The head of America’s largest labor federation recently said it’s time to enact pro-worker legislation that would reshape the country for the better.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a longtime friend of the SIU, spoke June 29 during an online meeting organized by Jobs With Justice, a workers’ rights organization. He recalled his own experience as a coal miner, and then explained the urgency of passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which is the labor movement’s top legislative priority.
The U.S. House of Representatives already passed the bill, and President Biden is an outspoken advocate of it. However, support in the Senate has been stuck at slightly less than a majority, and the threat of a filibuster also looms.
Trumka said the AFL-CIO, to which the SIU is affiliated, believes that “the single best agent for change is the PRO Act. We must pass the PRO Act so that the 60 million workers who want to join a union right now can do so freely and fairly. We also recognize that the majority of working people are women and people of color. And when working people organize, the power of our unity eclipses the differences between us. That’s why passing the PRO Act is not just about rising wages, it’s about racial justice and gender justice, immigrant rights and LGBTQ rights. Collective action and collective power would lift more families and communities to a better life, in urban centers and Appalachia, in big tech and the American south. Like the New Deal and the civil rights movement, the PRO Act will have a multiplying effect, boosting efforts to fight climate change, win racial justice and fix our democracy.”
But, he added, the labor movement can’t do it alone. “We need a broader coalition to win – one as big and broad as the hopes and aspirations of the American people,” Trumka stated. “You can’t change America if you don’t change our labor laws…. What we do in these next weeks and months and over the next year may well set the table for decades. And I am absolutely convinced that we have the public’s support, the president’s support and the resources and brainpower in each of our organizations to come together and shock the world.”
Despite skepticism about the bill’s prospects, Trumka said he’s optimistic. “Let me say this as clearly as I can,” he declared. “We passed the PRO Act in the House. The president has urged Congress to send it to his desk. And for that we need 50 votes in the Senate. Fifty real votes. Fifty senators that are not playing procedural games or looking to run out the clock. That’s all we need. It’s written right there in the Constitution plain as day – the Senate runs by a simple majority.
“This is not the time for excuses or equivocation,” he continued. “We need consistent, relentless forward motion…. Though on any given day we will have targets, this fight has to be a national fight in every state. Though we have a calendar, we must commit to fighting until we win. And we must be ready to lift up those who join us and hold those who stand in our way accountable, no matter which political party they come from.”
He reminded attendees that the federation scheduled an action week for late July and encouraged broad participation.
Earlier in his speech, Trumka said the collective strength available through unions is what sold him on membership. He saw the benefits of a union contract in his own home and in his community in Pennsylvania.
“But in the years since, those rights have been hacked away,” he said. “Workers who try to improve their lives are far too often met with retaliation, intimidation, loss of employment, and the list goes on. And this silencing of working people has profoundly hurt our country and threatened our democracy.”
The erosion of workers’ rights that has corresponded with drops in union membership harms America, Trumka said. Such deterioration has led to “wages held down for decades as profits skyrocket, and runaway inequality. Inequality of income, opportunity and most of all, power. Our democracy is hanging on by a thread as private equity billionaires fund legal attacks on voting rights and inspire actual terrorist attacks on our Capitol.
“This must change,” he said. “America must build a future based on democracy – political democracy and democracy at work. We must make big, structural change that empowers all working people…. The stakes are as high as they could be: our economic future, our democracy. The PRO Act is the path to a brighter day, a stronger country and a future worthy of our children.”