minneapolis, from September 29th through October 2nd.

They'll be discussing how to organize workplaces, build community coalitions and win election campaigns, as well as how to make use of social media and develop leaders for the long haul. If there is any way that you can attend, I urge you to join us. You can find more information and register for the conference on the Internet at nextupsummit.com.

But, as you well know, the fight for social justice isn't far-away or far-off. You can join the struggle right here, right now.

I'm proud to have met with members of the Notre Dame Campus Labor Action Project. I endorse your efforts to persuade this university to divest from the HEI hotel chain. It prides itself on buying hotels and cutting costs by slashing workers' wages, holding down health insurance and subcontracting jobs.

Recently, an HEI hotel in Hollywood disgraced itself by demanding that the Latina housekeepers show proof of their Social Security numbers more than a year after they had been hired. This came only four days after the housekeepers had complained about heavy workloads.

As workers at a number of HEI hotels try to improve their lives by forming a union, one was fired for using a bullhorn in a picket line.

We all know the story of the itinerant carpenter and his pregnant wife who were turned away from a night's lodging because there was no room at the inn. There must be room at our nation's inns – and at our great universities – for the values of human decency and social justice.

To advance these timeless principles, the labor movement needs to change with the times. We are reaching out and creating new structures to support the struggles of workers whose jobs don't fit the traditional mold of fulltime permanent jobs with a clearly defined employer and stable wages and benefits.

And we must embrace the organizing already under way by working people excluded from traditional organizing. For instance, the AFL-CIO is collaborating with more than 140 worker centers in more than 80 cities and towns that provide services and advocacy for recent immigrants and other low-wage workers.

In New York and a dozen other states, we're supporting domestic workers who are organizing. Their challenge is daunting, and their work is difficult. Each maid, each nanny has a different employer. Domestic Workers United is developing neighborhood-by-neighborhood contract standards and creating resource centers. And DWU campaigned for and passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the New York state legislature. The bill lays out baseline working standards--including a reasonable workday and sick leave. And DWU is forming an alliance of domestic workers globally.

In New York City, we're working with a similar campaign to help taxi drivers in New York organize. These drivers work 60 to 70 hours a week in one of the most dangerous jobs around—at minimum wage. They have no job security. They run the risk of being assaulted, robbed or even murdered by a passenger, or street thugs. And they're completely uninsured and unprotected. They're routinely misclassified by their employers as "independent contractors" and denied the protections that other workers enjoy, including the freedom to form a union.

We're helping workers across the spectrum in today's economy. In the state of Washington, a union called WashTech is organizing Information Technology workers, including those who have had to jump from job to job in this "gig economy."

All these struggles may seem hopeless. But the same was said, decades ago, about coal miners and garment workers, teachers and teamsters, our parents and grandparents. They waged and won their struggles for simple justice, and so will we. We refuse to accept that social justice is unattainable, economic security is unaffordable and inequality must be forever woven into the fabric of our lives.

We're waging the same kind of uphill and unending battle in the political arena. The problem with politics is that the wealthy and well-connected are shouting down the voices of working Americans. We're striving to amplify the voices of working families in a public debate dominated by narrow partisanship and economic extremism.

That is why we are founding an Independent Working Families Political Action Committee. It will be a PAC for regular Americans, independent of both major parties and their candidates, speaking directly to and for working families, targeted to the state capitols as well as Washington, and fighting for positive programs that will build an economy that works for everyone.

This effort builds on our efforts to revitalize American democracy. Through an organization called Working America, we are educating, energizing and mobilizing working Americans who do not currently enjoy union representation but share our commitment to economic opportunity and social justice.

In the best traditions of the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the women's movement, we understand that sometimes those who would build a better America must take it to the streets.

Last spring and summer, through our "We Are One" campaign, we supported the struggles of public-sector workers here in the Midwest.

This fall, we are waging an "America Wants to Work" campaign to support programs to put Americans back to work rebuilding America's schools, highways, airports and mass transit systems – what the policy wonks call "infrastructure." During the America Wants to Work week of action, on October 12, a nationwide teach-in on jobs will be broadcast on college campuses across the country. I hope you will watch for it and take part.

America wants to work. And Americans want to work together.

For all our differences and difficulties, we want to work together for the common good and to be part of something bigger, better and more enduring than our own individual lives.

In the labor movement, we're eager to reach out across economic and philosophical divides to find common ground for the common good.

It isn't often that the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce can find common ground. But, not long ago, I met with their board of directors and, together, we endorsed a program to rebuild America's infrastructure much like the proposal President Obama offered Thursday night.

After the meeting where the AFL-CIO and America's business leaders saw eye-to-eye, someone asked me if we also wanted to provide every American with union-made parkas. I asked why. "Because Hell just froze over," she said.

Working together is at the heart and soul of what our unions – and the more perfect union that our nation's founders sought to organize – are all about.

Last Sunday, September 11th, we mourned the victims of the terrorist attacks on America, and we celebrated the first responders who raced into the burning buildings while everyone else was running out. Firefighters, the medics, the police officers and the construction workers risked their lives and worked long hours to answer the call to service. For these first responders, their first thoughts were about the common good, not their individual wellbeing or even their own survival.

Almost all were union members. But their union contracts didn't impede them – in fact, their spirit of solidarity may have inspired them – to do the right thing for their fellow Americans.

That same spirit of working together to bring out the best of us can build back the labor movement and bring back the America we believe in. It will be the struggle of our lifetimes, and I hope and pray that some of you will devote your lifetimes to it.

Around the world, young people have been making headlines, from Egypt to Tunisia and Libya. You can make headlines here in America, from Madison to Columbus and Indianapolis. As you make headlines, you will make history, you will make a difference and you will make your mark as a generation that changed America, forever and for the better.

Thank you all for inviting me here tonight, and I look forward to answering your questions and continuing this discussion.

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