LAS VEGAS - The stagnation of workers' wages and declining benefits for the last 40 years, and the Great Recession piled on top of that, has left U.S. workers "confused, angry, frustrated and scared," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says.
Speaking to the Steelworkers convention in Las Vegas in mid-August, Trumka added that bleak prospects for the workers' children only add to those woes. But the mass movement of low-wage workers, fighting for better wages and working conditions and the right to organize, is helping show the way out of the morass, he added.
Trumka spoke to what is arguably the most active union in key areas of the Midwest. He praised the Steelworkers' organizing, political activism and campaign for fair trade with enforceable worker rights. But he said there's a lot more to do to pull U.S. workers as a class out of the hole that corporations dug for them and the country.
"A lot of people, especially some with college degrees," who didn't think of themselves in traditional working class terms, "got a hard-won education in real economics" from the Great Recession and the prior stagnation, he added. Now they're changing their minds, he declared.
"A lot of people didn't understand the connections between their neighbors and themselves. They didn't have to, because generations of strong union contracts kept us in pretty good shape. But that's not the case anymore, and so workers, like Rebecca Taksel" - an adjunct community college professor who earns $6,800 yearly - "have begun to say things like this: "We are going to call ourselves workers, because that's what we are, and we're going to change things."
"The biggest story in America is the great wealth divide, and what we're doing to make it right," he continued. "That's the new story in America. People everywhere are starting to understand themselves as workers. People all across this country, and around the world, are beginning to see collective action as a solution to our troubles.
"From fast food to forged steel, and everywhere in between, more and more people talk about economic inequality, people who never spoke the words before. The public is debating big issues, like a living wage and collective bargaining. We're talking about raising wages, and we like the idea," he said. And so do others, including the unorganized, Trumka added.
To marshal those workers, the federation, the Steelworkers and other member unions launched a Common Sense Economics education project, he explained. Its objective is to educate at least 1 million people nationwide about the nature of the economy, how it works - or doesn't - for workers and what they can do to fix it.
"We'll use information to continue to build momentum for working people. We've got other initiatives, too. We're strengthening our state federations of labor and local labor councils. We're joining together with community partners and allies, in ways we never have before. We're a mainstream movement, and we're acting like it," he declared.
Photo: Screenshot from video.