Editor’s Note: Richard L. Trumka is president of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
A year ago, I sat down for a Labor Day breakfast with reporters and told them that working people were crying out for change that would bring about a political system that lifts up our voices, an economy that treats us fairly and a society that values our labor.
I also cautioned that transformational change wouldn’t be handed to us from the halls of power. It would come about when we stood together in unions and demanded it.
In the year since, working people have been doing just that. From airports and hospitals to newsrooms and college campuses, workers are organizing on a scale that I haven’t seen in decades. More than a quarter-million Americans joined unions last year – three-quarters of them under 35. Half of nonunion workers say they would vote to do the same if given the chance, and Gallup has even pegged unions’ popularity at a 15-year high.
It’s no wonder why. Union members have always enjoyed a stronger hand than our nonunion counterparts. The right to a stake in one’s economic future is the kind of self-determination that can only be guaranteed by a strong union contract.
With each freshly-printed union card comes another worker with the opportunity for higher pay, a safer place to work and a more secure retirement. And as our ranks grow, we’re standing up and speaking out louder than ever against the injustice and fundamental indignities facing too many Americans at work.
Striking teachers captured the country’s imagination, marching en masse for the fair treatment they deserve. Hotel workers in Chicago and Las Vegas are winning protections from harassment and assault and bargaining for a say in the future of work. The first Boeing workers in South Carolina formed a union, the first step toward pay equity with their counterparts in Seattle. And in communities across the country, we’re demanding a fair return on our work.
This is a year defined by a movement of working people. A wave of collective action is sweeping the country, and we’re hitting the streets in unprecedented numbers. And as elections approach, we’re mobilizing our union brothers and sisters by doing what we do best: talking to each other.
We’re not talking about personality debates or partisan labels, and we’re not just showing up in the weeks before Election Day. The AFL-CIO and our affiliate unions have spearheaded a nationwide, year-round effort to engage our members in the work of building a brighter economic future. Street by street and person by person, we’re having conversations about the issues that matter – higher wages, better benefits, a secure retirement and a voice on the job.
What’s more, those conversations have already yielded election victories for working people. Alabamans sent a bigoted judge into retirement, and Pennsylvanians sent a pro-union veteran to Congress. Sweeping an off-year election, we sent union members and allies to fight for us in Trenton and Richmond.
Just last month, working people in Missouri mobilized to overturn an egregious corporate-backed law that would have undermined their unions and slashed their wages. In the wake of a grassroots campaign that saw people knocking on more than 800,000 doors and dialing 1 million phones, two thirds of Missourians voted to send that anti-worker atrocity into the ash heap of history.
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For decades, corporate interests have been hell-bent on chipping away at our most fundamental rights and freedoms. They have corrupted our public institutions and rigged the economy to work for the few at the expense of the many.
We aren’t standing for it anymore. The story of 2018 has been one of power, solidarity and surging collective action. Working people are on the rise – and we’re just getting started.
We certainly have our sights set on the midterms this November, but our movement’s ambitions are far greater than any single election. We won’t stop fighting until the fundamental value of our labor is respected by those who benefit from it. We’re demanding nothing more – and certainly nothing less – than our fair share of the immense wealth we create every day.
If that sounds fair enough to you, then here’s my ask on this Labor Day: Be a part of this movement, and join a union!