AFL-CIO President Discusses Efforts, Vision of Labor Movement

March 2010

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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka earlier this year told a National Press Club audience that nothing less than America’s national identity is at stake as the labor movement fights to maintain and rebuild the middle class.

In a wide-ranging speech, he also described organized labor’s key activities and goals.

“We built our middle class in the 20th century through hard work, struggle and visionary political leadership,” Trumka said during the mid-January address. “But a generation of destructive, greed-driven economic policies has eroded that progress and now threatens our very identity as a nation…. A dead-end job with no benefits is not the best our country can do for its citizens.”

The federation president said he recently travelled across the country and was dismayed by the mood and outlook of so many citizens – especially those who can’t find work.

“Everywhere I went, people asked me, why do so many of the people we elect seem to care only about Wall Street?” stated Trumka. “Why is helping banks a matter of urgency, but unemployment is something we just have to live with? Why don’t we make anything in America anymore? And why is it so hard to pass a health care bill that guarantees Americans healthy lives instead of guaranteeing insurance companies
healthy profits?

“As I travelled from city to city,” he continued, “I heard a new sense of resignation from middle class Americans – people laid off for the first time in their lives asking, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I came away shaken by the sense that the very things that make America great are in danger.”

Trumka, who last year was elected to head the federation as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney retired, said political action will be vital to the resurgence of the middle class. He said that starting immediately, “Our elected political leaders must choose between continuing the policies of the past or striking out on a new economic course for America – a course that will reverse the damaging trend toward greater inequality that is crippling our nation. At this moment, the voices of America’s working women and men must be heard in Washington – not the voices of bankers and speculators for whom it always seems to be the best of times, but the voices of those for whom the New Year brings pink slips and givebacks, hollowed-out health care, foreclosures and pension freezes – the roll call of an economy that long ago stopped working for most of us.”

He said that the labor movement’s vision for our country includes a national economy that “creates good jobs, where wealth is fairly shared…. But despite our best efforts, we have endured a generation of stagnant wages and collapsing benefits – a generation where the labor movement has been much more about defense than about offense.”

Recalling his upbringing, Trumka said he believes the union movement once again can serve as a catalyst for good jobs and a better way of life. “I grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, and I was surrounded by the legacy of my parents and grandparents,” he said. “My grandfather and my father and their fellow workers went into mines that were death traps, to work for wages that weren’t enough to buy food and clothes for their families. They and the union they built made those jobs into middle class jobs. When I went into the mine, it was a good job. A good job meant possibilities for me – possibilities that my mother moved heaven and earth to make real – that took me to Penn State and to law school and to this podium.”

Among numerous specific steps he outlined that would help improve things for working families, Trumka mentioned the AFL-CIO’s five-point program to create more than 4 million jobs.

That plan calls for extending unemployment benefits, including COBRA; expanding federal infrastructure and green jobs investments; dramatically increasing federal aid to state and local governments facing fiscal disaster; direct job creation where feasible; and finally, direct lending of TARP money to small- and medium-sized businesses that can’t get credit because of the financial crisis.

He added, “Beyond the short-term jobs crisis, we must have an agenda for restoring American manufacturing – a combination of fair trade and currency policies, worker training, infrastructure investment and regional development policies targeted to help economically distressed areas. We cannot be a prosperous middle class society in a dynamic global economy without a healthy manufacturing sector.”

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