Trumka Talks to Steelworkers About Obama and Racism

Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO, United Mine Workers
Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO, United Mine Workers

No Good Reason

For Any Worker

Not Voting Obama

By Richard Trumka

AFl-CIO Speech, July 1, 2008

to Steelworkers Convention

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 — and restoring 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 muslin.”

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 and almost 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.


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.

[Note: The full text of this speech, and an article commenting on it,  is on our GoogleGroup Site, see left column]

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