SPEECH Labor unity and overcoming racism

Remarks by Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, at the 38th Annual Convention of the Coalition of Black Trade Unions, Atlanta, Ga., on May 22, 2009.

Thank you.

What a wonderful introduction!

If you don’t mind, later on I’d like to get my wife on the phone so you can read it to her, too!

I see so many old friends here that I’m afraid if I start singling anyone out I’m going to leave someone out.

But I can’t let this moment pass without saying that part of what makes being invited to speak before CBTU such an honor is the man who leads it.

Over the years one thing I’ve discovered is that there are plenty of union officials in this country, but there are very, very few who’ve really earned the title of labor leader.

I’m talking about women and men who share a clarity of vision few of us have.

Individuals guided by a profound commitment to justice … a sense of morality … and the courage to speak truth to power.

Bill Lucy is one of those individuals.

He has never, ever been afraid to do the right thing.

And, because of that, Bill Lucy personifies what the American labor movement ought to be all about.

And, Bill, all I can say is that I feel so blessed to be your friend!

The other day I was thinking about everything I wanted to talk about today.

And, of course, there are a lot of issues I should get into … for instance, there’s the Employee Free Choice Act, and what the recovery plan means for labor.

But, as important as those and the other issues are, I have to tell you that I was at a meeting at the White House.

But sitting there one thought kept running through my mind: “man, what an incredible, incredible moment this is to be alive!”

Just think: one year ago we were living under one of the worst presidents in American history.

The worst!

And now, in 2009, we are being led by a man who could easily become one of the greatest presidents in American history!

And, brothers and sisters, I have to tell you that we have to do whatever we can — and I mean whatever we can – to help this man succeed!

Because President Obama’s election – and I still can’t believe the sound of that “President Obama!” – because President Obama’s election doesn’t simply offer us the chance to win good labor laws …

or health care …

or tax reform …

or to put more money into public services …

or to stop global warming.

His election and these next four years – these next eight years – gives us the opportunity to fundamentally transform America.

To make this country what it should be … what it has to be.

That’s what I think the election last fall was about.

That’s why even thinking about it, today, it’s still hard to keep our eyes from welling up in tears.

This is a moment of transformation and I think the question … the challenge … the labor movement faces is how can we transform ourselves.

How can we build on what we achieved last year?

I’m not just talking about the political action program.

The mobilization we had last year was incredible – and we need to keep it in place.

But what I’m really talking about is the way the election challenged a lot of our members – a lot of our white members – to think about race in ways they haven’t before.

Last summer I gave a speech at the United Steelworkers convention.

Well, in the speech I talked a little bit about the fact – and let me underline that: the fact – that a lot of white union members were not going to vote for Barack Obama because of his race.

And I also talked a little bit about how that kind of racism has always held the labor movement back.

And that it still does today.

Well, there were a lot of white labor leaders who were very supportive of what I said.

And thought that, maybe, it might help to do some good.

But then there were some who said they didn’t disagree with me, but questioned whether it was good to go public with it – as if somehow I was divulging a state secret.

And that last response amazed me.

Because, if you’re Black, it’s never been a secret that there’s racism in the labor movement.

I asked a business agent for one union how often he heard white members running down Barack Obama.

He said, “Oh, usually as soon as they’re sure none of the black guys are going to overhear them doing it.”

Now, was that a majority of white union members?

No, it wasn’t.

But there were enough that it intimidated those white workers who knew better and kept them from speaking out.

Did the campaign help turn some of that around?

I think it did.

If you talk with Mark Ayers over at the Building Trades, he’ll tell you that, at the beginning of last summer, Barack Obama was only pulling about 50 percent of his members’ votes.

But, thanks to the fact that they pointed out the fundamental differences between Obama and Biden and McCain and what’s-her- name up in Alaska, they were able to increase that number to more than 70 percent in some places.

We saw the same thing happening in other unions, too: the more white workers thought about the economy, the less they cared about race.

Now, does this mean that all those folks underwent some transformation?

Truthfully, I think some did.

They looked at what was happening in this country and came to understand that if they cared about their families,

their jobs,

their homes,

and their future there was only candidate on the ballot who’d earned their vote – only one candidate who’d make a difference — and his name was Barack Hussein Obama!

Is it making a difference for the labor movement?

Well, just look at what we’ve achieved so far:

Who’s heading up the NLRB?

Wilma Leibman: she used to be a lawyer for the Bricklayers.

Who’s now running OSHA?

A trade unionist from AFSCME named Jordan Barab.

Who did he choose as Secretary of Labor?

Congresswoman Hilda Solis.

Her Mom was a member of the Rubber Workers.

Her Dad was an organizer for the Teamsters.

Hilda Solis has stood with the labor movement on every single issue — now she’s leading the Labor Department.

Brothers and sisters, for eight years, I didn’t set foot in that building!

And it’s not just the appointments he’s made.

In just the time he’s been there, the President’s put through a stimulus package that’s going to save or create 3 million good jobs.

The largest investment of public dollars in job creation in our lifetime.

You might remember that during the debate on the stimulus bill the right-wing attacked President Obama for being a socialist.

Well, you know what happened?

Thanks in large part to those attacks a poll found that 20 percent of Americans now say they prefer socialism to capitalism – and another 27 percent say they’re undecided!

I think that may explain why they’re not calling barrack Obama a socialist as much as they used to!

Now, with everything he’s doing for working people, there’s no question that a lot of the residual angst that some of those white workers may have had about Barack Obama is going to melt away.

I mean think about it: President Obama has done more for organized labor in his first hundred days in office than Bill Clinton did in eight years!

So the risk I see isn’t that the white members who took the leap of faith and voted for Barack Obama are going to backslide.

In fact, they are going to be more open to voting for African-American candidates than ever before.

For instance, if the 2006 Maryland Senate primary happened today, I don’t think there’s any question that Kweisi Mfume would have won the Democratic nomination.

At the very least, we wouldn’t have heard so many white Democrats go around saying that, because he’s white, Ben Cardin was, by definition, the stronger candidate.

The risk I see isn’t so much that white workers who crossed the color line to vote for Obama are going to turn back to their old ways.

The danger I see is that some will have the attitude that, because Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama now live in the White House, that racism is part of the past.

I think we’re already hearing strains of that.

It’s almost like they’re saying, “Okay, you got a black president – we’re straight now, right?”

That can be a special problem in the labor movement because, as I said, as an institution, we tend to avoid discussing race.

Of course, every institution does.

A few weeks ago Eric Holder said that Americans are basically cowards when it comes to talking about race – and I don’t think we’re the exception.

The danger within the labor movement is that we try to define every problem in strictly economic terms.

Because of that, to the extent unions talk about racial injustice at all, we characterize it as a subset of economic injustice.

And there is a lot to that.

Racism has always been the weapon of choice used to divide working people.

But not every issue can be cut as economic.

For instance, there’s no economic explanation for cab drivers ignoring black people who are trying to get a ride!

Well, if we want to prevent white members from falling into the trap of believing that racism is now a thing of the past, I think that we, as a movement, we have a responsibility to educate them that there is a racial dynamic to the issues we face.

Health care is a great example.

Organized labor has done a good job of focusing our member’s on the need for health care reform.

We all know about high co-pays and cost-shifting.

We know about companies offering good health care plans, but that fewer of their workers qualify because they’re being reclassified as part-time.

We know about Wal-Mart – and other companies – having their workers apply for public health care.

We all know this because we see it every day.

But even if we addressed all those issues we’d still be left with the fact that African-Americans have less access to quality health care than white people.

It’s part of the reason why, today, African American children have a rate of hospitalization for asthma that is 4 to 5 times higher than the rate for White children

It’s part of the reason why, even though the death rate for diabetes among white people 22.5 (per 100,000 people), in the black community it’s 47!

And the disparities don’t end there.

So, what’s the solution?

Well, part of it is training more black doctors because, as everyone here knows, there are a Hell of a lot of white doctors who simply don’t want to treat black patients.

That’s why the labor movement can’t treat issues like affirmative action at medical schools as if it’s extraneous to the work of unions.

It’s not: it’s about helping to see to it that African American members and their families get the health care they need.

There’s nothing extraneous about that!

That’s just one issue.

And there are so many others.

And as a movement we need to see to it that our members hear about them and understand them.

If they do I’m convinced they’ll recognize that the election of Barack Obama was a milestone, but it wasn’t the finish line.

It was a triumph over racism; but it wasn’t the end of racism.

And, God yes, it said a lot about how far America has come; but it doesn’t mean that we still don’t have a long, long, long way to go.

As everyone here knows, historically, the labor movement has always had an ambiguous response to racism.

We’re the movement of Sam Gompers and Chinese Exclusion – a movement that consigned black workers to Jim Crow locals.

But we’re also the movement of black and white coal miners, auto workers, steelworkers, CWA members who stood as one to win dignity…

…the movement of a young civil engineer named Bill Lucy who stood with Dr. King in Memphis to help sanitation workers win their right to an AFSCME contract.

I think history calls out to us – to our generation of trade unionists – to make this the moment when the labor movement sends a strong, clear, unequivocal message that we will never decouple our fight for economic justice from the crusade for racial justice.

And that we expect more from than gestures.

That it’s not enough to stick an article in the union paper about black history month or send a few bucks to the UNCF – in 2009 it’s not enough to talk the talk you, have to walk the walk!

I’m convinced those progressive labor activists who came before us – Gene Debs and Mother Jones and Phil Randolph …

and so many others …

are calling out to us…

they’re pleading with us …

they’re begging us … not to let this moment pass, but to use it to build a newer, stronger, inclusive labor movement worthy of the dreams of all of America’s workers!

That’s my challenge – and, I think that’s your challenge, too

I promised Bill that I wouldn’t go on too long.

But let just ask: were any of you in Washington for the inauguration?

Okay, I see a lot hands.

Well, for those who weren’t it was impossible to be there that day… to be part of that massive gathering … and not sense the change that was in the air.

Am I right?

Here we were: Latino, black, white, Asian …

men and women …

gay and straight …

all of us together!

All of us standing as one!

That day you could just see the excitement and the hope in everyone’s eyes.

And after Barack Obama took that oath … amid all the tears and all the applause … I could hear a chant begin.

At first it was faint.

You couldn’t quite make it out.

But as more voices joined in, it grew louder and it grew stronger — until it sounded like a roar.

Yes we can!

And there wasn’t a single person there that day who didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Can we make this country where all of us are able to reach out and grab hold of our American dream?

Yes we can!

Can we make this a nation where there’s dignity in all work — and respect for every worker?

Yes we can!

Can we leave our children and their children an America that doesn’t turn its back on people who work with their hands?

Yes we can!

Brothers and sisters, to be there that day was to know that the era of worker bashing was ending.

That a generation of corporate greed was coming to a close.

That the long, cold, dismal night of George Bush was finally over.

It was to know that the future we’ve been fighting for is within our reach.

A future where we can win good contracts again!

A future where our members earn a good living, again!

A future where every single man and woman who wants to have a union can join one, again!

Brothers and sisters, that’s the American future we see — and that’s the American future we’re going to win.

We are going to win because we’re strong!

We’re going to win because we’re tough!

We are going to win because we’re right!

We are going to win because this is our moment to take America back for the workers who built it.

God bless the American labor movement – and God bless CBTU!