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Remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, National Day Laborers' Organizing Network 6th Annual Convention, Los Angeles, California

Richard Trumka • February 21, 2012

Thank you, Pablo [Alvarado], for your kind introduction.  And thank you all for the honor of speaking to you today.  

I'm proud to stand with you because I don't know of anyone who is working as hard as you are to force the United States to live up to and fully honor its democratic ideals.  

Organizing -- coming together -- is one of our greatest values.           

The pursuit of justice is one of our greatest values.   

Uniting for justice in the face of prejudice, under threat of official reprisal, against loud public condemnation, is what makes this nation great.  

Your organizing network and the work you do -- to keep workers safe, to make sure a wage promised is a wage paid, and to unify isolated workers -- all of that embodies the best of our values, and I applaud you for it.  

Brothers and sisters, I'd like to tell you my own personal story about immigration and work.  

I come from coal country, from the mountains and valleys of southwest Pennsylvania, from a small town called Nemacolin. My father's parents came to this country from Poland. My mother came to America from Italy as a baby girl in the arms of her parents.  

The language here was foreign, and the rules were confusing. The new immigrants were the last ones hired, and the first fired. They were afraid to speak up when the bosses cheated them on pay. They spoke a dozen languages in my hometown, and the locals had a dirty word for every one of them. I've heard them all, and I've been called some of them.  

They said we were taking their jobs, and ruining their country.  

But friends, we saw to it that our union did not discriminate based on race, color or national origin. Some unions excluded blacks and immigrants. But in the United Mine Workers, we all stood together, not as immigrants or native born, not white, black or brown, but as workers who shared a common fate.  

And by standing together, those coal miners began to build a better life.  

Working in a coal mine was not a good job. It was a terrible job, and that's why those immigrant workers who came before me were able to get them. The bosses were cheats. They charged us for the tools we used, and made us do all the dead work for free.

But those are good jobs now because we turned them into good jobs with our blood, our sweat, our solidarity and our union.  

When we stood together, we built the groundwork for the American middle class. We sent out organizers who built the unions of auto workers, textile workers, mill workers, machinists and meat packers.  

When we improved those jobs, we built a better life for all of our families, and union workers lifted up everyone else in America.  

When we all sent our children to college, America got a better education. In fact, when I was head of the United Mine Workers, I negotiated education into our contracts, and I know that education is the number one issue for Latinos. It always has been, and it always will be!  

Brothers and sisters, we didn't just build America's bridges, highways and high-rises. We built good jobs, we built a future for ourselves and our children. We built prosperity.  

And let me tell you, your organizing network is building this nation again. When you lift up yourself and your families, you're lifting up this entire country. God bless you for it. I'm lucky to stand beside you.  

My friends, immigration policy is work policy.  

Six years ago, you joined us at the AFL-CIO in a partnership. Pablo [Alvarado] and John Sweeney stood side-by-side in Chicago and promised to work together to fix this nation's broken immigration system. We turned back some horrible legislation since then, and we've kept up the struggle together to make sure that workers' rights—your rights and all of our rights—are recognized and respected.  

Over the past six years, the labor movement and the National Day Labor Organizing Network stood shoulder-to-shoulder. More and more, we have all come to see that work connects us all.  You're working with the Laborers' in New Jersey, Texas and California to build unions. Day labor centers in Washington state have joined the AFL-CIO and are bringing the best of our movements together—your creativity, courage and strength, our experience and political power.  

In about three months, we're going to celebrate May Day—as a day to recognize the rights of immigrants and the rights of workers. Last year, for the first time, the labor movement joined hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers around the country in celebrating May Day as immigrant workers' day.    

This year, we'll stand together again, but I'm talking about more than a rally. The AFL-CIO is embracing the future of America's labor movement. We're joining together with you to transform this great nation. We'll celebrate the brave men and women who come to this country, who struggle here for a better life, because America draws its strength from that struggle.  

Brothers and sisters, it's our job to honor our own rights as workers, and it's our responsibility -- when someone tries to deprive us of those rights -- to resist and refuse it and push right back against it!  

As president of the AFL-CIO, I stand with you to beat back the enforcement of anti-immigrant initiatives on the state and local level that are a threat to the rights of all workers. We oppose armed vigilantes like the Minutemen, who are terrorizing and even killing some of America's most vulnerable men, women and children. That's a violation of what America stands for. And it's wrong.  

We will continue working with you to fight back against the terrible, inhuman state laws like those passed in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama.   

And let me tell you, it's no coincidence that rogue state officials, like those in Arizona and Alabama who passed America's worst anti-immigration laws, have also targeted unions.  

That's just another reason why we must stand together.  

Sisters and brothers, in California the labor movement has supported the Trust Act, and will continue to do so.  

We oppose e-verify in its current form. We see it for what it is -- the latest version of the raid on the workplace. They don't need dogs, helicopters and police cars anymore, because the current e-verify is a tool to attack workers and to terrorize communities. We oppose any and all immigration enforcement-only programs, like Secure Communities. We need a legalization program.  And I promise you that we will continue to fight for that.   

I want to take a moment and recognize the outstanding work that you have done to put a spotlight on Secure Communities.  Your activism and your voices made the governors of New York, Illinois and Massachusetts reject Secure Communities. You made the federal government take notice.   

And when Janet Napolitano set up the Secure Communities Task Force, not surprisingly, NDLON was not invited—they didn't want troublemakers.   

But the AFL-CIO was invited, and the labor movement spoke for all of you in that task force.  We made that clear to them.  And when we saw that the weak report from that task force would not reflect the needs of workers—of all workers—we stood up from the table and resigned!  

We wouldn't put our name on it, because we know that immigration law today is just a tool to divide and hurt working people.  

We know all too well what the selective enforcement of immigration laws does for workers who are trying to form unions. Just a few miles from here, at Pomona College, 17 workers who have been organizing to join UNITE HERE Local 11 food service and restaurant workers union were fired for not having proper work documents—this is a clear case—the National Labor Relations Board found that the college targeted and punished workers who wanted to form a union.  

My friends, we know how to stand together and fight back, and that's what we're doing.  

America's labor movement has partnered with worker centers and others in cities from San Francisco to Miami and in Illinois, New Mexico and Massachusetts to pass and enforce laws against wage theft. It's working.  Here in Los Angeles, we're working with NDLON and other worker centers to pass a wage theft law that will hold employers accountable and secure the wages that you work so hard for.   

I don't need to tell you about wage theft—you live it—but I want to tell you about Jorge, who was hired on a street corner of North Chicago for roofing and demolition work for $400 for four days' work. The work was dangerous, but he needed the job. But after four days, the contractor only paid Jorge $300, and then vanished. With the help of the Latino Union of Chicago, Jorge is filing a case against the contractor with the Illinois Labor Department.  

We need this campaign to go national in a big way. Let's make a commitment to each other. Let's make it happen.  

When a young man named Rosalino Velazquez quit his job at a pizzeria in New Jersey last year, his boss owed him $600. He tried to collect by himself, but was turned away. He tried with his uncle, but the owner said, "No." Then he went with organizers and activists with New Labor and a bunch of fliers, and the owner paid him $300. Finally, Rosalino filed a case with the New Jersey Department of Labor for the rest.  

This is how far an employer will go to avoid paying a promised wage.  

My friends, when you and I stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, there is power in our union.  

It's a power big enough to transform this country, including every storefront, every street corner and every parking lot where workers wait for a job.  

And let me tell you that when you stand up and demand your rights, and when we stand together, we're all stronger, and we're all better for it. You're empowering yourselves, and you're empowering your families and this country, just as my family did. You are critical to the future of the American labor movement.  

You're rebuilding, you're energizing the American Dream. That's thanks to your hard work. You're building opportunities for yourselves and all those who will come after you. And when the DREAM Act passes and you send your kids to college, that's the future of America. You are the future of this nation.  

My friends, in our vision, America is a great country, a country where all families can work hard to get ahead, so our children and grandchildren can have a better life.  

And the only way we can build this vision is together!  We know that.  Unity.  That's the answer.  

That's how we'll turn bad jobs into good jobs. That's how we'll lift ourselves and our communities.  

No one will do it but us. As Pablo says, poor people have never gotten anything for free.  

But when we rise up, side-by-side, we get what we need. We have what it takes. We can make a future when every single worker has the fundamental right to be treated with dignity, to put in a hard day's work and be rewarded fairly for it.  

That's the world we want. That's the world we deserve. That's the world we can have and will have. My friends, the National Day Laborers' Organizing Network will take us forward. A new day is almost here. We're ready.  

God bless you, and God bless the work you do.

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