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Remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, National Mediation Board Conference, Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Washington, D.C.

Richard Trumka • November 15, 2012

Thank you, Harry [Hoglander]. And thank you all for the opportunity to speak with you today, and for your warm welcome. I’m honored to join you this morning.

But before I begin, I want to recognize all of the work that everyone in the rail industry in the Northeast has done after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and after the snow storms last week. Passenger rail got hit hard, but you came back strong—for your communities and for each other. America saw professional-ism and a commitment on display, and that’s a testament to your passion and your service. It was a reminder in the final stretch of a hard-fought election campaign that we’re truly all in this together. We do want and value the same things. Thank you. 

Now, I believe, as I know all of you do, that the National Mediation Board’s mission is critical—you facilitate commerce. That’s a noble goal. It’s an American goal. And it’s a fair goal, fair both to working people and to business. 

And that’s what you are and what you do, in so many ways. 

Your work helps transport America’s workers—from Wall Street executives to school teachers, from engineers and lawyers to nurses and laborers—so the work of America can get done. 

And that’s so important—but rail in particular -- and the transportation industries more generally -- move much more. By its very nature, rail connects communities and so it spreads ideas. That’s one reason rail has always played a major role in the movement for social justice and progress for working people in America. 

Think back to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and how important that mighty union was to instilling the ideal of service, not servitude, in work. 

The role of rail—and your role—in spreading critical ideas is not limited to the past—because America once again stands at the cusp of a renaissance of rail. 

Rail will power innovation. President Obama gets it. He understands the importance of fostering the next generation of passenger rail, of giving our cities and states the transportation options we desperately need, and President Obama knows that new technologies spin off advances in surprising ways, and that those advances, as well as the underlying investments, create jobs here in this country. 

Our communities need these jobs—all these jobs—for workers who wear hard hats, and for the people who wear suits and design rail systems, and for those who wear uniforms and operate and maintain trains. 

We’re going to build the next generation of passenger trains in America, because when it comes to rail, President Obama has employed the strongest domestic manufacturing requirements in American history. 

It’s a simple idea—if we’re going to spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars, American companies should get the business, and we should be doing the work. I want to commend the Department of Transportation for pushing hard to fulfill the mandate, for matching each specified unmet need of a manufacturer with an array of domestic options. And the good news is that it’s working. 

As we build the high-speed trains of tomorrow, expand American manufacturing and develop new technology, we’ll create an entire new industry of great jobs, jobs that will allow workers to live a decent life, to raise a family if they want one, to get health care and earn a secure retirement and a better life for their kids. 

The rest of America has a lot to learn from you. You show that America can have strong and growing industries, and strong and growing unions, for a strong and growing middle class. 

You can be the proof that we never have to choose between our jobs and our rights—and quite frankly the two are essential ingredients of long-term prosperity. 

To be perfectly honest with you, despite clear language to the contrary in federal law, a lot of misguided people in America think that workers should have no voice, that working people should not be allowed to form unions on the job, or that those unions should be feckless and weak, and I’ve heard all manner of reasons cooked up by those people as to why. 

Well, on behalf of America’s labor movement, I assure you that those people can believe what they will, but we will go on organizing, we will continue pushing ahead with our campaign to enable more workers to make their own choices—and to make sure our unions are democratic. 

Thanks to the leadership of the NMB and the Obama administration, airline and rail workers have gotten a real injection of democracy—union elections now use the same democratic standards as we use to elect our senators, governors and members of the House. 

Being able to make our own decision about whether to be union members, being able to exercise our fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and association, puts in our hands the ability to change bad jobs, dangerous jobs, dead-end jobs, into good jobs.

That’s what the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters did. That’s what my father and my grandfather did, too. You see, I’m a third-generation coal miner. I grew up in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, and I’ll never forget the day I told my father I landed a job in the mines. He wasn't happy. I thought he would be! But he was angry, and he pointed a finger at me and said if I went down there once, the coal would creep down into my soul, and I’d never get it out. 

I didn’t understand my father’s feelings then, but I do now. You see, he worked as a coal miner so I wouldn’t have to. My father spent his life mining coal, and he died of black lung to provide our family with a better life. I see that now.

And as a coal miner, my father organized and campaigned with his union—with my union—with the United Mine Workers—to give more miners a voice on the job, to keep mines as safe as possible and to help miners live longer and live better, and that’s a legacy that I take seriously. It’s my legacy. It’s the legacy of the American labor movement. And that legacy has always been based on making life better for American people, not just some of us but all of us. 

And now our goal is to make sure that every worker in America has that right. 

Because working women and men are the ones who step forward when our country needs us, we’re the ones who wake America up every morning, and we put her to sleep every night. We answer the call.

We build the track and drive the train and take the tickets and so much more.  We do what it takes, no matter the cost. And we will take our country back! 

Today, as I’m sure you’re all aware, only 7 percent of private sector workers can bargain collectively with our employers for a better life. 

That figure is one of the most important numbers in American life. It’s behind our nation’s stagnant wages and our anemic consumer demand. 

It’s the reason why our economy hasn’t grown—and why it has fallen victim to credit-fueled bubbles.           

That 7 percent figure has delivered us to our present condition, and we will not revive our economy until it begins to grow. 

As a nation, we need to understand and accept the key role that empowered workers play in any successful economy.  I won’t dance around this idea. The right of workers to organize, to bargain collectively and to raise our voices in the public square is just as important as the right to vote. 

Workers are not a burden. We are the solution. We are the backbone of America. 

So we in the labor movement are expanding our reach. Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate, is engaging the unemployed and millions of working-class people who don’t have the benefit of collective bargaining. 

And we’re strengthening our alliances and building new partnerships with worker centers and self-organizing efforts among working people excluded from our labor laws. 

We’re helping car wash workers in Los Angeles organize — and taxi drivers in New York City and domestic workers—housekeepers and nannies all over the country who want and deserve the fair rewards work should supply. 

And we’re engaging young workers—and looking hard at what work is going to look like in the future and what unions should look like.

So my question to you is this, what will we make of this moment in American history?  What role will rail play in a rejuvenated labor movement?  How will you affect America’s future? 

America needs you, all of you, labor and management alike, your relationships, your insights, your enterprise, your dedication and your expertise. 

Over the course of this past election cycle, working people across America have had a chance to think hard about our vision and our values, to visualize the nation we want and need for ourselves and our communities, our children and grandchildren. 

Our nation still stands at a crossroads. We’re either going to get on the path to shared prosperity, or we’ll let ourselves be fooled by deficit fears into heading back down the road to economic ruin and inequality. 

Amtrak is an example of the choices our leaders will be making. We want to see Amtrak expanded and put on sound financial footing. Amtrak plays an essential role in our national transportation network.  Right now is the right time to invest in Amtrak’s operating and capital needs. Now is the time to support its skilled and dedicated employees.

And we have an opportunity to deliver on the promise of high-speed rail. 

So we applaud the plan put forward by President Obama and Vice-President Biden to invest $8 billion in 2013 as a down payment toward the goal of giving 80 percent of Americans the ability to ride a faster train by 2020, to make our rail system the envy of the world. 

This is a necessary step in the expansion of high-speed rail in America, and it would boost U.S. manufacturing jobs.                                                              

You know and I know the demand is there. Amtrak ridership has grown steadily over the past three years and has set annual ridership records in eight of the last nine fiscal years.  High gas prices and road congestion have pushed up demand for light-rail. 

The demand is there. The need is there. It’s time for us to do something about it. 

Working people know that no matter what the pundits and so-called experts say about the hard truths of the deficit, some things are worth investing in. Passenger rail is one of those things.                                                      

The most frustrating thing about Washington, DC, is the way political insiders create a self-reinforcing reality out of nonsense. 

Take what the media are calling the “fiscal cliff.” There is no fiscal cliff! What we’re facing is an obstacle course within a manufactured crisis that was hastily thrown together in response to inflated rhetoric about our federal deficit. 

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t for a moment think that America’s deficit is not a long-term problem. It is, but it’s not our short term crisis.

But all the deficit chatter has distracted us from our real crisis—the immediate crisis of 23 million unemployed or underemployed workers, a crumbling national infrastructure, an under-supported manufacturing sector, all of which require significant federal investments, all of which will allow our economy to grow out of this crisis, instead of digging us further in. 

And yet, none of the quote-unquote “fiscal conservatives” who whipped the deficit talk will consider, even for a moment, the idea of fair taxation. 

At what point will the capital gains tax rate be low enough? At zero? What about taxes on the wealthiest among us? Should those fortunate people pay nothing at all? Is there any circumstance that would justify raising taxes? Not war? Not the Great Recession? 

And what should working people, jobless people and retirees pay to lower those tax rates for the rich? Should we give up the promise of health care and retirement security that Medicare and Medicaid represent? How about Social Security’s promise? Should that be sacrificed so “fair taxation” can remain unspeakable?

Not on your life. So all across this country, my brothers and sisters in the labor movement—and our community allies, are telling our members of Congress:
It’s time to protect social security benefits.  It’s time to protect Medicare and Medicaid benefits. And it’s time to raise taxes for the richest 2%, to stop tax breaks that encourage companies to send jobs offshore and to close loopholes that allow some people and corporations to hide income in offshore tax havens! This madness is wrecking America. It’s driving up our deficit, and it has to stop! 

That’s fair. That’s reasonable. 

We're done with America's race to the bottom. This has to end! I’ve been told that America’s workers in the passenger rail industry must accept the fact that their pay and benefits are out of line. I’ve been told that workers in passenger rail are going to have to pay more for health insurance and more for retirement. 

That’s ridiculous. It's time to turn that around. We’re going to fight to give all workers the ability to earn the same pay and enjoy the same benefits as passenger rail workers. That should be more than our goal, that should be America’s goal, because every single worker, every family, every community would benefit. 

Brothers and sisters, we’re fired up and ready to build an honest-to-God working class movement, a movement to rebuild America’s middle class for years to come. We’ve had some big wins, but we’re not going to sit down and rest, not yet. 

We’re ready to win America’s future, and I hope you are, too. We’re making things better for working people, and rail will be a big part of it. 

Friends, there's only one way for us to rebuild America, and that's with hard work. It's not a mystery. There's no voodoo economics, no trickle-down economics. It's real simple. 

When it comes down to it, working people are the real job creators. Our rail systems work when millions of people can pay the fare. That’s how we improve our lives and our families, and that's what fuels economic demand in America. That's what drives economic growth. 

And that, my friends, is what we're aiming for -- for good jobs and a fair economy. We want jobs with decent wages, because that's the foundation of a strong middle class. 

And to turn our vision into reality, to turn President Obama and Joe Biden's vision into reality, we've got to work for it. 

We've got to want it. We’ve got to work for it. 

We have to stand for it. We’ve got to fight for it, and build for it. 

And we will. I know we will. Thank you for coming here today, and for all that you are, and all you do. God bless you. 

And now, if we have time, it would be great to take a few questions.

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