The AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka became President of the federation at the beginning of the Obama Administration, right when health care, EFCA and the NLRB controversies were leading labor to show concern about their partner in the White House. In the months since his election, his shows of solidarity with the progressive movement, along with the stepping down of Andy Stern from SEIU, have made him the unquestioned leader of labor. And he is using that power to build cross-issue coalitions that herald real promise for that independent movement to come into being.
Yesterday, Trumka gave a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, on immigration reform, an issue where labor has traditionally been neutral or openly hostile. Trumka’s strong support for immigration reform shows both the changes in the diversity of the labor movement, as well as the understanding that common values and common purpose, not individual fiefdoms, will increase power of a mass social movement outside of politics. We’ve seen this in the blue-green alliances of labor and environmentalists to clean up ports and harbors and institute clean-energy trucks and green jobs. And now, we’re seeing it in this labor-immigrant rights coalition.
But it was Trumka’s positioning of the argument that really can bring a sea change to this and other progressive issues. Because his speech really focused on shared values, shared experience and shared goals. It was an outline of a movement. Here’s an excerpt:
At the heart of our strategy must be a workforce with world class skills and world class rights and trade policies that serve the interests of the American people. But today I also want to talk to you about what may seem like a strange subject–immigration–because it is patently clear that we cannot talk about our national workforce strategy unless we face head-on our own contradictions, hypocrisy and history on immigration.
The truth is that in a dynamic global economy in the 21st century, we simply cannot afford to have millions of hard-working people without legal protections, without meaningful access to higher education, shut off from the high-wage, high-productivity economy. It is just too costly to waste all that talent and strength and drive.
But immigration reform is not just an economic issue. The way we as a nation treat the immigrants among us is about more than economic strategy—it is about who we are as a nation.
He talked about the ethnic clubs of southwest Pennsylvania where he grew up, the city of twelve languages that he called home, the struggles of the immigrants growing up in the coal mines, subject to the same anger and scorn and cries of “they’re taking our jobs, ruining our country.” This passage is a crowning achievement:
When I hear that kind of talk, I want to say, did an immigrant move your plant overseas? Did an immigrant take away your pension? Or cut your health care? Did an immigrant destroy American workers’ right to organize? Or crash the financial system? Did immigrant workers write the trade laws that have done so much harm to Ohio?
My friends, we are most of us the children of immigrants.
But there was no labor movement in America until workers learned to look at each other and see not immigrants and native born, not white and black, not different last names, but our common fate as workers.
He connected immigration to worker’s rights, to voting rights, to failed neoliberal ideas about globalization, to rapacious business owners who feed off of cheap labor they can easily rip off under the status quo.
To understand the importance of this, you have to understand how recent a change it represents for the AFL-CIO. They opposed comprehensive immigration reform in the George W. Bush Administration. But they now recognize that a society must work for everyone within its borders, that they must stand for all workers, and that no good comes from a permanent underclass of cheap labor without basic rights.
In a coalition with immigrant rights and faith-based groups, the AFL-CIO has actually written a program for comprehensive immigration reform, which includes the DREAM Act (to allow undocumented students whose parents brought them to America the right to become a citizen if they go to college or the military), a fix to the broken legal immigration system, legitimate workplace enforcement with real penalties for employers, and a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Trumka recently marched in Arizona against the new immigration law there, saying “All of us should fear such a system: In the end, don’t all of us who aren’t Native Americans look like the immigrants and children of immigrants that we are?” Here’s how he closed:
But that will not be enough. We as a nation must be true to our better selves—employers must not make a buck on the backs of workers who live in fear of deportation, and workers must stand together in the workplace for good jobs, safe jobs, health care for all, and retirement security we can count on. And so when we talk about making the American Dream real, the labor movement stands for making it real for all of us who do the work of our country. All of us—no matter what we look like, who we choose to love, or where we come from. Surely there we can find common ground.
That’s a real 21st-century vision, a progressive vision, for a society based on common principles. It marks a powerful beginning.