In final speech, Trumka said labor’s fighting for democracy under siege
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, 1949-2021. | AP photo

LAS VEGAS (PAI)—In what turned out to be his final address to a union crowd, the late AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka declared organized labor is fighting not just for itself, but for “democracy, which has been under siege.”

“Give us back our power, and we’ll pull our country back from the brink,” he declared.

Trumka used those phrases in a six-minute August 4 Zoom address to convention delegates of Labor’s Council for Latin American Advancement, meeting in Las Vegas. He died the next morning of a heart attack at age 72.

“We need this Congress to pass the PRO Act, to rewrite years of laws that are hurting working people, not helping them,” Trumka said. The PRO (Protect the Right to Organize) Act, labor’s number one legislative priority, is the most pro-worker wide-ranging labor law reform bill since the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act.

It’s also currently marooned in the 50-50 Senate, subject to a GOP filibuster threat, as is other legislation Trumka proceeded to cite before coming to his “under siege” comment.

“We need to deliver on infrastructure, protect our sacred voting rights, and put working people,” specifically those who are undocumented, “on one long path to citizenship.” Comprehensive immigration reform also faces a right-wing filibuster.

“When you boil it all down, the fight we’re making today is the fight for democracy, which we all know has been under siege.” Then he identified enemies, though not by name.

“It’s no coincidence the opponents of democracy are also anti-worker politicians—politicians who have spent decades dividing and weakening working people, tearing us apart by race, weakening social protection programs, and fighting our unions with everything they have.”

“Our message to them is very, very simple: Your time is up.”

Trumka addresses delegates to the convention of Labor’s Council for Latin American Advancement on Aug. 4, the day before his death. | LCLAA

Trumka explained the twin goals of passing the PRO Act and the For the People Act—a comprehensive voting rights and election reform bill labor is also pushing—would ensure democracy at the ballot box and bring it to the workplace.

Victories for those two bills, he said, would help lead to “racial and gender equity and a rebalancing of power so we get a fair share of the wealth our work creates… Together we’re going to keep winning policies that work for every worker—no exclusions.”

That’s a key point for LCLAA, an AFL-CIO constituency group. Labor laws do not cover large groups of Latinx workers, notably farm workers, home health care workers, and domestic workers, due to racism against workers of color at the time the laws were passed during the New Deal era. Ways and means of achieving those goals were a key theme of the convention.

“We focused on advancing worker rights, celebrated the contributions and honored the sacrifices of this labor force, and reinforced the interconnected experiences in the new American reality of social, climate, and immigration justice and the advancement of Latinos and people of color,” LCLAA said in its convention roundup.

“The convention’s goal centered on fulfilling a robust and justice-driven transformation for communities struggling with economic, racial, and gender injustices while recognizing that higher wages, fair workplaces, more robust healthcare, and environmental safeguards foster a more engaged constituency with political power….This helped shape a progressive agenda and a road map for the coming year.”

Delegates approved resolutions supporting “a fair and just Puerto Rico,” the PRO Act, the For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act—like the other two, threatened by a Senate GOP filibuster—and comprehensive immigration reform.

Another resolution told local chapters to mount coordinated campaigns for achieving that goal through the budget reconciliation bill under Senate consideration. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and organizations of Spanish speakers got it inserted in that measure.

Delegates also voted to “stand with the people of Colombia and urge President Ivan Dugue Marquez to end the widespread violence in the country and take the steps necessary to address economic inequality.” They approved a resolution supporting unionizing Amazon and others advocating increasing diversity in health care and in the federal judiciary.

And they want Democratic President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris “to include Puerto Rico in the executive order raising the minimum wage to $15 for federal contractors.” Many of those contractors, hired by outside companies and not direct federal employees, are people of color, such as fast food workers, security officers, and janitors.

And when delegates learned Trumka died, they created the Richard Trumka Latino Fellowship, a year-long, paid program whose recipients can use it “to gain insights into the complex political, social, and economic forces that shape the operating environment of the labor movement.” It “will help build emerging labor leaders and unionists,” LCLAA explained.

Other speakers included AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, Steelworkers Vice President Fred Redmond, Machinists President Robert Martinez, and Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten. On August 10, they posted Trumka’s speech on YouTube below.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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