Federation President: Build Up the Middle Class

March 2011

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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently called for the country to bolster its middle class and to make appropriate choices for the overall good of the nation.


The federation leader, a longtime ally of the SIU, addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19. He touched on many challenges facing the U.S. and specifically pointed out the increasing, unwarranted attacks on working people from politicians and business leaders alike. He also emphasized that any discussion about America’s future “begins and ends concretely with the question of jobs.”


“The conventional wisdom in Washington and in statehouses around the nation is that we cannot afford to be the country we want to be. That could not be more wrong,” Trumka said. “We can and should be building up the American middle class, not tearing it down. We should act like the wealthy, compassionate, imaginative country we are, not try to turn ourselves into a third-rate, impoverished ‘has-been.’ The labor movement hasn’t given up on America and we don’t expect our leaders to either.”


The bulk of the speech centered on the idea of choice. The United States is at a crucial juncture where the nation as a whole must overcome current hardships or risk irreparable harm, Trumka said.


“We are a nation that still has choices,” Trumka declared. “We don’t need to settle for stagnation and ever-spiraling inequality. We don’t need to hunker down, dial back our expectations and surrender our children’s hope for a great education, our parents’ right to a comfortable retirement, our own health and economic security, our nation’s aspiration to make things again or our human right to advance our situation by forming a union if we want one. All these things are within the reach of this great country.”


The adversity for the country, and particularly its working people, has been extensive throughout the last decade, he said. However, Trumka believes that problems shouldn’t be solved by putting them on the backs of workers. Other countries serve as models for a way to get things back on track without hurting employees, he stated.


“We have just been through one lost decade, when America’s standard of living fell, when our wealth shrank, when millions lost their homes, when young people could not find work,” said Trumka. “America cannot afford another lost decade. China is not having a lost decade. Germany is not having a lost decade. Because those countries have acted decisively on jobs and public investment, their economies are prosperous. Germany, with its strong unions, robust public sector, good wages and strong social protection, has an unemployment rate half ours.


“What should be crystal clear right now is that the United States is falling behind in the global economy and not because we lack the skills, the resources, the innovative drive or the entrepreneurial spirit to succeed,” he continued. “No, we are falling behind because we are governing from fear, not from confidence. And we have let our transnational business titans convince our politicians that our national strength lies in their profits, not our jobs.”


Additionally, instead of making positive strides, some politicians are pursuing dangerous and counterproductive measures, according to Trumka.


“Too many of our politicians are doing the opposite of what works: destroying our public institutions, crushing working people’s rights and living standards, and failing to invest in education,” Trumka stated. “We know this model, and we know where it leads: catastrophe. This misguided and shortsighted approach is not just a Washington problem. In state capital after state capital, politicians elected to take on the jobs crisis are instead attacking the very idea of the American middle class, the idea that in America, economic security—health care, a real pension, a wage that can pay for college— is not something for a privileged few, but rather what all of us can earn in exchange for a hard day’s work.”


Trumka made it clear that, in spite of these mounting challenges to the dignity of working people, America’s working families are still at the forefront for making the American dream a reality, now and in the future.


“In a globalized, high-tech world, when it often seems that change is the one constant in our lives, the real American dream is that if we work hard and do our part for each other, each of us can enjoy the economic security that allows us to live our lives with dignity and have hope for our future and for our children’s future,” Trumka said. “This dream must be a reality in our time, and in our children’s and grandchildren’s time.”


He added that Americans clearly want to work – especially with one in three U.S. households having someone unemployed in the past year – but “the biggest and wealthiest American companies are sitting on trillions of dollars in assets – not investing, not creating jobs, not taking risks.”

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Richard Trumka

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka