How can we not be involved?
October 14, 2014
"Our brother killed our sister's son," says AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. "We cannot wash our hands of the issues raised by the events in Ferguson."
Thank you, Brother Mike [Louis], for that warm introduction, and I want to thank you for inviting me to your convention. It’s great to be here in St. Louis—and I’m grateful to be here at such a critical time for Missouri, for our nation and for our movement.
This hall is filled with leaders who have done so much to protect working people—all working people—in Missouri. You have built strength through unity—across industries and crafts, across the length and breadth of this state, and—this is the hard one in America in 2014—across party lines.
As a labor movement, we once again face concerted attacks by those who have enormous wealth. The far-right is trying to divide us in many ways. But, here in America, the power and dignity of working people will always win—as long as we stay united.
Now, I’m going to stray from my usual convention speech. I’m going to talk about something that may be difficult and uncomfortable, but I believe what I’m going to say needs to be said. You see, the question of unity brings up a hard subject, a subject all of us know about but few want to acknowledge—race. I’m talking about race in America, and what that means for our communities, our movement, and our nation.
Because the reality is that while a young man named Michael Brown died just a short distance from us in Ferguson, from gunshot wounds from a police officer, other young men of color have died and will die in similar circumstances in communities all across this country. It happened here, but it could have happened, and does happen, anywhere in America.
Now, some people might ask me why our labor movement should be involved in all that has happened since the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. And I want to answer that question directly. How can we not be involved? Union members’ lives have been profoundly damaged, in ways that cannot be fixed. Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother. Our brother killed our sister’s son, and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.
So I say again, how can we not be involved? This tragedy, and all the complexities of race and racism are a big part of our very big family. As they always have been. A union is like a home. In any home, good and bad things happen. We have to deal with all of them honestly.
But that’s a philosophy. We can’t leave it at that. We have to look at real life today. We cannot wash our hands of the issues raised by the events in Ferguson. That does not mean we prejudge the specifics of Michael Brown’s death, or deny Officer Darren Wilson or any other officer his or her rights on the job or in the courts.
But it does demand that we clearly and openly discuss the reality of racism in American life. We must take responsibility for the past. Racism is part of our inheritance as Americans. Every city, every state, and every region of this country has its own deep history with racism. And so does the labor movement.
Here in St. Louis, in 1917, powerful corporations replaced white strikers with African American workers recruited from the Mississippi Delta with offers of wages far higher than anyone could make sharecropping. In response, the St. Louis labor movement helped lead a blood bath against the African American community in East St. Louis. No one knows how many men, women and children were killed and how many houses and businesses were burned. The NAACP estimated up to 200 people died and 6,000 were left homeless. Eugene Debs, the founder of the National Railway Union, called the East St. Louis massacre—and I quote—“a foul blot on the American labor movement.” It was one of the single most violent events in the history of American racism, and it scarred this city, our labor movement and our country.
When I think about an event like that, and there are plenty in our history, all over this great country, and not all of them so long ago, I wonder what those white workers would say if they could stand where we stand today. What would they say about the choice to embrace hatred and division over unity and strength? What would they say about corporate bosses playing the race card over and over and over again in the years after 1917—breaking unions, crushing hopes and dreams?
Yet remember, we are here today because labor leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther showed us there was a better way. Not just for our unions, but for our country.
But this is not just about leaders of the past… and tragedies of yesterday. If we in the labor movement truly want to act as a positive force for change around issues of racism and classism, we have to acknowledge our own shortcomings. We as a movement have not always done our best to support our brothers and sisters of color who face challenges both on and off the job—challenges that you don’t really understand unless you live them.
The test of our movement’s commitment to our legacy is not whether we post Dr. King’s picture in our union halls… it is do we take up the righteous struggle when the going gets tough, when the fight gets real against the evils that still exist today. When a new immigrant gets mistreated by management because he doesn’t speak the language… that is our fight. When an African American worker doesn’t get a promotion or fair pay because of the color of her skin… that is a fight for every single one of us. We cannot afford to have “my issue” and “your issue” … we must ALL stand together… and mobilize around our issues.
You see, we have a choice. We can either live our history. Or we can change it.
Now, as you may be able to tell, this matter is deeply personal with me. When I sit at my conference table at the AFL-CIO, I look across the office at a picture of my dad. He’s gone now, but if you’ve lost a parent, you know they never stop talking to you. My dad was a miner, he helped build the United Mine Workers, he bled for his union, and he went to war for our country in the Pacific in World War II. As I worked on this speech, this is what my dad said to me.
He reminded me of something that happened when I was maybe five or six. I come from a small coal-mining town in southwest Pennsylvania called Nemacolin. My best friend back then was a kid named Tom, and Tommy was African American. There was a park near us called Shady Grove Park with a swimming pool, where you had to pay to swim. And one day my dad drove us there to go swimming. We came up to the booth to pay. It was one of those places where you pull up and pay for everyone in the car. The guy looks in and sees Tommy in the car, and tells my dad, “That boy can’t swim in here. You know he can’t.”
My dad never raised his voice, but he said, “You take out for him. We’re going swimming.”
The guy said, “He can’t swim here,” and my dad said, “We’re going swimming.”
Now, I don’t know whether he took out for Tommy or not, but we went in, and me and Tommy went through the changing room, and we went and jumped in the pool. It was a hot day, and the pool was packed. We jumped in, and everywhere we went, it was like there was a circle of open water all around us. When we moved, the circle of clear water moved. Well, we swam until we got tired, and then we got out and dried off and got something to eat, and that was that.
Later, I asked my dad about the man in the booth. I wanted to know why he didn’t like Tommy. My dad explained that it didn’t have anything to do with Tommy, but with the color of his skin. I protested. I said, that’s not fair. My dad said, that’s the whole point.
So let me come back to what’s happened specifically in Ferguson. It isn’t fair, and that’s the whole point. You see, I have a son. He’s not so young anymore, but he’s not so old I don’t worry about him. I don’t know, but I have a suspicion that like many of you, and certainly like me at that age, he may not always obey traffic laws. So I worry he might wrap himself around a tree. But I never worry when he goes for a cross country road trip, or a night on the town that he will be shot to death by a police officer.
But for millions of mothers and fathers of young African American men, men just like my son, with promising futures in America, it is a constant fear, a constant fear. And if you don’t feel that fear yourself, I’d just ask you to think for a moment what it would be like. Think about what it would be like to watch your kid walk out the door and wonder, with good reason, if it’s the last time you’ll see him alive. Because you know it happens. If you haven’t had a close call yourself, you know people who have… friends, family, neighbors, and people you worship with.
And it doesn’t stop there. We all know that many teenagers use drugs—heck, most of us have. But only some of our sons and daughters are suffering terribly long terms in prisons for the same nonviolent petty crimes we all know many of us did as kids. And we can’t get around the fact that those who fill our prisons are disproportionately people of color.
This is not somebody else’s problem. This is the reality of life for millions of our brothers and sisters. And so it is our problem. That is what solidarity means.
Brothers and sisters, I know there are no easy answers here. But we must use the occasion of the tragic death of Michael Brown and its aftermath here in St. Louis to begin a serious and open-ended conversation about what we can do, about what we should do. The national AFL-CIO will be holding similar conversations all across America.
These conversations need to be about racism, and some other things as well. Call it classism, call it the blindness of our nation to the poor of all races and nationalities. Call it contempt for the people who do the work in our country. It needs to be addressed.
Consider this. We live in a country of runaway inequality, of widespread desperation amid staggering wealth. In truth, we ask our public-sector workers to manage this for us. And then our politicians, and our media blame them no matter what happens—blame the teacher in the defunded school, the firefighter with 20-year-old equipment, and the nurse who is given yet another 12-hour shift.
And think about what it means to be a police officer in this country where violence is so often the norm—about walking up to cars, anticipating the worst, over and over again. None of us can really know the toll this takes unless we have worn the uniform. This reality, this experience, must be part of any conversation about how we move forward from what has happened here in Ferguson.
But the answer starts with candor, not firepower. We cannot and should not militarize our police. A free society is policed by a civilian police force, democratically accountable to the community it protects. Of course, our officers need the equipment, and the training, and the staffing to protect themselves and to protect us. But let’s not forget what our history teaches us, it’s always the employers who want the paramilitary forces, the National Guard, bayonets and armored cars, and the weapons always end up pointed at us. The decision to militarize is always made up the chain of command, not by the citizenry, or by rank-and-file police officers.
So we’ve got to talk to each other, not past each other. We’ve got to talk about how to help our police officers serve our communities. We’ve got to talk about registering and educating voters, about jobs, and housing and raising wages for all, and we’ve got to talk about accountability—about making sure the public has confidence that the laws of our nation will be enforced and enforced equally. And we have to do more than talk, we have to listen, and then we have to act.
I’m not saying this is easy. If I knew how to fix the hurt in our communities, I would tell you. But I know how to start, and that’s by listening. So later today I’m going to be doing a lot of listening, here at this convention, and then at a meeting in Ferguson with the leaders of that working class community, because we as a labor movement have to be part of the communities our members live in. As I said a moment ago, we will be holding meetings like this everywhere we can.
Sisters and brothers, just as was true a hundred years ago, when we try to move forward there will be some people who will want to foment racism to divide us for their own benefit. Those are the same people who always want to set workers against each other—private-sector workers against public-sector workers, native-born against immigrants. And about that, I can only say this: if we let that happen, we lose. Every time.
It’s time to draw the line. Some people are still getting hurt in our communities because of the color of their skin, and that’s not right. One moment of bad luck, one minor mistake, one misstep should not end a life. Nor should it put someone in prison for decades and rob them of their right to participate in our democracy for the rest of their lives. That’s nothing but second-class citizenry, and that’s wrong in America.
The United States of America is the greatest country in the world. It’s a beacon of hope. The very name, “America,” means freedom. It means fairness. It means justice. It means equality. And facing our problems, our flaws, is part of our greatness.
Now I know each and every one of you became involved in our labor movement because you hunger for justice. You hunger for fairness. It’s in your blood.
And you’ve learned, the hard way, that justice and fairness don’t just happen—we have to make it happen—we have to build power, we have to use that power to fight, and we can never stop.
Because in this country, in the richest nation on earth, at the richest time in our history, fairness and justice are not too much to ask, whatever the color of our skin, whoever we love, no matter our gender, our religion or anything else, because we are the workers of America, from the hotel to the high schools, we lay the foundations. We teach the classes. We drive the buses. We build the roads.
Brothers and sisters, we lift the loads and answer the call. We do what it takes, no matter the cost. We wake our country up every single day, and we tuck her into bed at night. We won’t be turned aside. We won’t be divided.
Earlier I said I hope the tragedy in Ferguson can push us to make positive change, and I am hopeful this change has already begun to happen. I know I have been changed. Yet as a community, we have a long, long way to go, and a lot of work to do.
Now, I don’t have to tell anyone here how our labor movement operates. We carry out our activism in our communities and in the workplace, and we carry out our activism at the ballot box. We’re ramping up all three right now.
It’s a good thing, too, because the time is right. For 40 years, we’ve been living a story of decline, as so much of what made our nation great has been pushed into disrepair, as our roads and bridges crumble and fall away, and as public investment in social services, public education, housing, transportation, research and medicine has been cut so politicians can give more tax cuts to the super-rich, especially the wealthiest one-tenth of 1%.
For decades, the far-right CEOs and billionaires have sought to divide us, to disempower us. In the past few years, we’ve seen a rash of Voter ID laws to deny the vote to millions of people of color and young people and the elderly. We have seen the demonization of immigrants. We have seen workers vilified, our rights attacked in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and right here in Missouri.
But that’s the old story. There is a new story in America—and it doesn’t come from Washington or politicians. Working people are coming together, standing together, in the workplace and in the polling place and in the streets. People are talking about collective action, and economic inequality. People are talking about collective bargaining, people who never spoke the words before.
We’ve marched together with fast food workers who demand fairness and dignity, and $15 an hour, right here in St. Louis. My hat’s off to those courageous workers! God love each and every one of them! And brothers and sisters, how about the Walmart workers—taking on the richest family and the largest private employer in the world?
And how about the Missouri AFL-CIO? You built a bipartisan coalition to defeat right to work. Our opponents thought it was a done deal. It wasn’t. And it won’t be. We’re living a new story in America.
You see, working people stand united in our desire for economic change. A powerful majority—more than union members—wants to raise the minimum wage. An even larger majority wants good American manufacturing jobs and a rebuilt infrastructure, not more bad trade deals and corporate tax rip-offs.
Between now and November 4, we have a chance to show candidates that supporting a working families’ agenda is the sure way to win. We can demonstrate how powerful unity is. And we can win for candidates who want to raise wages, and who will represent all of us, and who will make work lift us up, not hold us down.
Right now, we have a chance to grow power for Missouri’s working families, with our political program and across our society. And in that effort I want every single one of you, every single one, to be fully engaged in Labor 2014. I want to see full participation, full buy-in.
We’ve got to do it, to keep out right to work and to defeat the constitutional amendment attacking teacher tenure.
I want you in the phone banks. Lead by example. Knock on the doors. We need the face-to-face conversations. That’s how we win elections. I’m doing it, too, because our members do what our leaders do. You know it’s true.
And let me tell you something, if you think we are in trouble now, it’s going to be so much worse if we don’t get off our butts, and work like hell between now and November 4th.
So let’s wake up before it’s too late. We’ll motivate volunteers. We’ll strengthen activists. We’ll connect with more working-class voters, get more working families to the polls. And we need to be out in our communities—building larger working-class political alliances. That’s how we break the isolation. That’s how we win.
We have a vision—a big vision of a better nation. And we’re making it real, because all of us pitch in, because we are moving forward, together, in solidarity, because we can learn from even the worst tragedy, because all of us together have the power to make a new day for America!
So get off your seat and on your feet, sisters and brothers. When we stand together, and fight together, we win together!
We’ll work for it. We’ll fight for it. Together. All of us. Together. With solidarity. Real solidarity. Black and white, immigrant and native born, gay and straight. Where your picket line is my picket line. And my picket line is your picket line. Shoulder to shoulder. Arm-in-arm. All day. Every day. As long as it takes. Standing together. Fighting together. Voting together. Winning together. Winning for working families! Winning for America!
Thank you! God bless you!