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Wed Jan 07, 2015 at 05:15 AM PST

Why We Need to Talk About Wages

by Richard Trumka

What’s wrong with our economy? People are more productive than ever, yet they don’t see their hard work reflected in their paychecks. Wages aren’t rising. We hear time and time again it is becoming extremely difficult to afford a middle-class life. No one should work full-time and live in poverty or be one paycheck away from financial disaster.

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Tue Sep 30, 2014 at 09:50 AM PDT

We Need to Talk About Ferguson

by Richard Trumka

Earlier this month, I strayed from my usual convention speech at the Missouri AFL-CIO Convention in St. Louis. You see, it was time for us in the labor movement to talk about Michael Brown’s death and to address that what happened in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., is happening to young men of color in communities all over the country.

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What work is more important than caring for those who are elderly, sick or dying?
It’s hard work bathing people who can’t bathe themselves, cooking and cleaning, helping people get dressed and making sure medications are taken on schedule, day after day.

Yesterday, home care workers won the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay.
It’s a victory in the fight for all of us to value work, without a doubt. It’s nonetheless bittersweet because the driving force behind this victory, a heroic woman named Evelyn Coke, who spent her life caring for others before finally turning into an activist for fair pay, did not live to see it.

Evelyn Coke was born in Jamaica and raised her family in Queens, N.Y. She found a career she loved, as a home care worker, eventually earning about $7 an hour, even though she often worked as much as 70 hours a week. She sometimes worked three consecutive 24-hour shifts.

Evelyn finally sued to reverse federal labor regulations that exempted home care agencies from paying overtime. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.
Evelyn’s activism was rooted in need. She raised five children as a single mom. She worked hard and wanted to be paid fairly. A car accident in 2001 left her unable to work. By 2007, she needed a wheelchair.

After listening to the oral arguments when her case was before the Supreme Court, she said, “I hope they try to help me because I need help bad.”

But the Supreme Court ruled against her, saying the U.S. Department of Labor had acted within its discretion when it set home care workers apart.

Evelyn Coke’s rejection by the Supreme Court set the stage for a long push to get the Labor Department to revisit its rules. This week, the Obama administration stepped forward and revised the rules.
The new rules issued by the Labor Department will make a difference for millions of families, as the number of people working in home care grows dramatically.

Employment in the home care health field has exploded, from only a few hundred thousand jobs in 1988 to some 1.7 million in 2011, but pay and benefits have remained virtually unchanged, making it a high-turnover profession. Nearly half of all home care workers—overwhelmingly low income, female and minority—rely on food stamps or other public assistance.

It’s a sad fact that when Evelyn Coke suffered from kidney failure, she could not afford a health care worker to take care of her. In 2009, she died of heart failure. She was 74. Her son said a serious bedsore contributed to her death.

It’s heartbreaking because Evelyn Coke’s care had prevented many, many people from getting bedsores.

So I applaud the Obama administration for writing new rules to value the labor of home care workers. I only wish it could have happened sooner.


What kind of movement do working people need to build a better future? What changes should labor make? Those are some of the questions I posed to you two months ago—and Daily Kos readers and progressives everywhere have offered all kinds of ideas. We’d like to hear more—even your off-the-wall ideas. Please share your thoughts by commenting on this post or go to We’re still listening. Already, at in-person gatherings as well as online, we’ve heard from more than 5,600 people—union members, activists, allies, academics and others.

We’ve been poring through those ideas and recommendations to identify common threads to take to the AFL-CIO Convention in September. Here are a few of the big topics that have emerged:

It’s time to enable more people to be part of the labor movement and create new models of worker representation.
Except for those at the very top, people who work for a living have not been able to get ahead. Many working men and women want to come together to change that, but they cannot become part of the labor movement as it exists today. The proposal is to open membership to anyone who wants to join and build a dynamic new workers’ movement—one that working men and women can join without having to go through the trial by fire of an NLRB election. Although we know collective bargaining is the proven way for workers to build power at work, some new forms of membership for some workers may not include collective bargaining rights—at least initially.  

That may mean changing the structure of unions.
Bringing more people into the movement and enabling more workers to mobilize together may require changing the structure of unions and the union movement. We need to be inclusive of “independent contractors” and others who don’t have a typical employer-employee relationship.

Keep becoming more independent of the Democratic Party.
This is a theme that’s come up again and again—the labor movement should be investing more in our own effectiveness and less in the party, and holding fickle elected officials of all parties accountable for their votes on working family issues. At the same time, all progressives need to be working to reverse Citizens United, to put politics back in the hands of the people rather than the richest special interests.

Educate! Communicate!
Here’s another common theme best voiced by two participants:

•    “The face of union labor in the media is this big greedy bully who pushes a button for $40/hour at the expense of minimum wage workers and business owners everywhere….The public needs some serious re-education. Especially on the connection between workers’ rights, income inequality and social ills that affect everyone.”
•    “Unions…have been negatively defined by their enemies and have done little to fight back. A strong and sustained public outreach effort needs to be organized where the benefits of unions to society are strongly promoted on a regular and ongoing basis.”

Hold corporate CEOs accountable.
Defund the right wing. “Name and shame” bad companies. Become as adept at taking on finance capital as we’ve been in the past at standing up to those who control manufacturing….These are just some of the recommendations we’ve heard.  

Shape new types of community engagement.
Unions have to build real and durable partnerships. Working together in communities for good learning conditions for students and good working conditions for teachers, for example, can build stable, sustainable communities with benefits for all. We have to tear down the silos built over generations and redefine labor-community solidarity in a way that works for everybody and can change communities for the better.

Will you add your voice and your thoughts to the mix? Share your ideas by commenting here on Daily Kos or go to I’m looking forward to hearing from you.


In 2010, after his Illinois printing company was bought by a private equity firm, Marcus Hedger was illegally fired for his union activities as a shop steward for the Graphic Communications Conference of the Teamsters. Last September, the full National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—two Democrats and one Republican at the time—unanimously ruled he should be rehired with back pay.
What happened?  Nothing, except to Marcus.  The company appealed the ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and it has been able to avoid reinstating Marcus because his case is on hold over a radical challenge to NLRB board appointments.  

Marcus lost his home and is working at a job that pays one-third of what he was earning before.

“It was the American Dream.  It was our house and our home—and it was taken away,” says Marcus.  

Watch Marcus’ story below and please share:

Is this what we want for America?  A country where workers’ rights are dispensable?  If the U.S. Senate fails to confirm President Obama’s bipartisan nominees to serve on the NLRB, even more workers will be hurt.

Call your senators toll free at 1-888-264-6154 and tell them to confirm the NLRB nominations now.

We can’t rebuild our economy and level the playing field for all working people—union and nonunion— if the law protecting workers’ rights isn’t enforced. That’s the role of the National Labor Relations Board—and it needs to work. The less the board works, the more America’s economy falls out of whack, as we see today, with record inequality and a shrinking middle class.


Future of Work, Unions? Let’s Talk.

Many of you know that I grew up in the small coal mining town of Nemacolin, Pa. I worked in the mines while I went to college, got a law degree and got my start in the union movement with the Mine Workers (UMWA).  

A lot has changed since I first went to work in a coal mine. The economy is different. Work is different. The workplace is different—some people go to work without even leaving their homes.

Today, people keep working harder and longer—and still can't get ahead. Inequality is on the rise, and fewer workers have a voice on the job. I want to know what kind of movement can meet these real needs of working women and men—today and in the future?

At the AFL-CIO, we’re asking questions and looking for ideas—from you.

I know you have a lot to say. I’d like to hear it.  

Click here to visit and join the conversation about the future of work.

At our AFL-CIO Convention in September, we need to be ready to make decisions about how the union movement should change and what we can do together to make a better future for working people. We’re taking a hard look at ourselves and also asking for ideas from everybody who’ll share them—from people inside and outside the labor movement, from progressives, academics and student groups. We want ideas from anyone who cares deeply about building a real movement for working people and making sure everyone has a voice on the job.

These discussions will be happening all across the country, both in person and online. How can we compete in a global economy? How can communities make an impact on workers’ rights? What’s the union movement’s proper relationship to the Democratic Party?

Please share your ideas at—even your off-the-wall ideas. We’re listening.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 10:55 AM PST

Immigration Reform: My Story

by Richard Trumka

This is a good moment to explain why I feel so passionately about enacting immigration reform that provides a real pathway to citizenship for 11 million immigrants who call this country home.  

You may know that until about a dozen years ago, the AFL-CIO did not support policies that give immigrants a route to citizenship; most unions saw those policies as a way for employers to find low-cost workers and push down wages. Our official policy changed in 2000, when we asserted that the AFL-CIO “proudly stands on the side of immigrant workers.”  

Even today, I get mail and other comments criticizing me and the AFL-CIO for supporting reform, claiming that bringing immigrants out of the shadows will worsen the continuing jobs crisis. I know that good jobs are scarce and family pocketbooks are squeezed. Anxiety is natural. But I also believe those comments are misguided.    

A century ago, America’s established unions, to a large extent, turned their backs on new immigrants as members, and were not welcoming to women, people of color and millions of so-called unskilled industrial workers.

That has never sat well with me. When people use the word “immigrant” like an epithet, I take it personally. I come from a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania’s coal country called Nemacolin. It was not easy when my family came to this country. My parents and grandparents fled poverty and war from different corners of Europe.  

When I was a kid, there was an ugly name for every one of us in all 12 languages spoken in Nemacolin—wop and Hunky and Polack and kike. We were the last hired and first fired, the people who did the hardest and most dangerous work, the people whose pay got shorted because we didn't know the language and were afraid to complain.

When the immigrants of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation got to the mines and mills, the people already there said we were taking their jobs and ruining their country.   Yet in the end, the immigrants of my parents' and grandparents' generation prevailed, and built America.   This is the history of my family, and this is the story of towns large and small across America, places like Seattle and St. Louis, San Antonio and Chicago and so many others.

And yet it doesn’t take long for us to forget the past and focus on anyone we think is different, and to bring back those familiar responses—that immigrants are taking our jobs, ruining our country.  

When I hear that kind of talk, I ask: Did an immigrant move your plant overseas? Did an immigrant take away your pension? Or cut your health care? Did an immigrant undermine America’s workers' right to organize?   Or crash the financial system? Did immigrant workers write the trade laws that have sent millions of jobs from our shores? Of course not.

In fact, as more immigrants gain the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, our chances of a future of shared prosperity increase. America’s economic strategy must bring us together, not drive us apart.  

The reform President Obama proposed last week is a big step in the right direction, and it has the potential to lead us all in a better direction.

As president of the AFL-CIO, I’m proud to say that we open our arms to everybody who works—no matter where you’re from—and we demand commonsense policies that reflect America’s best values and our shared commitment to the country we love.   Work connects us all and we are better together.        

We’ve been calling for commonsense reform based on a blueprint developed across the labor union movement since 2009.   That blueprint has five planks:  

•    Formation of an independent commission to assess and manage the future flow of new immigrants based on actual labor market needs;
•    A secure and effective worker authorization mechanism;
•    Rational border control;
•    A road map to citizenship; and
•    Improvement, not expansion, of temporary workers programs.

That’s what we mean when we call for comprehensive immigration reform. We’re in it to win it. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.


With the Michigan legislative vote today on “right to work” for less, people are asking what’s at the bottom of all this. Is the legislature “drinking the Kochs’ Kool-Aid,” as the Detroit Free Press editorialized this morning? Is it about Gov. Rick Snyder abusing the legislative process and passing bills in a lame-duck session that he doesn’t have the votes for come January? Is it just more of the same old politics and union-busting? Or is it a new front in Snyder’s two-year assault on Michigan’s middle class, in which he’s cut taxes for corporations and CEOs, raised taxes on seniors and working families and slashed funding for K-12 education by a billion dollars?

The answer, of course, is that it’s about all of the above and more. But mainly it’s about greedy corporations and right-wing politicians joining forces to mute the voices of working families and lower living standards for all of us.

Twenty-three states in our country have “right to work” for less laws. In those states, average workers make about $1,540 less a year than workers in non-“right to work” for less states. Twenty-eight percent more people lack health insurance in those 23 states. The average poverty rate is 15.3 percent, as opposed to 13.3 percent in other states—18 percent higher. The rate of workplace deaths in “right to work” for less states is 36 percent higher than in states where workers have the collective strength to speak up for safe standards.

As a candidate, Gov. Snyder condemned “right to work” for less as “divisive and too radical.” What changed his mind? He got leaned on by the corporate CEOs and rich people who dumped billions of dollars into states like Michigan during the 2012 elections. Their goal then was the same as it is now: to drive down wages, ship jobs overseas and divide our nation.  

Speaking yesterday at the Daimler Detroit Diesel plant in Redford, Mich., President Barack Obama struck back on behalf of working families and all our families. He said, “You only have to look at Michigan—where workers were instrumental in reviving the auto industry—to see how unions have helped build not just a stronger middle class, but a stronger America.”

In other words, we’re stronger when we work together—the exact opposite of what’s happening today in Michigan.

Fortunately, voters in Michigan are committed to continue working together to enact our shared vision of good jobs, strong communities and prosperity for all.  


It's time for House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican leadership to stop holding America's middle class hostage and instead join Democrats in saying "No" to another tax cut for the rich.

That's what voters asked for, loud and clear.

People are tired of the rich getting gifts from Washington at the expense of everyone else--and they're also tired of brinkmanship. It was a bad idea to create a fiscal cliff, and it's an even worse idea for Republicans to threaten to drive off it and take the American middle class with them.

The cliff Boehner should be worrying about is the one over which he's pushing his party's approval rating. Gallup's most recent poll shows Republican job approval rating at 16 percent. President Obama's rating is closer to 60 percent.

Boehner doesn't understand that the Republican hard line against tax fairness and for cuts in earned benefits is not only irresponsible and wrong, it's also hugely unpopular.

Across America, 62 percent of voters want the rich to pay higher tax rates, and 73 percent want to protect Social Security and Medicare benefits from cuts.

I've said before that the fiscal cliff is a manufactured crisis, an obstacle course of Washington's own making. And yet this showdown--if not handled right--could do real damage to regular working families.
America's working people are already mired in financial instability and worry, as too many of us sit up late at kitchen tables trying to figure out how to meet obligations and still have a holiday season.

That's the America the Republican leadership has abandoned. That's the majority Republicans betray by obsessively opposing modest, reasonable tax policy--that would return top tax rates to their levels in the 1990s.

Republicans refuse to acknowledge the truth--that fair tax rates on the rich will help solve America's problems, and the rich won't even feel the pinch.

Maybe that's part of the reason a new Gallup poll finds the Republican-majority House has the lowest rating for honesty of any other professions, including car salespeople.

America works best when everybody shares the load. When the tax rates on the richest 2 percent go up, the federal deficit will begin to decline and our nation will have more resources for our priorities--including rebuilding our infrastructure, investing in our schools and putting people back to work.

I hope the time will come soon when responsible Republicans, those who want a future for America and their political party, will listen to the electorate, step away from Boehner and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and begin to work with Democrats to solve America's problems.

It's not too late to put America back to work. It's not too late to restore tax fairness and start to rebuild the middle class. It's not too late for the Republican leaders to save their credibility.

It's the right thing to do, and it's the smart thing to do.

Last month, Republicans got hammered across the board. That's the truth.

Despite a shocking flood of corporate cash, the party lost the presidential race, as well as seats in both the House and the Senate.

Listen to the voters. Don't cut rates again for the rich. Don't cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits.

The original story appeared on Huffington Post.


This is the new American story, but someone finally stood up and said, “Stop!”

Pundits should be applauding the Bakery Workers of Hostess Brands for standing up to Wall Street interests and standing for decent working standards and the middle class.

The truth is that the Bain-style vulture capitalists invested in Hostess to profit not by making quality products, but by bleeding the company of every dollar before discarding it.

They’re doing it because they can, because that’s what Wall Street speculators do when they get their hands into a company’s till.

And today, the millionaires are walking away, with an added twist. They’re blaming the bakers and others who faithfully made the iconic Twinkies and other Hostess goods for decades—not for untold riches but for a decent paycheck and good benefits.

Not even a week before Thanksgiving, not even two weeks after the American electorate rejected this winner-take-all-view of the world, more than 18,500 working people face the prospect of looking for work in a still-dismal economy.

This is a story America has heard too many times.

Wall Street investors first came onto the scene with Hostess about a decade ago, purchasing the company and then loading it with debt.

All the while, its executives talked of investments in new equipment, new research and new delivery trucks, but those improvements never materialized.

Instead, the executives planned to give themselves bonuses and demanded pay cuts and benefit cuts from the workers, who haven’t had a raise in eight years.

In 2011, Hostess earned profits of more than $2.5 billion but ended the year with a loss of $341 million as it struggled to pay the interest on $1 billion in debt. This year, the company sought bankruptcy protection, the second time in eight years.

Still, the CEO who brought on the latest bankruptcy got a raise while Hostess demanded that its workers accept a 30 percent pay and benefits cut.

The workers at Hostess want the company to survive and prosper. Of course they do. And they’ve proved their willingness to make sacrifices to enable Hostess to thrive. Just three years ago, the workers accepted wage and benefit cuts that saved the company a reported $110 million every year. Where did the money go?

It’s heart-breaking to think of each of those workers in cities and towns all across America who have seen their jobs vanish. But as painful as it is, it’s heartening to know these brave workers stood up against the greed and destruction of Wall Street.

It’s incredible.

The unified Bakery Workers rejected the last cruel deal from executives by a vote of 92 percent. They chose to raise their heads with pride, as well they should.

One way or another, working people in America have to stop this race to the bottom.

This Thanksgiving, I’ll be giving thanks to the Bakery Workers for taking a stand. Together, we will make America work for regular working people again.


America’s workers are coming together around our shared belief that working families need more economic security—not less—and the wealthy simply need to pay their fair share.  No more Bush tax cuts for the richest 2%. No benefit cuts for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Working people are asking our elected representatives in the lame-duck Congress to keep the promises they have made to their constituents by protecting our most important family protection programs.

Learn more at:


This is cross-posted from the AFL-CIO Now blog.

An election eve poll taken among AFL-CIO union voters in Ohio shows that Ohio working families strongly support President Barack Obama and Senator Sherrod Brown.

The respondents said they were voting for Obama over Romney by a 41-point margin (70%-29%), which represents a 5% increase over his union support in the state in 2008. Incumbent Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown leads Republican challenger Josh Mandel by the same margin (70%-29%).

These leads are particularly important because the demographics of union voters in Ohio are not particularly favorable to Democrats.

The poll showed that 83% of union members in the state are white, 53% are gun owners and 40% are Evangelical Christians.  Obama is winning a majority of union members in each of these groups.

Large percentages of Ohio union members expressed their support for issues important to working families:

-90% oppose reducing Social Security benefits.
-80% want maintain federal unemployment insurance for people who lost their jobs and are unable to find work.
-77% oppose raising the eligibility age for Medicare.
-74% oppose raising the eligibility age for Social Security.
-67% support providing federal funding to local governments to prevent layoffs of teachers, firefighters, and police officers.
-62% say Mitt Romney’s support for Ohio S.B.5 -- the assault on collective bargaining rights -- made them less likely to support him, while only 8% said it made them more likely to vote for him.
-60% favor ending all tax loopholes that encourage U.S. companies to ship jobs overseas
The poll was conducted on Nov. 5 from a representative cross-section of AFL-CIO members in Ohio. The sample included 138 members who had already voted in person or by mail, and 270 members who said they were “certain” to vote on Election Day. The survey, conducted on behalf of the AFL-CIO, has a margin of error of ±4.85 percentage points.

If you're in Ohio and haven't cast your ballot yet, make sure you vote. Every single vote counts. This is the most important election of our lifetimes.

The AFL-CIO is running a live Election Day blog. Please join the conversation! We want to hear from you:

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