Remarks by Richard L. Trumka, President, AFL-CIO, National Press Club, Washington, DC

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Remarks by Richard L. Trumka, President, AFL-CIO, National Press Club, Washington, DC

WASHINGTON - Good morning and thank you, Donna (Lienwand).  I am delighted to be
here at the National Press Club.  I want to thank the officers of the
Press Club for the invitation to be with you today, especially
President Lienwand and speakers' committee member Bob Carden.  

Ten
days into the new decade, and one year into the Obama Administration,
our nation remains poised between the failed policies of the past and
our hopes for a better future.  This is a moment that cries out for
political courage – but it is not much in evidence.  

I spent
the first week of this year traveling on the west coast.  In San
Francisco, I was arrested with low-wage hotel workers fighting to
protect their health care and pensions from leveraged buyouts gone
bad.  In Los Angeles and San Diego, I talked with working Americans
moved to tears by foreclosure and unemployment, outsourcing and benefit
cuts.  

Everywhere I went, people asked me, why do so many of
the people we elect seem to care only about Wall Street?  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, 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.  What makes us
unique among nations is this:  In America, working people are the
middle class.  We built our middle class in the 20th century through
hard work, struggle and visionary political leadership.  But a
generation of destructive, greed-driven economic policies has eroded
that progress and now threatens our very identity as a nation.   

Today,
on every coast and in between, working women and men are fighting to
join the middle class and to protect and rebuild it.  We crave
political leadership ready to fight for the kind of America we want to
leave to our children and against the forces of greed that brought us
to this moment.  But instead we hear a resurgence of complacency and
political paralysis.  Too many people in Washington seem to think that
now that we have bailed out the banks, everything will be okay.  

In
2010, our elected 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.  

Today I want to talk to you about the labor movement's vision for our nation.   

Working
people want an American economy that works for them—that creates good
jobs, where wealth is fairly shared, and where the economic life of our
nation is about solving problems like the threat of climate change
rather than creating problems like the foreclosure crisis.  We know
that growing inequality undermines our ability to grow as a nation – by
squandering the talents and the contributions of our people and
consigning entire communities to stagnation and failure.   

If
we are going to make our vision real, we must challenge our political
leaders, and we must also challenge ourselves and our movement.   

Workers
formed the labor movement as an expression of our lives— a chain of
responsibility and solidarity, making millions of people here in
America and around the world into agents of social change – able to
accomplish much more together than as isolated individuals.  That
movement gives voice to the hopes, values and interests of working
people every day.  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,
where our horizons are shrinking rather than growing.       

But
the future of the labor movement depends on moving forward—on
innovating and changing the way we work, on being open to all working
people and giving voice to all workers, even when our laws and
employers seek to divide us from each other.  And that is something we
are working on every day.   

The AFL-CIO is building new ways
for working people to organize themselves, and new models for
collective bargaining.  We have created Working America, a 3 million
member community-based union growing in working class
neighborhoods—that is one of the signal accomplishments of my
predecessor John Sweeney, who I'm so happy is here today.     

We
are very proud of our alliance with the workers' center movement that
links the unions of the AFL-CIO with hundreds of grassroots
organizations.  We are also working with community allies to strengthen
the voice and bargaining power of low-wage workers in Los Angeles' car
washes – some of the worst-paid and worst-treated workers in this
country.  

Next week, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene
Holt Baker will lead the labor movement's commemoration of the 50th
anniversary of the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina
– continuing the great work she has done over so many years on behalf
of the most vulnerable in our society.  Not far from Greensboro, we
have been working with unemployed African American day laborers and
their workers' center, desperately trying to keep alive the dream
launched in those sit-ins.  

In San Diego last week, I visited
a pre-apprenticeship program formed by the local labor movement to
create career paths for at-risk youth.  In Los Angeles, I saw a
remarkable community-based labor-management training program created by
the Electrical Workers that is focused on green jobs.  These programs
demonstrate the tremendous benefits that are possible when labor and
business come together to solve problems jointly.  

I met
people who had been homeless who were about to become journeymen
electricians.  A young man named Nakayah said to me, "The union gave me
a chance to go from no life to the hope for a middle-class life.  It
didn't just teach me to get a job, it taught me how to be a man."  

As
I talked to hotel workers—members of Unite Here, many of them
immigrants—on strike to keep hotel jobs from falling back into poverty
and to union members with PhD's fighting to prevent California's budget
catastrophe from cratering not only their jobs but the education of
their state's children, I thought of my father on strike in the coal
fields when I was a boy.  And I was reminded of this basic truth:  A
job is a good job because workers fight to make it one—it doesn't
matter if the job is in a coal mine or a classroom or a car wash.  And
that is why unions are needed today, more than ever.      I grew up in
a small town in western Pennsylvania, and I was surrounded by the
legacy of my parents and grandparents.  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.   

What is our legacy—the legacy of those of
us who are shaping the world our children and grandchildren will
inhabit?  Is our government laying the foundations young people need? 
Do workplaces offer hope?  Do they even offer work?  Are we building a
world we will be proud to hand over to our children?  Are the voices of
the young, of the future, being heard?  

In September, I was
elected President of the AFL-CIO together with Secretary Treasurer Liz
Shuler and Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, both of whom are
here today.  Liz Shuler is the youngest principal officer of the
AFL-CIO in our history, and I asked her to lead a program of outreach
to young workers.  As part of that effort, the AFL-CIO conducted a
study of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34, comparing their
economic standing, attitudes and hopes with those from a similar survey
conducted 10 years ago.  The findings are shocking.  They reveal a lost
decade for young workers in America.  Lower wages.  Education
deferred.  Things are so bad that one in three of these 18–34-year-olds
is currently living at home with their parents.   

The
desperation I heard in this survey and in the voices of proud,
hard-working Americans fills me with an enormous sense of urgency, an
urgency that should be shared by every elected official here in
Washington and across this country.  

As a country and a
movement, our challenge is to build a new economy that can restore
working people's expectations and hope.  If you were laid off because
of what Wall Street did to our economy, it's not your fault.  A dead
end job with no benefits is not the best our country can do for its
citizens.   

What went wrong with our economy?  You could say
it is as simple as we built a low-wage, high consumption economy and
tried to bridge the contradiction with debt.  And there's a lot of
truth in that simplicity.  But if we are going to understand what is
wrong in a way that will help us understand how to fix it, we need a
little more detail.  

A generation ago, our nation's
policymakers embarked on a campaign of radical deregulation and
corporate empowerment – one that celebrated private greed over public
service.  

The AFL-CIO warned of the dangers of that path --
trade policies that rewarded and accelerated outsourcing, financial
deregulation designed to promote speculation and the dismantling of our
pension and health care systems.  We warned that the middle class could
not survive in such an economy, that growing inequality would
inevitably shrink the American pie, that we were borrowing from the
rest of the world at an unsustainable pace, that busts would follow
bubbles and that our country would be worse off in the end.  

These
policies culminated in the worst economic decade in living memory—we
suffered a net loss of jobs, the housing market collapsed, real wages
fell and more children fell into poverty.  And the enormous growth in
inequality during that decade yielded mediocre growth overall.  This is
not a portrait of a cyclical recession, but of a nation with profound,
unaddressed structural economic problems on a long-term, downward
slide.    

Our structural problems pre-date the crisis that hit in 2007 and they are not going to go away by themselves in 2010.     

First,
we have underinvested in the foundations of our economy—including the
transportation and communications infrastructure that are essential to
a middle-class society and a dynamic, competitive high-wage economy.  
But the most important foundation of our economy is education and
training.  We simply cannot continue to skimp on the quality of
education we provide to all of our children and expect to lead in the
global economy.  Likewise, we need to provide opportunities for
lifelong skills upgrading to workers – through both private and public
sector initiatives.   

Second, we have failed over a long
period of time to create enough good jobs at home to maintain our
middle class – and we have allowed corporate hacks to whittle away at
workers' bargaining power to undermine the quality of the remaining
jobs.   

Finally, the structural absence of good jobs means a shortage of sustainable demand to drive our economy.  

We want an entirely different kind of economy. Let's talk about what we need to do.   

We
must directly and immediately take on what is wrong— by creating
millions of good jobs now, rebuilding our economic foundations and
giving working people the freedom to form a union again and make all
our jobs good jobs.  

We must pass genuine health care reform
and reregulate our financial system—so that finance is the servant of
the real economy, and not its master; so that we have an independent
Consumer Financial Protection Agency; and so that we never again take
the public's money and use it to rescue bank executives and
stockholders.  I'd like to commend President Obama's leadership in
insisting on a viable, strong and independent consumer protection
agency – which is crucial to real financial reform.  

The
AFL-CIO's five-point program will create more than 4 million
jobs—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.   

And we need to adopt a tax on financial speculation so that we can fund the jobs effort as the economy recovers.   

Some
in Washington say when it comes to jobs: Go slow—take half steps. 
These voices are harming millions of unemployed Americans and their
families -- but they are also jeopardizing our economic recovery.  It
is responsible to have a plan for paying for job creation over time. 
But it is bad economics and suicidal politics not to aggressively
address the job crisis at a time of double-digit unemployment.  In
fact, budget deficits over the medium and long term will be worse if we
allow the economy to slide into long job stagnation -- unemployed
workers don't pay taxes and they don't go shopping; businesses without
customers don't hire workers, they don't invest and they also don't pay
taxes.  

Our economy does not work without good jobs, so we
must take action now to restore workers' voices in America.  The
systematic silencing of American workers by denying our right to form
unions is at the heart of the disappearance of good jobs in America. 
We must pass the Employee Free Choice Act so that workers can have the
chance to turn bad jobs into good jobs, and so we can reduce the
inequality which is undermining our prospects for stable economic
growth.  And we must do it now—not next year, not even this summer. 
Now.   

Each of these initiatives should be rooted in a
crucial alliance of the middle class and the poor.  But today, as I
speak to you, something different is happening with health care.    On
the one hand we have the House bill, which asks the small part of our
country that has prospered in the last decade—the richest of the
rich—to pay a little bit more in taxes so that most Americans can have
health insurance.  And the House bill reins in the power of health
insurers and employers by having an employer mandate and a strong
public option.     

But thanks to the Senate rules, the
appalling irresponsibility of the Senate Republicans and the power of
the wealthy among some Democrats, the Senate bill instead drives a
wedge between the middle class and the poor.  The bill rightly seeks to
ensure that most Americans have health insurance.  But instead of
taxing the rich, the Senate bill taxes the middle class by taxing
workers' health plans—not just union members' health care; most of the
31 million insured employees who would be hit by the excise tax are not
union members. 

The tax on benefits in the Senate bill pits
working Americans who need health care for their families against
working Americans struggling to keep health care for their families. 
This is a policy designed to benefit elites—in this case, insurers,
hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and irresponsible employers, at the
expense of the broader public.  It's the same tragic pattern that got
us where we are today, and I can assure you the labor movement is
fighting with everything we've got to win health care reform that is
worthy of the support of working men and women.             

These great struggles over health care, good jobs, the freedom to organize and financial reform are just the first steps.   

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.  

We must have
an agenda to address the daily challenges workers face on the job – to
ensure safe and healthy workplaces and family-friendly work rules.  

We also need comprehensive reform of our immigration policy -- based on shared prosperity and fairness, not cheap labor.  

And
we must take on the retirement crisis.  Too many employers have
replaced the system of pensions we used to have with underfunded
savings accounts fully exposed to everything that is wrong with Wall
Street.  Today, the median balance in 401K accounts is only $27,000 –
nowhere near enough to fund a secure retirement.  We need to return to
a policy of employers sharing responsibility for retirement security
with employees, while also bolstering and strengthening Social
Security.      

President Obama campaigned on a platform of
boldly taking on these challenges.  He has spoken often about the need
to refound our economy on doing real things, rather than dreaming of
financial pots of gold.  He has asked Vice President Biden to lead the
effort to restore the middle class.  For the first time I can recall,
we have an Administration that sees manufacturing – making things here
-- as central to America's future and that speaks clearly about the
positive role for workers and their unions in that future.  President
Obama has laid out an aggressive agenda for structural change and has
appointed people like Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis who believe in
that vision.  

Of course, President Obama inherited a terrible
mess from his predecessor—a journey of stolen elections, ruinous tax
cuts for the rich, dishonest wars, financial scandal,
government-sponsored torture, flooded cities and finally, economic
collapse.  

President Obama's administration began – out of
necessity and vision -- with an act of political courage—the enactment
of a broad and substantial economic recovery program.  Despite
Republican opposition, the stimulus was big enough to make a real,
positive impact on our economy, saving or creating more than a million
jobs already.  

But the jobs crisis has escalated, the
foreclosure crisis continues and Wall Street appears to have returned
to its old ways. This is Bonus Week on Wall Street – watch and see how
much discipline they show, with the nation watching.  

Now
more than ever, we need the boldness and the clarity we saw in our
president during the campaign in 2008, when he outlined the scope of
the economic problems facing our nation -- unencumbered by the
political cross-currents weighing us down today.  One year into the
Obama Administration and one year into a Congress with strong
Democratic majorities, we need leadership action that matches the
urgency that is felt so deeply by working people.    

Too
often Washington falls into the grip of ambivalence about the
fundamental purpose of government.  Is it to protect wealthy elites and
gently encourage them to be more charitable?  Or is it to look after
the vast majority of the American people?  

Government in the
interests of the majority of Americans has produced our greatest
achievements.  The New Deal.  The Great Society and the Civil Rights
movement -- Social Security, Medicare, the minimum wage and the
forty-hour work week, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. 
This is what made the United States a beacon of hope in a confused and
divided world.  

But too many people now take for granted
government's role as protector of Wall Street and the privileged.  They
see middle-class Americans as overpaid and underworked. They see Social
Security as a problem rather than the only piece of our retirement
system that actually works.  They feel sorry for homeless people, but
fail to see the connections between downsizing, outsourcing, inequality
and homelessness.  

This world view has brought Democrats
nothing but disaster.  The Republican response is to offer the middle
class the false hope of tax cuts.  Tax cuts end up enriching the rich
and devastating the middle class by destroying the institutions like
public education and Social Security that make the middle class
possible.   

But no matter what I say or do, the reality is
that when unemployment is 10 percent and rising, working people will
not stand for tokenism.  We will not vote for politicians who think
they can push a few crumbs our way and then continue the failed
economic policies of the last 30 years.   

Let me be even
blunter.  In 1992, workers voted for Democrats who promised action on
jobs, who talked about reining in corporate greed and who promised
health care reform.  Instead, we got NAFTA, an emboldened Wall Street –
and not much more.  We swallowed our disappointment and worked to
preserve a Democratic majority in 1994 because we knew what the
alternative was.  But there was no way to persuade enough working
Americans to go to the polls when they couldn't tell the difference
between the two parties.  Politicians who think that working people
have it too good – too much health care, too much Social Security and
Medicare, too much power on the job – are inviting a repeat of 1994.   

Our country cannot afford such a repeat.  

President
Obama said in his inaugural address, "The state of the economy calls
for action, bold and swift, and we will act -- not only to create new
jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth."  Now is the time to make
good on these words – for Congress, for President Obama and for the
American people.  

These are big challenges.  But it is long
past time to take them on.  And for those members of Congress who think
maybe taking on big challenges is not their job, and who want to keep
offering working people tokenism while they govern in the interests of
the people who trashed our economy, I have a suggestion for how to
spend your weekends.   

Go sit with the unemployed. Talk to
college students looking at tuition hikes, laid-off professors, and no
jobs at graduation.  Talk to workers whose jobs are being offshored. 
Ask what these Americans think about their future.  Ask them what they
think of Wall Street, of health insurance companies, of big banks.  Ask
them if they want a government that is in partnership with those folks,
or a government that stands up for working people.  

Then
think about the great promise of America and the great legacy we have
inherited.  Our wealth as a nation and our energy as a people can
deliver, in the words of my predecessor Samuel Gompers, "more
schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more
learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and
less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our
better natures."  

This is the American future the labor
movement is working for.  Our political leaders have a choice.  They
can work with us for a future where the middle class is secure and
growing, where inequality is on the decline and where jobs provide
ladders out of poverty.  Or they can work for a future where the
profits of insurance companies, speculators and outsourcers are
secure.  There is no middle ground.  Working America is waiting for an
answer.  We are in a "show me" kind of mood, and time is running out.

 

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The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a voluntary federation of 56 national and international labor unions. The AFL-CIO union movement represents 10.5 million members, including 2 million members in Working America, its new community affiliate. We are teachers and truck drivers, musicians and miners, firefighters and farm workers, bakers and bottlers, engineers and editors, pilots and public employees, doctors and nurses, painters and laborers-and more.

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