AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka never fails to energize a crowd, and he was the perfect speaker to kick off the second day of the Maritime Trade Department, AFL-CIO Executive Board meeting on February 19. After being introduced with a story by longtime friend MTD President Michael Sacco, Trumka began by thanking him for his contributions to the labor movement: “You’re a great friend, a great leader, and I just want to say thanks for what you do for working people every single day.”
Trumka addressed the crowd of MTD officials and guests, thanking them for demonstrating the power of cooperation in the labor movement. He then took a moment to say a few words about the departed brothers and sisters who worked aboard the El Faro.
“The deaths of these 33 brave women and men – 28 members of the Seafarers and the American Maritime Officers and five Polish nationals – reminds us of the perilous nature of navigating the world’s oceans,” Trumka stated. “Soon, on April 28, in recognition of Workers Memorial Day, we’ll remember the crew of El Faro, and those who died on the job, or from diseases and injuries after a lifetime of work.
(Later that day, the MTD paid its respects to the crew of the El Faro.)
“Remembering is important, but we also have to do everything in our power to improve workplace safety,” he continued, “because as Mother Jones once said, ‘Mourn the dead, and then fight like hell for the living.’ And right now, brothers and sisters, there’s nothing more important than sticking together and fighting like hell for our members and workers out there every single day, because we’re under attack.”
That fight was the main topic of Trumka’s speech, as he detailed the current state of workers’ rights. He described the grassroots movement to raise wages and improve worker protections and called on individual unions to lead by example.
The Keystone State native then described how the working class is under attack, using the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as an example, but not an exception. “America has hundreds of places like Flint,” he said. “Many in my state of Pennsylvania, in Appalachia, in West Virginia, in Ohio, all around this country there are places just like Flint. Every single day, they are suffering and being hurt because of deliberate policies that have been adopted. They can call it austerity, they can call it whatever they want, but it’s causing pain on people.”
As for a way to fight back, the answer is right in front of us, said Trumka: “We have to stand together. And we have to raise wages. Benjamin Franklin said the rule of solidarity is pretty simple: Either we hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”
Trumka then turned to a familiar topic: the AFL-CIO’s Raising Wages campaign. He discussed the various wins experienced in the labor movement during 2015, even including some non-union workplaces that benefited from labor’s activism. But the campaign is about much more than just increasing the minimum wage, he said: “It’s about basic dignity and basic fairness, about policies that lift us all up, together.”
That theme of solidarity continued as he began to talk about the maritime community, saying, “That’s why we support the Maritime Security Program and the Jones Act – so that every vessel travelling between U.S. ports is built, and owned, and crewed by Americans. The Jones Act is key for American security and, quite frankly, for the American economy.”
After briefly touching on the AFL-CIO’s decision to refrain from nominating a presidential candidate until after the primaries, he emphasized how critical the upcoming election will be for the working class, and not just in the presidential race, but at every level of government. With the recent death of Antonin Scalia, there is also an opening on the Supreme Court, to which Trumka responded, “America has a chance for a new mainstream majority on our nation’s highest court, which would mean hope for responsible rulings on a raft of cases.”
As Trumka described, “The AFL-CIO is not a tool of any political party, or any politician. We’re a federation built entirely on working people, and our only fidelity is to our members and the working families across America.”
He concluded, “So Mike (Sacco), as always, the Maritime Trades will lead the way. You know about service, you embody sacrifice, you practice solidarity…. Brothers and sisters, I want to tell you one more time how proud I am to be here with you, because you know how to win for America’s hard-working families. You’ve done it many, many times. And you’ll keep doing it, and I know you will. When we stand together, we win together…. America remains the wealthiest nation in world history, at our wealthiest time in history. We can support middle-class jobs and succeed. That’s what America is all about.”