Union Leader Confronts White Racism: “Vote Obama”

Labor unions in America have not always been friendly to Black men and women or other people of color.

obamaworkersToo often, as my friend and mentor Herbert Hill demonstrated and fought against, unions forged white working class solidarity by using the existing prejudices of racial identity and the ideology of white superiority.

That’s why the recent speech by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at the United Steelworkers convention, confronting and denoucing racism against Barack Obama is so powerful and so significant.

As Andrew Sullivan points out, “To see a white union man take on racism this way is very moving. Something truly profound could happen in this election, if we want it to.”

Here is the full text of what Trumka said:

‘Thank you brothers and sisters.

You know, over the course of the year, I go to  a lot of union conventions.

And I usually enjoy it because it gives me a chance to hear what’s on people’s minds — and what they think the AFL-CIO and the labor movement ought to be doing.

But since we’re in Las Vegas — and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

I have a little confession to make.

It’s that of all the union conventions I go to, one of the ones I look forward to the most is yours. And there’re a few reasons for that: one of them is this man right here.

Brothers and sisters, in my estimation, there is no bolder stronger more tenacious effective and innovative trade unionist in this country than Leo Gerard!

I’ve known my share of labor leaders and I can tell you that while a whole lot of them talk the talk; Leo Gerard walks the walk.

He’s leaner and he’s meaner, and by God, we’ve got to keep him that way!

And, of course, it’s not just Leo; you’ve got a fantastic International Secretary-Treasurer in Jim English.

In my mind he defines what a trade unionist ought to be.

Whether it’s going toe to toe with OSHA or bargaining solid contracts — Jim’s there — on the front lines — and working people and our families are a heck of a lot better off for it.

But the biggest reasons I’m so glad to be here are the ones I’m looking at right now.

It’s you.

You know, I remember telling Leo that when I was president of the Mine Workers the night before the convention long after everyone else was through partying and had gone to  sleep, I’d go down to the convention hall.

I’d usually be the only person down there.

Hanging on the walls we’d often have big blow ups of photographs.

Pictures showing some of the great moments from our history.

Pictures taken on picket lines. Pictures of coal miners and our families and our struggles.

And usually a picture of John L. Lewis.

All looking down to the convention floor.

All looking down to where the delegates would be taking up the union’s business the next morning. And, standing there in the quiet, you couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe — a sense of awe that comes from knowing that the men and women who’d be sitting at those tables like all of you — under the gaze of the people in those pictures — were the inheritors of their legacy.

That everything our ancestors fought for… everything they struggled for — and some of them died for — was now in our hands.

And that it was up to us the living to guard what they gave their lives to win … to build on it… and see to it that, by God, no one ever dares to take it away!  And that includes our strike and defense fund.

There’s power that comes from knowing that you’re standing on such broad shoulders.

Power that comes from knowing that you’re not just members of an organization — but part of a great movement.

Well, brothers and sisters, every time I’m with the Steelworkers — whether it’s on the picket line, at a local meeting or at a great convention like this — I know I’m in the presence of that same kind of power.

Just take a minute and look around this hall.

Look around this room

You see people who work at smelters and refineries, tire plants, mines and mills.

You see grocery workers and nurses and security guards — and folks who provide the good public services all our families depend on.  And look around and you’ll see the most highly skilled and productive steel making professionals in the world.

There’s women and men.

Different colors.

Different ages.

Americans and Canadians

But, somehow,  all those differences are trivial to what you share in common.

It’s a shared heritage of struggle forged by women and men driven by the faith…the idea… the knowledge…

That the way things are, isn’t the way things have to be.

It’s like a flame that’s burning inside you.

It’s the reason why — whether it means standing out in the freezing cold or scorching heat — you’re always, always there when it’s time to pass out a leaflet or walk a picket line.

It’s the reason why you go to all those meetings when you’d rather be at home with your family.

It’s the reason why you’re the first one to raise Hell when some supervisor forgets that honoring the contract isn’t his choice, it’s his obligation.

And it’s why, as exhausting and frustrating as it sometimes is, still you wake up the next morning ready to do it all over again.

It’s because you know that what makes all of us union isn’t some card we carry in our pockets it’s the commitment…the caring…and the love for one another we carry here  in our hearts.

And it’s because you know that there is only one way working people ever won in the past…and only one way we’re going to win today.

It’s not by turning on each other, it’s by turning to each other.

It’s by organizing, together.

It’s by mobilizing, together. It’s by working, and planning, and building, together.

Brothers and sisters, it is by standing tall and fighting together.

That’s what makes this union strong!

That’s what makes this union proud!

That’s what makes you the United Steelworkers of America  one of the most powerful forces on earth — and, by God, no one’s ever going to turn you around.

And, brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you that your commitment, your strength — your courage and your power — has never been more important to the future of this labor movement – and to the future of this country — than it is right now.  Because if you work for a living — if you consider yourself part of the middle-class — the America that you’ll be leaving your children will barely resemble the America that was left to us.

We’ve all heard that phrase that the middle-class is being squeezed. Well, I disagree with that: We’re not being squeezed: we are being crushed.

Let me just share a few numbers with you.

Today, income inequality — the gulf between the rich and the rest of us — is at a level we haven’t seen since the ‘70s.

I’m not talking about the 1970s, I’m talking about the 1870s!

For those of you who are labor history buffs, let me put it this way: income inequality is greater today than it was before the Homestead strike.

Another number.

In 1928, the top one percent of earners in this country took home 21.1 percent of all income.

That’s the all time high.

Well, (as of 2006, the most recent year we have numbers for) that top one percent is grabbing up  20.3 percent of all income, and its higher now!

Right now, if you looked at America’s Gross Domestic Product, you’d see that we’re up there with countries like Switzerland and Sweden. But, if you measure income inequality, we’re neck and neck with Mali and Sri Lanka.

We even see it in terms of life expectancy.  Today, the U.S. not only wouldn’t make the top ten list — we wouldn’t even make the top 30!

But, you know something? If you’re a trade unionist, you don’t need to hear a bunch of statistics to know what’s happening in this country.

We see the casualties every single day.

Go to Birmingham, Alabama.

Or Gary, Indiana.

Or Milwaukee.

Cleveland.

LA.

Or my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.

We see high school grads who can’t afford to move out of their parents’ houses and can’t afford community college. They’re working dead-end jobs at Circuit City and breaking their backs working minimum wage jobs at nursing homes.

They’re not statistics — these are people we know.

We see men and women who’ve spent their entire working lives doing exactly what they were supposed to. Working hard. Bringing home a paycheck. Trying to put a little aside for their kids. Paying their mortgage.
Hoping that, maybe someday, they could retire and move to Florida.

What do they do when the company tanks?

Or packs up and leaves?

What are they supposed to do for health insurance if they’re too young for Medicare?

How are they supposed to get by when the pensions they were counting on are worth pennies on the dollar?

These aren’t statistics — these are people we know. People we grew up with!

They lost their savings. They’re living on credit cards. They’re may be three or four paychecks from being homeless.
And we listen to what’s happening to them and we think; but for the grace of God that could be me.

And it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Birmingham, Alabama,

or Gary, Indiana,

or Milwaukee,

or Cleveland,

or LA.

Or my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.

Go anywhere in this country and it’s the same story:

Working people hanging on by their fingernails. Their  dreams shattered. Gone forever.

Does everyone here remember how all those people piled on Barack Obama after he said that a lot of working people in this country are angry?

Remember the reaction?

“The nerve of him to say that working people are angry!”

Well, brothers and sisters, I don’t know about you, but I happen to think that was one of the most honest things I’ve heard a presidential candidate say in a long time.

Working people angry? Hell, yes we are — and, you know something? We ought to be.
Because everything I just got through talking about:

Income inequality.

Low wages.

Americans losing their jobs…and their health care… and their pensions.

None of it — none of it –none of it,  had to happen.

And the only reason it did is because we’ve had leaders in this country — Republicans and Democrats — whose economic agendas are based on the same assumption.

It’s the disproven, discredited notion that policies that generate corporate profits somehow translate into shared prosperity. The truth is they don’t.

The truth is that what’s good for Wall Street has been nightmare for the rest of us living back on Main Street.

Just think of it: We’re living in a country with more than $13 trillion a year in income.

American workers have never been more productive.

Corporate profits are surging.

Last year, Exxon Mobil posted sales of $404 billion dollars.

They made almost $1,300 in profit every second!

But even though our productivity has surged by almost 20 percent (from 2000 through 2006)

…even though Americans are working longer hours than workers in any other developed country…

… our wages have been flat — or even falling — since 2003.

Now, this wasn’t some fluke of nature.  It was the direct result of a set of economic policies that go back to the Reagan administration, were passed on to Bush one, carried on by Bill Clinton, and taken to new heights by the Bush / Cheney regime.

It was a bipartisan strategy for economic disaster.

We’re riding in the backseat of a car barreling down a hill with four old, bald, non-union nankook tires.

One of the tires is called globalization: NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR for China: unfair trade deals that force women and men here to compete with the most impoverished and exploited workers in the world.

The outcome 34 million of good, union manufacturing jobs lost — and more bargaining power for employers.

The second tire is small government:  Selling off public services to corporations with one hand, and giving tax breaks to the rich with the other.

Brothers and sisters, privatization has never been about getting big government off our backs; it’s about helping corporate America pick our pockets!

Third tire? Price stability: Sounds good, but what it means are policies that focus exclusively on inflation and ignore the federal government’s responsibility — and I’m talking about a legal responsibility — to help create jobs.

How many folks here know that the Federal Reserve Board, by law, is supposed to work for a full-employment economy?

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know, because not many in Congress seems to either.

And the last old bald nankook tire is marked “labor market flexibility.”

Now, any time we hear the words “labor” and “flexibility” used in the same sentence we ought to sit up and take notice. Because over the last 25 years “labor market flexibility” has become shorthand for robbing workers of pensions, health care, and, oh yeah, our right to organize.

Now, most of you come out of workplaces where you already have bargaining rights.

Well, if you want to know what it’s like to try to get a union today just talk to the folks working at Community Health Systems’ Kentucky River Medical Center.

After suffering years of abuse, in 1998 they did what any sensible group of workers would do: they organized with the United Steelworkers.

That was ten years ago, and to this day, the company is still refusing to bargain a first contract.

Now, if you ask the company, they’ll tell you that they’re only trying to maintain their “flexibility.”

I’m sure they’ll tell you that they need to havethe ability to do as they please because that’s what it takes to stay competitive.

Some of them may even believe that.

But we know better.

Union companies are no less competitive, the fact is they’re more competitive. Just look at the relationship between the Steelworkers and Gamesa Wind. Gamesa knows that having a workforce represented by the Steelworkers isn’t an expense; it’s an asset.

Brothers and sisters, labor market flexibility is about one thing only: it isn’t helping companies be more competitive, it’s about making unions weaker.

And, I’ll tell you one other thing: that (bullshit) stops the day the Employee Free Choice Act is signed!

Globalization.

Small government.

Price stability.

Labor market flexibility.

Those are the four old worn out tires this economy’s riding on.

There’s no question that if we don’t get some new ones soon we’re headed to a disaster.

But the only way that’s going to happen is if we get out of the back seat, grab the wheel and take control — and that’s what this election is all about!

I want to take a little opinion poll.

If you think America ought to keep going in the same direction George Bush and Dick Cheney have been taking us in stand up.

(Well, I’m going to cut some of you guys in the aisle a break and assume you didn’t understand the question.)

Now, stand up if you think it’s time we had a president who’s going to fight for national health care, sign the Employee Free Choice Act, strengthen OSHA, defend Social Security, end the war, and protect American jobs?

Well, congratulations — you just answered the question that’s stumped all the commentators and columnists and consultants in Washington, D.C. who are asking how Barack Obama is going to win the votes of workers in states like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

How can he do it?  You’ve just said how: by speaking out about the issues that matter to working people.
Of course, some folks have said that he needs a special strategy to reach out to blue collar workers.

That he’s got to talk more about God because a lot of us care about religion — and more about hunting because, for some of us, hunting is a religion.

And there’s something to that: it shouldn’t be any secret that he’s a Christian and that he’s for the 2nd Amendment.

But, at the end of the day, what people are going to need to hear is that when it comes to protecting jobs,

when it comes to protecting pensions,

when it comes to health care, child care, pay equity for women, Social Security, Medicare, seeing to it that people can afford to go to college and buy a home — andrestoring the right to  collective bargaining — Barack Obama has always, always been on our side.

This is a guy who’s voted with labor 98 percent of the time!

Now, contrast that with John McCain.

On one side you have Barack: a man who worked full-time helping laid off steelworkers in Chicago.

On the other side you have John McCain who helped pass the trade laws that resulted in laid-off steelworkers in Chicago.

What kind of man is John McCain?

Let me read you a quote. Listen to what he said. This was on April 23rd in Youngstown, Ohio:

“The biggest problem is not so much what’s happened with free trade, but our inability to adjust to a new world economy.”

In other words, it’s not free trade’s fault your plant shut down and moved to Mexico or China.

It’s your fault.

If you can’t adjust to free trade, well, suck it up: that’s your problem!

Now, imagine for a second, if he’s going to Youngstown — of all places — and says that in an election year, what’s he going to do if he ever makes it to the White House?

You see brothers and sisters, there’s not a single good reason for any worker — especially any union member — to vote against Barack Obama.

There’s only one really bad reason to vote against him: because he’s not white.

And I want to talk about that because I saw that for myself during the Pennsylvania primary.

I went back home to vote in Nemacolin and I ran into a woman I’d known for years.

She was active in Democratic politics when I was still in grade school.

We got to talking and I asked if she’d made up her mind who she was supporting and she said: “Oh absolutely, I’m voting for Hillary, there’s no way I’d ever vote for Obama.”  Well, why’s that?

“Because he’s a Muslim.”

I told her, “That’s not true — he’s as much a Christian as you and me, so what if he’s muslim.”

Then she shook her head and said, “He won’t wear an American flag pin.”

I don’t have one on and neither do you.

But, “C’mon, he wears one plenty of times. He just says it takes more than wearing a flag pin to be patriotic.”

“Well, I just don’t trust him.”

Why is that?

Her voice dropped just a bit: “Because he’s black.”  I said, “Look around. Nemacolin’s a dying town. There’re no jobs here. Kids are moving away because there’s no future here. And here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s going to fight for people like us and you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin.”

Brothers and sisters, we can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of folks out there just like that woman.

A lot of them are good union people; they just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man.

Well, those of us who know better can’t afford to look the other way.

I’m not one for quoting dead philosophers, but back in the 1700s, Edmund Burke said: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Well, there’s no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism — and it’s something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge.

It’s our special responsibility because we know, better than anyone else, how racism is used to divide working people.

We’ve seen how companies set worker against worker — how they throw whites a few extra crumbs off the table – and how we all end up  losing.

But we’ve seen something else, too.

We’ve seen that when we cross that color line and stand together no one can keep us down.

That’s why the CIO was created.

That’s why industrial unions were the first to stand up against lynching and segregation.

People need to know that it was the Steel Workers Organizing Committee — this union — that was founded on the principal of organizing all workers without regard to race.

That’s why the labor movement — imperfect as we are — is the most integrated institution in American life.

I don’t think we should be out there pointing fingers in peoples’ faces and calling them racist; instead we need to educate them that if they care about holding on to their jobs, their health care, their pensions, and their homes

— if they care about creating good jobs with clean energy, child care, pay equity for women workers —

there’s only going to be one candidate on the ballot this fall who’s on their side…

only one candidate who’s going to stand up for their families…

only one candidate who’s earned their votes…

and his name is Barack Obama!

And come Novembet we are going to elect him President.

And after he’s elected we are going to hit the ground running so that, years from now, we’re going to be able to tell our grandchildren that 2008 was the year this country finally turned its back on men like George Bush and Dick Cheney and John McCain…

We’re going to be able to say that 2008 was the year we started ending the war in Iraq so we could use that money to create new jobs building wind generators, solar collectors, clean coal technology and retrofitting millions of buildings all across this country…

We’re going to be able to look back and say that 2008 was the year the tide began to turn against the Rush Limbaughs, the Bill O’Reillys, the Ann Coulters and the right wing hate machine…

Brothers and sisters, we’ll be able to say that 2008 was the year we took our country back from the corporations and had a government that believed in unions again!

Let me just close by sharing a story with you.

A number of years ago, I had the chance to represent the Mine Workers at a union meeting in South Africa.

I knew it was going to be a big meeting, but I didn’t know there’d be 35,000 people.

It was held in a field near a mine where the company had been viciously — viciously — brutalizing the workers.

When the escort committee led me to the stage you could feel the power of those 35,000 men and women who’d come together that day, just like you can feel it in this room.

And there, standing on the platform to welcome us, was a little old man. He must have been in his 80s and he was holding what looked like a club.

He went up to the microphone and a quiet came over the crowd. He held that club up and gestured toward the mine and said that club was “a symbol of everything we believe in, a symbol of our vision of the future, and a reminder that so long as we stand united they will never keep us from victory.”  They are trying to take this club out of our hands we will never let that happen.

I’d never seen a crowd erupt that way after he was finished speaking.

I’ve thought about that day a lot over the years.

The spirit I felt in that field. The pride.

The unity. The strength.

The power to make change happen.

There are no words that really honor what I felt that day.

Every time I think back to that day I’m reminded that, whether it’s South Africa or the U.S. and Canada – or the U.K. and Ireland — that’s what trade unionism is all about.

That’s our vision.

That’s why your merger with Unite makes so much sense.

Because, brothers and sisters, in the age of globalization it doesn’t matter what country we live in, or what flag we stand under, what truly matters is that we share the same hopes and dreams for our children.

We’re one movement. With one vision. We’re fighting on different fronts, but it’s always the same battle.

And standing here today, looking in your eyes, feeling your power, there’s not a doubt in my mind that we’re going to win it.

On those nights before the UMWA conventions … when I was the only person on the convention floor… I could close my eyes andalmost hear the voices of all the coal miners who gathered in past conventions long before I ever went underground.

I’d think about all their discussions, all their debates.

Yelling. Arguing. Coming to agreement.

There were coal miners from every corner of America and Canada. From Arizona to Nova Scotia.

They spoke English, Italian and Polish and a dozen other tongues. But they all shared one language in common: the language of trade unionism.

Workers who were once victims through the miracle of trade unionism, had been transformed into leaders.

Together, they overcame poverty and brutality that few today can hardly imagine and built organizations that won impossible victories.

That’s the story of the American labor movement.

A long, long time before any of us were born, Eugene Debs said:

“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself.

We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, attacked by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians.

‘But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.”

Brothers and sisters, from the era of  Debs up to today, the story of  the labor movement — the story of this incredible union — has been a saga of men and women joining together — standing up against incredible odds — and achieving what some thought to be unachievable.

Good contracts.

Safer jobs.

Pensions.

Health care.

But more than that we helped create an America where working people mattered.

We created Social Security?

We created the minimum wage?

Who created, Medicare and OSHA and MSHA?

We created Family & Medical Leave?

We did it because we see a different America than some.

We see an America where no one’s left on the outside looking in.

We see an America where everyone has a seat at the table.

We see an America where the first thing they say to you when you walk into the hospital isn’t “let’s see your insurance,”  it’s “let’s see where it hurts.”

We see an America where going to college isn’t a privilege for a few, but an opportunity for all.

We see an America where everyone — regardless of  what kind of job they have — is always treated with respect – an America that truly believes that if there’s dignity in all work, there must be dignity for all workers.

We see an America where women workers aren’t treated as second class citizens.

An America where no one is left to suffer in poverty.

That’s our vision.

That’s the America we’re fighting for and that’s the America we’re going to win.

Because, brothers and sisters, we are not bankers or stockbrokers. We don’t own insurance companies or drug companies or TV stations. We’re not executives at oil companies or tire companies or paper companies or steel companies.

By God, we’re the American labor movement.

We’re strong, we’re proud, we’re union!

We’re not afraid to fight, we not afraid to win — and we know that the way things are isn’t the way things have to be!

Thank you  — and have a great convention.”

Enough said.

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