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Remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard L.Trumka, 2013 AFL-CIO National Convention Keynote, Los Angeles, California

Richard L. Trumka • September 9, 2013

Thank you. Thank you for being here.  Together.  In Solidarity. 

Look around this great hall.  Look at the power represented in this hall. And so the real question for this week is, what are we going to do with it?  Do we intend to build an American future, a future for the 99% -- a future for our children and grandchildren that doesn’t just seek to restore the best of our past, but seeks to outdo all we have done before?

First, let’s be clear about where we are today.  We used to say that what made America special was -- if you worked hard and did your part, you had a real good shot at reaching the middle class—that the working class was the middle class.  And that you might work in a coal mine or a hotel laundry, but your children could do anything if they worked hard enough.

This is the story of my own life.  My grandfather went into the mine hungry, my father helped build his union and fought for our country.  Together, and with help from our union, my parents and I were able to earn the money to send me to college and to law school.

Now, I talk to a lot of people as I go around the country, and many of you in this hall do too.  And it’s clear something’s changed.  The truth is, who your parents are—really, what your parents have -- matters more than it once did.  And the people I talk to don’t say, “I’m middle class” so much anymore.  They say “I work, if I can find a job.”  They say, “Middle class?  That’s what my parents were.”

What makes somebody middle class in America?  A good job—a job that pays a living wage, with health care and retirement security, a safe job, a job that leads somewhere.  It’s that simple.   

But the working class is not the middle class any more.

Here’s the truth we live every day:  We work harder, we work longer hours, we create more—more goods, more services, more of everything—and yet most of us earn less.  Less than we earned five years ago. Less than we earned 15 years ago.  Barely more than we earned 35 years ago.   

Our biggest employers -- Walmart, McDonalds—their whole business model is about keeping the people who work for them poor.  And Wall Street cheers them on.

But this is a rich country.  So, where’s all the money going?  Think back over the last 15 years—think of all the work you did, all your members did, all your friends and neighbors and family did.  Now understand that all of the wage increases over all those years—not some, not the majority, not the vast majority—ALL—went to the top 10%.  Incomes of the rest of us—90% of America—went down.  And those who did the best were those who were at the top already—the top 1%.

This is upside down.  Since 2009, the pay of America’s corporate CEOs has gone up nearly 40%.  Imagine for a second what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people’s incomes had increased like CEO’s.  Almost no one would live in poverty. 

It is time, my friends, to turn America right side up.  And to turn America right side up, we need a real working class movement.  And if that’s going to happen, we -- our institutions -- have to do some things differently. 

We must begin, here and now, today, the great work of reawakening a movement of working people—all working people, not just the people in this hall, not just the people we represent today—but everyone who works in this country, everyone who believes that people who work deserve to make enough to live and enjoy the good things in life.

Now, we can come together at this convention and shout all day long about how corporations and the rich and Wall Street did this to us.  About the Koch Brothers and their war on working people.  About nasty little conspiracies like the American Legislative Exchange Council.  About the Supreme Court and its war on democracy.  And it’s true, there are powerful forces in America today who want our country to be run by and for the rich, forces that have systematically stripped workers of power and pushed wages and benefits down. 

But greed and privilege and hate have always been with us. 

The question is, what are we going to do about it?  We are 13 million strong—we are today, as we have been since the time of Abraham Lincoln, the biggest, strongest, best organized force for economic justice in America.  But we are a small part of the 150 million Americans who work for a living.  We cannot win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone.  It would not be right and it’s not possible.  All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.

And what is true for America is doubly true around the world.  A global economy means all workers, in all countries, are bound together—we have always had the same hopes and the same dreams, now we have the same employers, the same vastly powerful global corporations, the same borderless financial firms, the same union busting lawyers and management consultants, the same right wing political operatives.  They will never stop pitting us against each other until we stop letting them.  Shared prosperity around this beautiful world is within our grasp, but only if we link arms.

We have to start here at home.  Because the AFL-CIO and the unions that make up this Federation exist to make real the promise of America for all working people.   

If, instead, workers create more and earn less, our children go homeless while housing sits empty, our bridges fall down while our bridge builders sit idle—then we must ask ourselves—how must we change—how must we reignite our movement?  Not so we can have bigger unions—but so we can together make all working peoples’ lives better. 

Brothers and sisters, this convention—not me, not the Executive Council—this Convention is the ultimate governing body of the AFL-CIO.  It is in our power, here in this Hall, to move forward and build a movement.  A movement strong enough to raise up the values that built this country. 

This is America—it’s time we value work—not wealth, not greed.  Work.  And the people who do the work.

Four years ago in Pittsburgh, you elected Liz Shuler, Arlene Holt Baker and me.  We knew we faced great challenges.  But we didn’t know how great they would be.  We knew we faced rising unemployment.  But we didn’t know mass unemployment would still be with us four years later.  We knew the Republican Party had become more hostile to working people—we didn’t realize we would be facing a concerted effort to destroy collective bargaining and wipe out our unions—all of our unions—private and public sector—in state after state. 

Though these battles are still raging, we have not been dealt the death blow people like John Kasich wanted.  In these four years of almost constant battle, we have learned to fight smarter and we have learned to ask more of ourselves.  In state after state, and city after city, we came together and we beat them back.  But we didn’t win every fight.  And our movement as a whole is still shrinking.  As it was before anyone had ever heard of Scott Walker or Rick Snyder.  If we are going to succeed in our great task of lifting up America’s working people from a generation of wage stagnation, our labor movement has got to change. 

Because the success of our movement is not measured in the members we organize, or the politicians we elect.  It is measured by the progress of working people—all working people--by the lives we lead, by the hopes and dreams we make real together.

As we approached this Convention, we knew we didn’t have all the answers.  We thought we should ask you, the leaders and activists of our movement and the working people we all represent, How should we change?  And we wanted to involve everyone who shares our values and cares about what happens to America’s workers.  And so we held hundreds of conversations and listening sessions at every level of the labor movement and with academics and with our friends and allies. 

One union member put it better than I could—“The working class is not shrinking, it is our wages and benefits that are shrinking.”

Another said, “We need a union culture shift that will turn the labor movement back into a movement that fights for the interest of all working people.” 

We heard that all over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways, and they call their unity by all kinds of names—workers’ unions, associations, centers, networks.

We heard that people want to be part of our movement but it’s too hard to join – that we have to change so that our unions and our movement are open to everyone -- to anyone who wants to join together for a better life.   And today we’re going to do that.

We heard that we have to change to reflect the times.  The AFL and the CIO merged over 50 years ago, before the jumbo jet, before the cell phone, before the internet.  We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how our economy works now.

And finally, we heard we have to make our unity real with action—we have to be able to organize on a large scale, in the workplace and in political life—quickly, efficiently, decisively.  And with a strong, independent political voice. 

And in everything we do, we have to join together with partners and allies who share our values and our vision for America.  An America of shared prosperity.  An America where you don’t surrender your humanity, your dignity, your rights when you come to work.  An America where we honor each individual, while understanding that connecting with each other,  supporting each other—solidarity and community—are what give life meaning.

My friends, it is time for a new and stronger movement. What we’ve done yesterday cannot limit what we do tomorrow. Now is not the time to settle for small steps.

If we are going to move forward, we have to challenge ourselves. 

Throughout history, the energy and hopes of young workers have powered progress:   If we are going to move forward, we must truly open our doors to the next generation.

If we are going to move forward, we must make our movement and our leadership as diverse as the workforce we speak for.       

If we are going to move forward, we must move forward together—immigrants and the children of immigrants.

Politicians and employers want to divide us.  They want to tell us who can be in the labor movement and who can’t.  We can’t let them. 

Our answer to Scott Walker and Walmart and the Koch Brothers and every other apostle of greed who seeks to divide us must not just be “no,” it must be “hell no.” 

If you work for a living in this country, our movement is your movement. 

Sisters and brothers, it’s time to tear down the barriers, remove the boundaries between workers.  It’s time to stop letting employers and politicians tell us who is a worker and who isn’t, who’s in our movement and who isn’t.  Working people alone should decide who’s in the labor movement.

In the three and a half days we will spend together, we’ll hear workers’ voices from around the country and around the world—brothers and sisters so brave you will be brought to tears.  And we have a full agenda of action, of change.  As I said yesterday, we set up three special Committees just for this convention, and we asked rank and file workers, community allies and academics to join us.  We also set up special committees on resolutions, governance and finance.  We asked members of the Executive Council to lead this work.  And we asked a lot.  I want to express my thanks to everyone in this hall who served on a Convention committee.  We could not be where we are today without all your hard work.

And so in the days to come we’ll take up resolutions that change the way this Federation works, resolutions that will open our doors and make us stronger and better able to give voice to all working people, and then we’ll take up resolutions that lay out how we will use the power we have and the power we will buildto make the lives of all working people  better. 

Everything we do this week will be part of a strategy for winning broadly shared prosperity. 

Because the power to shape the economy is in OUR hands.  The economy is not the weather.  The wealth we make every day can build a future of shared prosperity, but only if we build the bigger, broader movement that can wrest the future from those who would seek simply to make the rich richer. 

There can be no shared prosperity while 11 million aspiring Americans have no rights. 

There can be no shared prosperity while 20 million people look for work and can’t find it. 

There can be no shared prosperity while politicians terrify our parents and grandparents with threats to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits-- the economic security they earned. 

There can be no shared prosperity while millions of young men, disproportionately African-American, labor in prisons instead of in school or at work. 

There can be no shared prosperity while mayors and governors of both parties close schools and libraries in our poorest communities.

Shared prosperity means building a country that can compete in the 21stcentury and help lift nations and people around the world.  Investing in our infrastructure, our educational system, our manufacturing base.

Shared prosperity means insisting that the rich, the powerful, the privileged and the connected pay their fair share.  And it means no more tax deals for companies that outsource jobs overseas.

Shared prosperity means health care for all, and retirement security for all.

Shared prosperity means paid sick days for all.

Shared prosperity means a global economy built on rising pay for all who labor, and an end to trade deals that treat corporations better than people.

Shared prosperity means an economy built from the middle out.

But hear this:  Shared prosperity is nothing but a dream until we have democracy—the right to organize and bargain collectively with employers, the right to vote and have that vote counted.  The right to govern together with our fellow citizens and be free of the power of concentrated wealth.

Those are the ideas behind each of our convention actions.  And yet, these resolutions are nothing more than pieces of paper if we don’t change what we actually do.

And that’s why I’m asking you for more. I’m asking you to take what we say and do these next few days into your hearts.  To go home not satisfied with what we have said, but hungry for action.  Hungry for action everywhere you go and in everything you do.  Because, brothers and sisters, our voices-- the voices of everyone who works—in every language—must be clear:

We build this country.  We build it every day.  And it is time for America to value our work.

Sisters and brothers, we do the work of America.  We heal the sick and fight the fires, build the bridges, clean the homes, write the software, and teach the children.  We mine the iron and coal, forge steel, build the trucks, and drive the buses. We design, build, fly, repair and clean the airplanes.  We keep the lights turned on and the internet connected, the trains moving, the water flowing to your tap, and the movies playing in your multiplex.  

Our movement is as old as our nation, and as new as the immigrant hotel worker, the apprentice, the new teacher coming to work for the first time. 

So at the end of the day, it's on us to build a movement not for the 99 percent, but of the 99%.  Not just the 11% we are right now.  The 99%.

More than 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to the 4th AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention.  He said to us:

“We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us.  They deplore our discontent, they resent our will to organize, so that we may guarantee that humanity will prevail.”

Dr. King did not hold a union card.  He was not a member of any affiliate.  But he walked down a line of National Guard bayonets with us.  And he died in Memphis with our union brothers and sisters – summoned by their discontent and their will to organize. 

And what about us?  You and me?  What about OUR discontent? OUR will to organize?

Are we ready to say, no more working harder for less?

No more jobs you can’t live on!

No more sitting on the bench, while our bridges are falling down!

No more politicians in hock to Wall Street!

No more closed classrooms while our country cries for education!

No more!

It is time to turn America right side up!

It is time to build the working class movement that can do it. 

Look around you.  Where else in America do teachers sit with electricians, firefighters with actors, engineers with laborers?    

Look around you—this hall is filled with working class heroes.

And all across our country, all across our world, people with a will to organize are ready to join with us.  And together we will turn America right side up. 

Together -- like the courageous members of UNITE HERE at Hyatt Hotels …who made one of America’s largest companies value their work.  Some of them are here with us -- come join me here!

Together -- like the taxi workers in New York and a dozen other cities—the law says they can’t organize—but they’re building power together every day in the National Taxi Workers Alliance. 

Together -- like the brave workers from the OUR Walmart campaign.  Their fight is our fight— and together we will win.

Together -- with the 3 million working men and women of Working America.

Together with our veterans—talk about working class heroes—here with us today are veterans who  served in the Air Force and the Marines in Iraq – now, thanks to the Building Trades Helmets to Hardhats program, they’re union plumbers -- come join us here!

Together with our children’s teachers—they serve our country too--from Head Start to high school!

Together with day laborers, forming solidarity on street corners,  and with domestic workers—caring across generations and organizing all across the world. 

Together with the Dreamers whose struggle for a fair and just immigration system has inspired our nation!

Together with AFSCME, whose work to organize EMTs is strengthening vital public services.

Together with car wash workers organizing for justice for some of the lowest paid workers in our country … because the American dream lives in all of us. 

Together with our brothers and sisters in the USW, working every day for safe and healthy workplaces …. and UAW members, fighting for middle class manufacturing in America.

Together with courageous new Americans … Here with us are a father and son who fled the violence of Colombia and won their U.S. citizenship with the help of the Orange County Labor Federation – now they’re working to win rights for all. 

Together with young workers like OPEIU members here today, organizing for the hopes of a new generation … and proud workers like the retired mineworkers fighting for a fair and decent retirement after a lifetime of work.

Brothers and sisters, I am so proud to stand with the working men and women gathered here.  And I am so honored to serve together with all of YOU. 

Look around you. Look at the workers gathered here.  This is America’s soul.  Our future.  As a movement.  As a nation. 

Our challenge, our responsibility – yours and mine -- is to join together with millions more like us to build real power.  Will you do it together? 

Our job is to create a new working class movement strong enough to lift up ALL workers in this country.  Will you do it together? 

The way we honor these American heroes, sisters and brothers, is not with talk but with action.  With innovation.  Are you ready to get started?  Are you ready? 

Okay, let’s turn to action.  And before we do, let’s recognize these heroes one more time for their courage and commitment 

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