fresh voices from the front lines of change







How can we make sense of the spectacle that’s been unfolding across the American political landscape?

Politicians in Wisconsin, Ohio and a dozen other states are trying to take away workers’ right to organize and bargain for a better life.

But that’s not all.  In state after state, politicians are attacking voting rights by imposing ID requirements, shortening early voting periods, blocking young people from voting because they’re too "liberal" and even levying criminal penalties and fines for breaking arbitrary rules in the voter registration process.  So it will be harder for people to vote—especially the least privileged among us.


AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks May 20 at the National Press Club in Washington.

Budget proposals unveiled in Washington and state capitals across our country this year revealed a despicable canvas of cruelty.  In Michigan, a state senator thinks foster children should be required by law to purchase second-hand clothes.  In Maine, the governor thinks more children should go to work.  In North Carolina, the legislature thinks we should balance the state budget on the backs of autistic children.  In Arizona, the state Senate president floats the idea of locking up protesting public employees in desert tent city jails. In New York, a billionaire mayor proposes to fire 5,000 teachers rather than tax the bonuses of the Wall Street executives who brought down the American economy.

And not just meanness.  Destructiveness.  A willful desire to block the road to the future.  How else can you explain governors of states with mass unemployment refusing to allow high-speed rail lines to be built in their states?  How else can you explain these same governors’ plans to defund higher education, close schools and fire teachers, when we know that without an educated America, we have no future?

Here in Washington, the Republicans in Congress have defunded housing counselors and fuel aid for the poor, and they are blocking worker training and transportation infrastructure.

But the final outrage of these budgets is hidden in the fine print.  In state after state and here in Washington, these so called fiscal hawks are actually doing almost nothing to cut the deficit.  The federal budget embraced by House Republicans, for example, cuts $4.3 trillion in spending, but gives out $4.2 trillion in tax cuts that disproportionately benefit wealthy individuals and corporations. Florida is gutting aid for jobless workers and using the money saved to cut already-low business taxes. At the end of the day, our governments will be in no better fiscal shape than when we started—they are just being used as a pass-through to enrich the already rich—at a time when inequality stands at historic levels. 

Think about the message these budgets send: Sacrifice is for the weak.  The powerful and well-connected get tax cuts. 

All these incredible events should be understood as part of a single challenge. It is not just a political challenge—it’s a moral challenge.  Because these events signal a new and dangerous phase of a concerted effort to change the very nature of America—to turn this into an "I’ve got mine" nation and replace the land of liberty and justice for all with the land of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

You see, I believe the United States is not a place as much as it is an idea. For working people, the United States of America has offered, from its foundation, a promise that everyone can be full participants in national life.  A promise that we the people make the rules so that hard work is rewarded with economic security and a fair share in the wealth we all help create. 

From the beginning of this country, through our efforts and our ideas, working people have made the American Dream real.  And what is that dream? It is the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules you will enjoy economic security and build a better future for your children.  It is not that a few of us will be rich, but that all of us will be treated fairly, that we will look after each other, and that we will all have a share in the wealth we create together.   

This spring working people are engaged in a great struggle to defend their dream.  In Green Bay and Indianapolis, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and in Columbus, Ohio.  And not just in the Midwest.  In New York and Los Angeles, in Florida and Texas—in every corner of our nation. 

This struggle began after last November’s elections brought to power politicians in state capitals across the heartland who had a hidden agenda.  An agenda worked out at posh resorts with the Koch Brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council and other shadowy groups.  Politicians like John Kasich and Scott Walker campaigned promising to do something about jobs, only to reveal when they took office that their jobs agenda was to make them disappear.  But their real passion was for eliminating the rights of working people and destroying their unions—who are standing in the way of their agenda.

In response, working people took to the streets.  On April 4th, under the banner, "We are One," we came together all across America, and then we did so again on May 1st when we stood together with our immigrant brothers and sisters saying again that we truly are one. 

In America, firefighters rush into burning buildings every day, risking their lives to save people they have never met.  Social workers care for other people’s abused children, and home health workers provide care and companionship to those who need it.  Every day you and I pay our Social Security taxes and Medicare, and that same money is sent out again to provide comfort and security to other people’s parents and grandparents.

This is not just a matter of morality – but it also makes economic sense.  And never more so than today.   It will simply not be enough to beat back the Scott Walkers, the John Kasichs, and the Koch Brothers.  America’s economic fate depends on us coming together to educate our children, to invest in our infrastructure, to face the threat of climate change and to reverse the yawning economic inequality that threatens our future.

Let me be specific.  Unemployment stands at 9%.  Underemployment is at 16%.  Housing prices are falling, and foreclosures remain at historic highs.  Economic growth is hovering at around 2% annually—not enough to put a dent in unemployment, especially as tax cuts expire, as the Recovery Act winds down — and state and local governments gear up for more deep cuts.  

Yet instead of having a national conversation about putting America back to work to build our future, the debate here in Washington is about how fast we can destroy the fabric of our country, about breaking the promises we made to our parents and grandparents.  Understand, the Ryan budget destroys jobs—it destroys almost all the jobs created during this recovery.  It guts Medicare.  It attacks Social Security, the one piece of our retirement security system that actually works.  And now we see Speaker Boehner and his colleagues engaged in a new round of blackmail—with a ransom note that reads: "Cut Medicare, dismantle the government, destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs to fund more tax cuts for the rich, or we will cause the United States to default on its debts."

Why is our national conversation in such a destructive place?  Not because we are impoverished.  We have never been richer. The American economy has never produced as much wealth as it does today. But we feel poor because the wealth in our society has flowed to a handful among us, and they and the politicians who pander to the worst instincts of the wealthy would rather break promises to our parents and grandparents and deny our children a future than pay their fair share of taxes. 

America’s real deficit is a moral deficit—where political choices come down to forcing foster children to wear hand-me-downs while cutting taxes for profitable corporations.

Powerful political forces are seeking to silence working people—to drive us out of the national conversation.  I can think of no greater proof of the moral decay in our public life than that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would dare give a Martin Luther King Day speech hailing Dr. King at the same time that he drafted a bill to take away collective bargaining rights from sanitation workers in Wisconsin. 

The ultimate goal of those who blame workers for Wall Street’s economic crisis is to unravel the fabric of our common life in pursuit of greed and power. 

In this environment, working people and our unions must do more than just protect our own right to a voice in the life of our nation.  We must raise our voice to win a better future for all working families here in America and around the globe.

The stakes are so high, for working families, for America. Will we be a country ruled by greed, by people who would cut or take pensions away from first responders, people who would take away the fundamental human rights of our workers, who would choose tax breaks for the richest among us over a future for all of us? Or will we be a country where we choose the future, where we look out for each other, where all of us have a voice?

We’ll only win investments in our future if we again embrace the idea that we are one national community.  That our very identity is bound up with the promise that all of us have a voice—in the workplace, at the ballot box—and that we are responsible in a deep sense for each other.  The fabric of our government, our democratic republic, is about making that responsibility for each other real. 

The moral character of America is worth fighting for, and that is exactly what working people are going to do in the days and months to come. 

This is an excerpt of a May 20, 2011 address at the National Press Club in Washington. You can read the full address on the AFL-CIO website.

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