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AFL-CIO president visits ND

Abi Hoverman | Thursday, September 15, 2011

Organized labor is far from irrelevant, especially for the young generation today, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Wednesday night in a lecture on jobs and organized labor.

“In the past the labor unions had left you down,” Trumka said. “We need to show young people that the labor unions can help.”

A former unionized coal miner, Richard Trumka has been president of the AFL-CIO since 2009. The AFL-CIO is a federation of 56 national and international labor unions.

Trumka came to Notre Dame for the 32nd Annual McBride Lecture sponsored by the Higgins Labor Studies Program, part of the Center for Social Concerns.

He emphasized the importance labor unions had at the beginning of the 20th century in developing the American middle class.

“America reaped the rewards of working harder and working smarter,” Trumka said. “It happened because one-third of the workforce was unionized.”

He said with the current economic situation, more Americans than ever before are in poverty, and the need for jobs has never been higher.

“Today more than 25 million Americans are looking for work and can’t find it. More than 9.2 percent of the workforce is unemployed,” he said.

Trumka supports President Obama’s job plan and said the country could greatly benefit from jobs that would come from rebuilding of infrastructure like highways, schools and


“We are truly in danger of a double dip recession,” he said.

In this strained economy, unions have been attacked since the 2010 election, he said, specifically mentioning the automobile industry in the Midwest.

Trumka said he believes Obama saved the industry with his government bailout, and not only saved jobs, but also is currently creating new employment opportunities.

He also detailed efforts at the state level, especially in Wisconsin, to outlaw collective bargaining for public employees.

“Governors have been seeking to strip public workers of

their right to bargain, trying to take away their ladder to the middle class, ” he said.

Despite these setbacks, organized labor led by the AFL-CIO is not giving up, Trumka said.

“The American labor union is reorganizing and revitalizing itself,” he said. “We’re helping workers across the economy.”

The AFL-CIO has recently focused on worker protection for new immigrants, domestic workers, like nannies, housekeepers and taxi drivers, he said.

He also emphasized the importance of giving working families a voice in politics with the newly formed Working families Political Action Committee, a non-partisan organization operating on both the national and state levels.

“We refuse to accept that social justice is unattainable,” he said.

Trumka directly addressed concerns relevant to the Notre Dame community, including his opposition to HEI Hotels.

“I endorse efforts to convince the University to divest from HEI Hotels,” he said.

He mentioned opposition to the company’s flipping of hotels by subcontracting jobs and cutting wages, and mentioned a recent incident in a California HEI Hotel where management made Latina housekeepers present Social Security numbers after they complained about a heavy workload.

Trumka said younger generations, especially college graduates, need labor rights and help attaining livable wages more than ever.

“Only 31 percent of young workers say they make enough to pay the bills,” he said, citing an AFL-CIO survey.

Rather than entering long-term jobs out of college, recent

graduates enter what Trumka calls the “gig economy” of a series of short-term jobs.

“Low wage, part time, no benefit, temporary work is the new norm,” he said.

Trumka had some advice for students interested in supporting labor on their campuses.

“Get involved. Become an activist … Learn about [labor] issues, read about the issues, talk to people about the issues,” he said. “Get involved in the labor movement because we are the biggest instruments of social change.”