Trumka at NAACP: Building union power means taking on racism

Remarks by Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, 100th Annual NAACP Convention, New York, N.Y., July 15, 2009.

Thank you.

Wow, after an introduction like that I can't wait to hear what I have to say!

Before anything, there are some people I want to thank, not only for their leadership of the NAACP – but also for their commitment to building a strong, new movement for worker rights in this country.

A movement that can strengthen the labor movement – and, with it, the American middle-class. I'm talking, of course, about your incredible vice chair, Roslyn Brock.

Of course, there's someone who I regard as one of the most important agents for change in America today, your executive director, Ben Jealous.

And then there's a man who has been a personal hero of mine ever since 1968 when I first heard him speak out against the war in Viet Nam. He has been, and remains, one of this generation's strongest voices for peace and justice – I'm talking about your chairman – the Honorable Julian Bond!

And there are some other people who I'd also like to thank: and that's you: the women and men of the NAACP. You've made it your mission to see to it that America lives up to its promises -- and that we're always guided by the better angels of our nature. Whether its combating police brutality in California, organizing for better schools in Georgia or leading the fight to protect the city water system in Cincinnati the NAACP is there.

You don't do it because you enjoy setting up meetings or making phone calls or organizing demonstrations. You didn't get active in the NAACP because you thought it would be easy. No: You're in the NAACP because you know it's morally right. Thanks to your hard work. Thanks to your dedication. Thanks to your willingness to lay it all on the line. The NAACP today remains what it's been for the last century:

A force for change!

A catalyst for justice!

A movement to build an America:

Where every voice is heard!

Where every vote is counted!

Where every family matters!

And where all of us – all of us -- have a seat at the table!

That's the kind of America the NAACP believes in!

That's the kind of America the labor movement believes in!

And, in 2009, together with President Barack Obama, that's the America we intend to build! And we don't have a minute to waste! Because if we don't act now … if we don't seize this incredible moment … we may not get another chance – and our grandchildren will never forgive us.

Because you and I know that, as tremendous a victory as Barack Obama's election was, we can't let it be an achievement to rest on. No: It's up to us to make it a foundation to build on. You and I know that the election was a triumph over racism, but it wasn't the end of racism.

It was a milestone, but it wasn't the finish line.

Now, I know everyone here knows that. After all, the reason each of you joined the NAACP to begin with is because you knew that it would take more than an election to turn this nation around – even if it was the election of an African-American president. The roots of the crisis facing our country run deep. The policies of the last eight years helped to turn much of America into an industrial wasteland. You know, people talk about a middle-class squeezed. Well, the African-American middle-class isn't being squeezed; it's being crushed Though the media doesn't report it, we all know that African-American poverty was on the rise years before anyone thought there'd be a recession. The home ownership rate among African-Americans was dropping long before anyone talked about a foreclosure crisis. And the health care crisis? As everyone in the NAACP knows, there's never been a moment when the African-American community has ever had access to quality, affordable health care. It's part of the reason why African Americans are more likely to die from strokes, and cancer, and heart attacks, and diabetes. Yes, there's an African-American man living in the White House, but the fact is that the life expectancy for African American men in America today is still six years less than it is for white men!

Do we need to elect more leaders who have the guts to take these issues on?

Absolutely.

But, you know, we can't only win these fights at the ballot box; we also have to take them to the bargaining table.

Because we can't win justice in the community, unless there's justice on the job. And winning justice on the job is what the American labor movement is all about! Because you and I know there's a reason why African Americans who have a union earn over one third more than African Americans who don't. It's the same as the reason why they're more likely to have health care and pensions -- and why they're more likely to have access to the training they need to turn jobs into careers.

It's not because unionized employers are nice guys and want it to be that way; no it's because unionized African-American workers have the strength to make it that way! Unionized aren't more deserving, they're just more organized!

And, I want to tell you, that's why your support for the Employee Free Choice Act is so critically important! I know that most folks here already know what the Employee Free Choice Act would do. NAACP chapters all over America have made passing the Act one of their top priorities and I can tell you that, in large part, because of your support we're now within a hair's breadth of winning in the Senate.

And I shouldn't have to tell you that President Obama has made it absolutely clear to me and others that once it does pass the Senate he'll immediately sign it into law.

But we also know that there are some people who have a stake in keeping the Employee Free Choice Act from passing. They're companies who don't see workers as their best asset, but as their biggest expense. I'm talking companies whose definition of labor-management cooperation is when workers keep their mouths shut and do as they're told.

I'm talking about CEOs – not all of them, but far too many – who have convinced themselves that there's no way they can get ahead without leaving their employees behind. Those have made it crystal clear that they will do whatever it takes to keep the Employee Free Choice Act from ever making it to President Obama's desk. They have been waging one of the most expensive, divisive and dishonest lobbying campaigns in U.S. history. Now, am I saying the other side is deliberately trying to mislead people?

Well, I'll let you be the judge. Last October, Bernie Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot, said that passage of the Employee Free Choice Act would trigger – and this a quote -- 'the demise of civilization.' Now, think about that for a minute. If you were to walk out of this hall and ask the first ten people you see what the greatest threat to civilization is today, they might tell you it's global warming, or terrorism, or hunger, or, maybe, a flu epidemic. But my guess is that you won't find one who'll say it's revising the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. So why the hysteria? Well, it's not because of the harm it's going to do them. It's because of the good it's going to do for Billy Mason. My guess is no one here knows Mr. Mason.

There's no reason you should. But 23 years ago, after a four-year stint in the Marines, Mr. Mason went to work at the Alcoa plant in Hampton, Virginia. He got a job grinding and polishing metal castings to make airplane parts. Now, on paper, factory jobs like Mr. Mason's can help millions of African-American manufacturing workers like Billy Mason into the middle-class. All it takes is one thing: a union contract. But the Hampton, Virginia plant was non-union – and Alcoa planned to keep it that way. The upshot was that pay raises were so few and far between that, after more than two decades on the job, Billy Mason was actually earning $2 an hour less in real wages than when he started. But that's not all.

One day, Alcoa announced that it had decided to eliminate fully paid health insurance. Of course, since they didn't have a contract the workers didn't have a say in the matter. What did it mean for Billy Mason? With the added cost of health care, Mr. Mason's dropped to the point where he was earning $6,000 less than he did his first year on the job! In fact, if you ask him he'll tell you that he actually had more money in his pocket back when his kids were little and his wife didn't work! So what did Billy Mason do? Well, he and his co-workers decided to do the same thing that other African-American workers had done before him. They decided to form a union and joined up with the United Steelworkers.

Now, if Mr. Mason was one of Alcoa's 32,000 European employees that would have been the end of it. The company would have recognized the union and negotiated a contract. But Hampton, Virginia isn't Europe – and Alcoa did everything it could to keep the workers from having their union. At the beginning of each shift the company held mandatory union bashing meetings. When the day to vote on whether to have a union grew closer, Alcoa began to bring in what Mr. Mason calls 'the suit and tie people' to push them even harder.

It went for two months.

The result?

The company succeeded. Even though Mr. Mason and two-thirds of his co-workers had signed cards authorizing the Steelworkers to be their bargaining agent, they lost the election. People were scared. But not Billy Mason. Like I said Mr. Mason had been a Marine. He doesn't give up easy. That's why, despite the loss and Alcoa's fear campaign he and some of his co-workers continued to try to exercise his legal right to organize. What happened? Well, in retaliation, Billy Mason was singled out for harassment and, to set an example to every other worker, he was suspended without pay for two weeks.

Of course, the union took Mr. Mason's case to the National Labor Relations Board and, eventually, he was awarded his back pay. But, the damage was done. Workers got the message loud and clear and, as we meet here today, I can tell you that Billy Mason and his co-workers at Alcoa still don't have a union contract. But even though those workers have been bloodied they haven't been beaten. At least not if Mr. Mason has anything to say about it. 'I believe the rights we have [today] were fought for,' he said. 'People shed blood and people died, and I'm not going to let those rights be taken away!'

Well, today I think we ought to send Mr. Mason and his co-workers a message. It's that we hear you…we stand with you… we refuse to accept that any workers should ever have to choose between joining a union and keeping their jobs.

Brothers and sisters, brave men and women didn't risk their lives in Selma and Birmingham and Memphis so companies like Alcoa could rob workers like Billy Mason of his right to organize! We need the Employee Free Choice Act and we need it now! But I need to tell you that the challenge we face isn't only passing the Employee Free Choice Act. It's taking full advantage of it once we do. And that begins by reaching out to organize the workers the labor movement left behind. Who are they? Well, a lot of them are African Americans. And I'd like to talk about that for a minute.

You know, of all the challenges the NAACP has taken on over these last 100 years few have been as necessary – few have been as important – as the crusade this organization led to end segregation in the American labor movement.

The NAACP understood something that a lot of labor leaders didn't. In July, 1929 – exactly eighty years ago – W.E.B. Du Bois warned that, unless organized labor took a critical look at itself and abandoned segregation, it would face what he called 'irreparable loss.'

And history proved him right.

At a time when unions in countries were mobilizing to win universal health care and a new social contract, a lot of union leaders here were more concerned with keeping a 'whites only' sign posted on the door of the American labor movement.

At the very time they should have been building one movement of white workers, and African-American workers, and Latino workers, and Asian-American workers – and women workers of every color – they were fighting to keep them out. Du Bois captured the tenor of the times when he wrote that: 'Whatever ideals white labor today strives for in America, it would surrender … before it would recognize a Negro as a man.'

Well, we can't change the sins of the past. But we can learn from them – and build a new kind of labor movement for the future. A labor movement that goes beyond gestures, beyond rhetoric and tokenism. A labor movement that understands that being inclusive isn't just a matter of kicking in a few dollars to UNCF or having an article about Black History Month in the union newspaper.

No. We can't just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk. We can't only preach about change; we have to make change happen. And that means investing the time, the energy, the talent, and the resources it's going to take to begin the work of organizing five million (4.8 million) poverty wage African American workers so they can have the paycheck, the benefits… and the opportunities -- that can only come with a union contract!

Is it possible? The labor movement can't do the job alone, but together – with the NAACP – I'm convinced that we can. Together, a new alliance between the labor movement and the NAACP can begin the work of transforming poverty wage work into jobs with a future.

Together, working as partners – at the grassroots -- we can make the promise of collective bargaining real to a new generation of African American workers. Working together, we can begin to grow the African American middle-class.

I know that's always been a priority of the NAACP – and, after September, it's going to be a priority at the AFL-CIO, too.

Now, I've always been a big believer in the proposition that speeches ought to end on the same day they begin. But as I was getting ready to come up to join you today, I remembered something that I heard a long time ago. It was something Bobby Kennedy said. I'm guessing a lot of you remember it, too. (I know Julian Bond does) He said: 'some see things as they are and ask why, we dream things that never were and ask why not.' I was thinking about that because, for 100 years, that's the question the NAACP has been asking.

And, today, it's the question the AFL-CIO is asking, too.

Together, we have a vision of a different kind of an America than the one we have today. A nation that's guided by its dreams; not shackled by its fears. We see an America where all of us are able to take our place in the winner's circle. We see not an America where there's dignity in all work -- and respect for every worker. We see an America that doesn't turn its back on people who work with their hands.

An America where everyone who wants a college education can afford one! Where every child who needs a doctor can see one! Where every man and woman who looks for a job can find one!

An America where every single worker who wants to have a union can join one! That's the American future we dream of – and I swear to you that, together, together, that's the American future we're going to win. We're going to win because we're strong!

We're going to win because we're proud!

We are going to win because we are one movement standing together!

One movement marching together!

One movement fighting together!

One movement winning together!

One movement taking this country back together!

Because it's our jobs!

Our families!

Our future!

Our dreams!

Because this is our America – and we will not be denied!

God bless America – and God bless the NAACP!