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Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO President, Lays Out Bright Future For Unions In Wake Of Wisconsin Protests

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One day after Wisconsin voters turned out in force for a judicial election widely seen as a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker’s law ending collective bargaining for public workers, the president of the AFL-CIO declared, “the labor movement has a rich and vibrant future.”

In a speech called “The Future of Unions," Richard Trumka insisted that term is no oxymoron.

“The over-reaching of anti-worker politicians today may have given us the game-changer we need,” he said at Wayne State University in Detroit. “It may have provided the sparks for the next surge of labor.”

The speech was timed to pick up on the momentum of protests in Madison and many other state capitals, where Republican governors and legislators have pushed through bills to blunt the already waning clout of organized labor.

Trumka said this moment in history is different than those that came before.

“For more than a generation, we’ve been fighting back against a coordinated, corporate-led assault on working people," he said. "Most of the time, we’ve gone from one fight to the next with scarcely a moment to rest. So it’s a gift, truly a gift, for us to stop today and reflect on where we are, how we got here and where we’re going."

But while Trumka admitted that union membership in the private sector is under 7 percent and overall has dropped below 12 percent, he argued that the end of organized labor is “not even close."

"The labor movement isn’t a fad or even an institution of brick and stone," he said. "These structures around us are transitory, but the labor movement is not. It’s as resilient as democracy itself.”

Trumka urged union members not to be discouraged.

“Nobody who believes in working people should ever succumb to defeatism,” he said. “Not after an electoral defeat. Not when corporations or political leaders vilify workers. Not when public opinion seems stacked against us—especially not when public opinion seems stacked against us.”

As he has said since the worker backlash in Wisconsin began, the backlash against anti-labor politicians has "given us an opening, a teachable moment for the nation. And it provided a wake-up call for union members and community partners.”

The challenge now, Trumka said, is to seize the opening Walker and other Republicans have offered and not let it slip away.

“Today we confront this fundamental choice. Will we accept decline? Or will we choose to honor the best promise our nation has to offer? United in a renewed labor movement, we can have the kind of prosperity that's uniquely American—broadly shared, enriching all of us—to rebuild the greatest middle class the world has ever known.

“I have no doubt of the choice we'll make,” he concluded. “We’ll rebuild America the way working people do, together, with hard work, with ingenuity, with solidarity.”

The full speech as prepared:

Thank you for that generous introduction. I’d like to take this opportunity to extend my appreciation to Marick Masters for the truly critical work he does here at Wayne State, a university that’s critical to the revival of mid-town Detroit and to the future of workers’ rights in America. I know that today’s events are a statement of Marick’s personal commitment to a fair and just economy, and I salute him for that.

Let’s give a round of applause for the important and thoughtful effort that has gone into this program, and into the extraordinary papers that have been presented today.

I would also like to recognize the leaders of our great labor movement—not only our presidents and vice presidents and secretary-treasurers, but our dedicated organizers and researchers and the other professionals who push and prod our movement forward a little bit every single day.

We like to say that the R&D starts on the factory floor—and that’s as true in the labor movement as it is in industry.

This is probably a good time, too, to point out some of the work we see coming out of Michigan that’s not so admirable. As you know, the right-wing Mackinac Center recently sent Freedom of Information Act Requests to faculty members of the labor studies program here at Wayne State and at other state universities in a blatant effort to intimidate academics at the schools into keeping quiet about political attacks on working people.

The chilling effect of these tactics on free speech is a threat not only to academic freedom but to our democracy. It’s an “interesting” translation of the Center’s slogan of “advancing liberty and prosperity” – and not unlike the corrupt midnight passage of Wisconsin’s so-called “budget repair” bill, or the last-minute packing of a committee in the Ohio legislature to force the passage of anti-worker bills.

For 30 years—for more than a generation—we’ve been fighting back against a coordinated, corporate-led assault on working people. Most of the time, we’ve gone from one fight to the next with scarcely a moment to rest. So it’s a gift, truly a gift, for us to stop today and reflect on where we are, how we got here and where we’re going. Thank you.

Media figures and business leaders have predicted the demise of the labor movement for decades. Even last week, we saw headlines like “Beyond Wisconsin, Could This Be the End of Labor Unions?” and “Labor: Is this the End?”

And it’s true that union membership in the private sector is below seven percent and overall it has dropped below twelve percent. As the number and density of union members has declined, so have middle-class wages, benefits and retirement security. The parallel between workers having a collective voice and broad-based prosperity is direct. As our strong union core has shrunk, the American middle class has withered. Wages have stagnated or fallen as workers failed to bring home their share of gains from rising productivity.

But union membership numbers aren’t a popularity poll, nor a reflection of a declining need for unions, just a sad reflection of how incredibly difficult it is for workers to form unions in our modern corporate environment. Put bluntly, too many of our business leaders do not believe in the basic human right to bargain collectively and don't respect the essential humanity of the people who create the wealth they enjoy. It's a bitter irony that these are the people who have created an entire industry to bust unions, modern day Pinkertons who specialize in creating cultures of fear and dissension to fight solidarity among workers.

We’ve seen the growth of union-busting in America before, 100 years ago, when unions were viewed under the law as illegal restraints on trade. Back then, judges ordered injunctions to stop strikes, and when workers demanded contracts, they were beaten in the streets. But that didn’t mean the labor movement was somehow irrelevant. And it didn’t stop the organizing.

Even in those terrible days, workers continued to seek justice.

What's different today? Do workers no longer have cause to organize?

Last week at a White House forum on working women, a domestic worker from New York said, “We’re not trying to get rich doing these jobs. We just want to be protected.”

Other workers at the forum told of WalMart’s mandatory, all-employee, anti-union meetings, about being treated like unthinking, unfeeling, unknowing cogs. An employee of
T-Mobile USA said she dreams of a time when she and her co-workers will have a contract and their ideas listened to.

So let me ask again: Are we looking at the end of unions in America?

Not even close. The labor movement isn’t a fad or even an institution of brick and stone. These structures around us are transitory, but the labor movement is not. It’s as resilient as democracy itself. The labor movement is working people—working people who have joined together for strength in numbers, for their common good. And history teaches us that whatever the odds, the labor movement will always spring up, often when its chances of survival seem most bleak.

I’m not being glib, or taking a serious problem lightly. I’m looking at our history and projecting it forward.

What has happened in recent decades to union membership in America?

Put simply, three things: The economy moved away from us for a host of reasons, we in labor did not respond quickly or creatively enough and the overall environment changed dramatically. That change didn’t happen by accident, but as a result of a sophisticated and long-term corporate strategy that has increased capital mobility while restricting the freedom of working people to exercise the right to bargain collectively for a better life. Jobs have vanished from industries where unions are strong. And the fragile job growth we’ve seen is mainly in non-union sectors.

Corporations have relentlessly shipped good-paying, heavily unionized manufacturing jobs overseas in exchange for a flood of cheap imports. Lobbyist-written free trade pacts have put our workers in direct competition with our impoverished brothers and sisters overseas, who lack basic freedoms and are paid pennies an hour. And always we hear the demand to cut taxes on corporations, or why should they stay in America? Employers don't need America anymore. So we'd better be grateful for what we have. And don't even think about making any demands.

Just drive up Woodward Avenue, or through any neighborhood, and you can see the effects of these policies.

The impact on our overall economy has been devastating. Study after study tells us the middle class has deteriorated while the richest one percent has taken more and more of America's wealth. And the real-life proof is all around us--cities and counties with no tax receipts forced to make devastating decisions, cutting teachers, police and fire departments and basic social services. And we see the flipside -- politicians who make political hay by attacking working people with decent pay and benefits as if we're somehow villainous -- for simply doing our jobs.

It takes a major act of courage for workers to launch an organizing effort today. There is not a worker who’s thought about forming a union who doesn’t understand that he or she may be fired for raising the idea.

But union-busting in the workplace among workers who feel vulnerable to begin with isn't the entire problem. America's workforce has fundamentally changed. Today’s basic workplace model for organizing in traditionally unionized industries is no longer enough.

Even if all 56 unions in the AFL-CIO quadrupled our organizing budgets, and put all of our resources into new campaigns, we would still be leaving more than 26 million workers employed in 13 major industries untouched by any organizing effort.

If we intend to grow enough to increase workers’ power—to be a check on unfettered corporate influence now and in the years to come, then we cannot stand for business as usual. We have to expect more and demand more of ourselves and our movement. None of us is deserving of the label of “leader” unless we are ready to step up to the challenges facing working people with organizing that is far, far greater than what we see today—and move beyond traditional organizing as well. Quite frankly, we cannot rely solely upon traditional organizing campaigns. Nor can union membership be defined solely by being covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
The tools that worked 40 and 50 years ago don't work anymore. We need new tools, new models.

You know, one hallmark of the labor movement is our practicality, the way we fashion answers out of the questions at hand.

That has always been the case when the labor movement has most needed to grow. We generate ideas that seemed radical at first, but which quickly become standard, ideas like helping factory workers unionize or bargaining for pensions—ideas that seem so obvious today. These ideas allowed millions of workers to form unions and to lift themselves and their families into the middle class.

So today, we have to answer the mobility of goods and capital with a truly global movement. I believe that we’re beginning to lay the groundwork of just such a comprehensive labor movement, one that can protect workers from Detroit to Juarez and Shanghai to Bogota.

For the first time, the entire global movement has committed to workers in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, at one multi-national corporation—Deutsche Telekom/
T-Mobile USA.

When the German multinational bought into the US wireless market, and T-Mobile became one of the largest mobile telecom companies in the United States, the Communications Workers of America reached out to the largest telecom union in Germany, ver.di, to partner and eventually form a joint union, so that workers in the United States and Germany could speak with one voice—to demand that one company honor the same basic rights around the world as they do in Germany.

We are shifting our practices to ensure that deep grassroots organizing, led by workers employed in new industries, is tied to similar movements of workers employed by the same multinationals.

The UAW, here in Detroit, is doing more than ever to work with counterparts all over the world. No industry is more globalized than the auto industry.

We must transform our unions and how we work—how we operate internally and how we present ourselves to the public. We have to change the narrative away from our unions as faceless institutions and toward an understanding of unions as vital communities of working people.

We have to strengthen our relationships with our community partners and allies, especially in the African American, Asian and Latino communities, but also in the environmental, LGBT and other communities – we must be ONE – and that was the beauty and the strength of the incredible energy around the 1500 activities in the days surrounding April 4 where we proclaimed: We Are One, Respect Our Rights.

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.

And we must recognize and embrace the organizing already underway by working people excluded from traditional organizing—through worker centers and nontraditional organizations. In New York and a dozen other states, we're supporting domestic workers who are organizing. In some ways, it seems an impossible task. Each maid, each nanny has a different employer. This is a different model with untested tactics, but already it is inspiring and successful. 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.

A similar campaign is underway to organize taxi drivers in New York City.

The success of our own AFL-CIO community affiliate Working America is a sign of another promising direction. Already more than 3 million strong, Working America shows that working people are ready to be part of something bigger to fight for good jobs and a just economy. We can build on that foundation and use it as a laboratory to find additional forms of representation. Working America has also built support for union organizing drives.

New organizing models alone aren't enough. New solutions require hope and the belief that collective action works. Fear is a tremendous barrier to organizing.

But hope can be fleeting, or it can grow with tremendous force. Sometimes it arrives when least expected. What will spark collective action? Who knew high food prices would be the tinder to ignite long-festering poverty and start a peaceful revolution in Egypt? Who predicted that tens of thousands would rally in Madison for weeks on end as an arrogant, over-reaching governor tried to strip public workers of bargaining rights?

The Wisconsin movement shows us that the public fervently believes working people have fundamental rights and no one should be forced to give up those rights. The nonstop rallies have given us an opening, a teachable moment for the nation. And it provided a wake-up call for union members and community partners. It is an opening, a chance for us to fight against corporate resistance and to propel the labor movement to rise to the challenge.

What will it take for workers across America to say, Hey, how can I change my job for the better? What about my rights? How can I join with my coworkers in a union?

Honestly, for years -- for years -- we’ve been trying to hold a national debate on collective bargaining, and thanks to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—and a few of his friends—we’re having one. And guess what? We’re winning.

It’s clear to me that America’s working families have been pushed to the brink. Economic insecurity for everyday families has become the new norm—even as Wall Street has banked record profits and handed out record bonuses.

That’s why the labor movement has a rich and vibrant future. Unions have a strong future in America—because we need them to improve our lives.

I want to be very clear about this. Nobody who believes in working people should ever succumb to defeatism. Not after an electoral defeat. Not when corporations or political leaders vilify workers. Not when public opinion seems stacked against us—especially not when public opinion seems stacked against us.

We can no more embrace the defeat of working people than people can stop working. We live in a society built from the labor of working people, and too often the work itself degrades and dehumanizes us. As long as there is work, workers will organize.

I'm not saying that out of false bravado. We also cannot take success for granted. We face a truly grave crisis. I say this simply to lay out our mission as plainly as possible. Our question is never "if" the labor movement will continue, but "how"? And who will make it happen?

Quite frankly I've been inspired and encouraged by what I've heard today, especially as it seems lately that the opponents of working people cannot find enough ways to tangle with us. It's not enough that CEO-indebted governors and state legislatures across our nation pile on every anti-worker bill possible. They’ve set low-water marks with their truly ugly behavior.

I could recite a list that would raise your hair, but I don't want to keep you all day. But I do have to mention Maine's governor, who removed from the state’s labor department an
11-panel mural with scenes of mill workers, strikes and child laborers. The historical painting also depicts Francis Perkins, one of Maine’s great public servants, and one of America's. She was President Franklin Roosevelt's first Secretary of Labor and the woman behind the New Deal, that array of legislation that in so many ways provided capitalism in America with a saving grace.

These symbolic assaults on top of the very real efforts to fundamentally restrict the rights and freedoms of Americans in the workplace remind us of the depth, and the pathological nature, of the hatred some people have for workers. It's a hatred that almost seems directed at the dignity of workers itself, as if it’s somehow wrong or offensive to do a job and earn a paycheck.

But the over-reaching of anti-worker politicians today may have given us the game-changer we need. It may have provided the sparks for the next surge of labor. And it has certainly reminded America of its most basic dream, the dream that if we work hard, if we do our part, we can have a decent standard of living, health care, an education for our children and a measure of security in our old age.

Today we confront this fundamental choice. Will we accept decline? Or will we choose to honor the best promise our nation has to offer? United in a renewed labor movement, we can have the kind of prosperity that's uniquely American—broadly shared, enriching all of us—to rebuild the greatest middle class the world has ever known.

I have no doubt of the choice we'll make. We’ll rebuild America the way working people do, together, with hard work, with ingenuity, with solidarity.

Thank you for all you do. God bless you, and God bless America.