Solidarity Forever: Labor Takes on the Right

Editor's note: The folowing is excerpted from a speech delivered this week by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to national delegates meeting of the United Autoworkers.

Once again, the UAW leads the way for the American labor movement. You built the auto industry, and now you're rebuilding it. The vehicles on display at the International Auto Show this month are works of art! And you've committed to helping workers organize at plants that build Toyotas, Hondas, BMWs, Hyundai and others. You've made it clear that unions help workers and businesses succeed—and still, your watchword is "organize." That's the key.

You're also building on your growth in the casino industry and among graduate employees.  

With your work to rebuild the auto industry—a core of our economy—and your organizing, you're paving the way toward the America we want to be -- the America we know we can be. You're helping to create a stronger, broader labor movement for the future.  

And I can tell you this, after the year we've just had—and with the year we're facing—we have to be broader and stronger.

Last year, the UAW and our brothers and sisters across the labor movement mobilized,  we made I-don't-know-how-many phone calls, wrote letters, marched, rallied, and pushed and prodded Congress to pass historic health care reform -- and Wall Street reform -- that will go down in history as a turning point for our country, and as a result, we have some new protections from the wolves of Wall Street, and we have taken the first, most important step to make health care for all a right and not a privilege.

That's the America we want to be—isn't it?  

But last year, we saw the U.S. Chamber of Commerce take the gloves off and fight both reforms tooth-and-nail. They spent more than $150 million in the first 18 months of Barack Obama's presidency alone -- more than $3 million a week.

And then the corporate CEOs dumped millions into the elections to defeat our working family candidates. Last summer and into the fall, we watched an unprecedented flood of corporate cash wash over our system—a billion dollars, most of it spent behind veils of secrecy.

We in the union movement did what we do best – it's what we do better than anybody else in the country -- we organized on the ground. We went out on our labor walks. We handed out leaflets at worksites. We phone-banked and sent out mailings to our members.

We did it for the America we want to be. And I have to tell you I am damn proud of what we did. In races across the country, our members built a firewall against the astonishing and unheard-of sums of corporate cash, and we made the difference for working family candidates like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and so many others in the House and Senate.

And we did it standing shoulder-to-shoulder, side by side. The UAW turned out. You stood right beside our sisters and brothers from California to New York, from Tennessee to Florida to Washington, and in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.  

And yet, the difference we made wasn't big enough. Brothers and sisters, we learned a painful lesson this time. We're not as big as we used to be; our corporate opponents are bigger and we've become too insular -- too inward-looking.

So we've got to look honestly at ourselves, at the roles we play in our communities, at what's happening to all working people, and we have to ask ourselves: What more can we do to build the America we want to be? We have to reach out and solidify new strength in numbers. We have to build alliances and real partnerships with brothers and sisters in other unions, with members of our communities, with small businesses, with the faith community, with anyone else who shares our collective values and is willing to work for them. 

You have the power to do that. It wasn't long ago that you were being vilified by the corporate noise machine as the cause of all our economic problems. I know you remember it all too well. 

They came for the auto workers. And now they're coming for the public employees. They're coming for anyone with a decent job and a union contract.

The corporations that poured so much money into the 2010 elections, now they're saying, "It's payback time!" And in state after state, the new Republican legislatures and governors are tripping over each other to deliver the harshest attacks on workers and their unions that those CEOs could want.

This is no false alarm. When we see right-to-work proposals in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, something is seriously wrong. That's our house!

Even before taking office last week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich vowed to strip home health care and child care workers of the right to bargain for a better life. Then Kasich said he would -- get this -- seek "equity" for public employees by cutting pay, benefits, pension security, sick days, personal days and vacation because—quote—"nobody in the private sector gets these kinds of things."  

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker calls public employees the "haves" and private employees the "have-nots" and he says America can't afford to have such unequal standards.

It's a ludicrous notion that public employees are the haves. What's more ludicrous is that instead of trying to bring the rest of the state's workers up to a decent standard, these guys want to bring the workers who still have decent pay and benefits down.  

Is that the America we want to be?

With their media puppets, they've been trying to convince us that we can't afford to do more than survive. That working hard all our lives isn't enough to earn a safe paycheck, or a pension. It's one thing for a Wall Street banker to take home a multi-million-dollar bonus. But a state worker with a $20,000 a year pension -- Oh no, we can't afford that!  

Brothers and sisters, let's clear this up now: America is not poor. We're still the richest nation in the world. Our per capita GDP is almost $46,000. That's almost $120,000 for the median family. That's more than enough for pensions, health care and decent pay for working people.

The problem is the money is stacked in just a handful of wallets -- and I promise you those wallets don't belong to teachers, firefighters, police officers, or letter carriers and they don't belong to auto workers. The gap between the rich and poor in America is back where it was in 1932!  

Part of our job right now has to be busting the myth that America is too poor to be the country we want it to be. We have to help people understand that all working people should have decent pay, benefits and retirement security! Not just CEOs. Not just private workers. Not just public workers. Not just union workers. All workers!  

The attacks against unions and public employees are gaining traction because, for too many Americans, insecurity is the new normal, and too many of us are willing to listen to the scapegoating of people who have just a little more than we do.  

Here's the truth. The folks behind these attacks don't want unions to exist. They don't just want workers weak. They don't just want unions weak. They want unions gone. And that's what we're facing right now in state after state.

But we're not going away. Those attacks are going to rile us up and bring us together!  

We're not ready to stop aspiring for the America we want or to resort to tearing down anyone who has more than we do.

We've been down this road before. We have an important choice in front of us. Are we going to settle for a small-minded nation in decline that can't imagine a better day ahead? Or will we fight for a better life for all working families? Will we plan for, and invest in and build a strong future for all?

It's not a question really. Either we decline or we rise. I want to rise.  

I want jobs for the millions who search every day, every week for work. I want good jobs for the millions who are working part-time while searching for better. I want a bright future for the Dream Act kids -- For all children. I want America to export goods, not factories. I want world-class highways, bridges, schools and railroads. I want wages and health care fair enough and good enough to support strong communities.  I want a real retirement for people after they've put in a lifetime of work.  And yes, I want our companies to succeed – and help build prosperity for all of us. 

America has the resources, sisters and brothers. These aren't pipe-dreams. These are what the UAW is all about – what you've bargained for throughout your history. These are what we all strive for. What our work is all about.  

And when we strive together, and aspire together, we bring out the best in ourselves… and we achieve our dreams -- together.

I know you're all getting ready to go back out to your members, to the fights you face in your states. This week you're going to lay the groundwork for new, powerful coalitions. You and your members may be reaching out to people you haven't reached out to before—to immigrant groups and faith groups, to young workers and unemployed workers and others.  

You're doing the right thing. We need each other, and we can help each other. Most of all, unorganized workers need you.

If the labor movement should know one thing by now it's that united we stand and divided we beg. We're all in this together—and we won't win unless we're united.  

Will you fight the big battles for America's workers? Will you?

Roll up your sleeves! The fight is on! For two years, our opponents have had the luxury of standing on the outside, and shouting in.  

Now, they're on the inside, and we can see them for what they are. Mean. Spiteful. And small-minded.  But we have to spread the word to our members who're less active, to our neighbors and friends who're less aware. 

It's up to us to take back the political momentum, to change the story of the year, to expose the myths and the lies. We need to do what we do best. Organize and educate. To get out in our workplaces.  To get out in our neighborhoods.  To get out in the streets when we need to. 

And we'll all keep pursuing the American Dream together, keep fighting for it together,  shoulder-to-shoulder, because we know that if we want it, we've got to work for it.  

Keep working for it. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America!

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