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Labor Leader Trumka's Speech on Financial Woes of Americans

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Labor Leader Trumka's Speech on Financial Woes of Americans
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Of course, President Obama inherited a terrible mess from his predecessor—a journey of stolen elections, ruinous tax cuts for the rich, dishonest wars, financial scandal, government-sponsored torture, flooded cities and finally, economic collapse.

President Obama’s administration began – out of necessity and vision -- with an act of political courage—the enactment of a broad and substantial economic recovery program. Despite Republican opposition, the stimulus was big enough to make a real, positive impact on our economy, saving or creating more than a million jobs already.

But the jobs crisis has escalated, the foreclosure crisis continues and Wall Street appears to have returned to its old ways. This is Bonus Week on Wall Street – watch and see how much discipline they show, with the nation watching.

We Need Boldness, Clarity from President Obama

Now more than ever, we need the boldness and the clarity we saw in our president during the campaign in 2008, when he outlined the scope of the economic problems facing our nation -- unencumbered by the political cross-currents weighing us down today. One year into the Obama Administration and one year into a Congress with strong Democratic majorities, we need leadership action that matches the urgency that is felt so deeply by working people.

Too often Washington falls into the grip of ambivalence about the fundamental purpose of government. Is it to protect wealthy elites and gently encourage them to be more charitable? Or is it to look after the vast majority of the American people?

Government in the interests of the majority of Americans has produced our greatest achievements. The New Deal. The Great Society and the Civil Rights movement -- Social Security, Medicare, the minimum wage and the forty-hour work week, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. This is what made the United States a beacon of hope in a confused and divided world.

But too many people now take for granted government’s role as protector of Wall Street and the privileged. They see middle-class Americans as overpaid and underworked. They see Social Security as a problem rather than the only piece of our retirement system that actually works. They feel sorry for homeless people, but fail to see the connections between downsizing, outsourcing, inequality and homelessness.

Tax Cuts Destroy Public Education, Social Security

This world view has brought Democrats nothing but disaster. The Republican response is to offer the middle class the false hope of tax cuts. Tax cuts end up enriching the rich and devastating the middle class by destroying the institutions like public education and Social Security that make the middle class possible.

But no matter what I say or do, the reality is that when unemployment is 10 percent and rising, working people will not stand for tokenism. We will not vote for politicians who think they can push a few crumbs our way and then continue the failed economic policies of the last 30 years.

Let me be even blunter. In 1992, workers voted for Democrats who promised action on jobs, who talked about reining in corporate greed and who promised health care reform. Instead, we got NAFTA, an emboldened Wall Street – and not much more.

Misled by NAFTA Democrats in 1992-1994

We swallowed our disappointment and worked to preserve a Democratic majority in 1994 because we knew what the alternative was. But there was no way to persuade enough working Americans to go to the polls when they couldn’t tell the difference between the two parties. Politicians who think that working people have it too good – too much health care, too much Social Security and Medicare, too much power on the job – are inviting a repeat of 1994.

Our country cannot afford such a repeat.

President Obama said in his inaugural address, “The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act -- not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.” Now is the time to make good on these words – for Congress, for President Obama and for the American people.

Democrats Should Not Take Working People for Granted

These are big challenges. But it is long past time to take them on. And for those members of Congress who think maybe taking on big challenges is not their job, and who want to keep offering working people tokenism while they govern in the interests of the people who trashed our economy, I have a suggestion for how to spend your weekends:

  • Go sit with the unemployed.
  • Talk to college students looking at tuition hikes, laid-off professors, and no jobs at graduation.
  • Talk to workers whose jobs are being offshored.
  • Ask what these Americans think about their future.
  • Ask them what they think of Wall Street, of health insurance companies, of big banks.
  • Ask them if they want a government that is in partnership with those folks, or a government that stands up for working people.
Then think about the great promise of America and the great legacy we have inherited. Our wealth as a nation and our energy as a people can deliver, in the words of my predecessor Samuel Gompers, "more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures."

This is the American future the labor movement is working for. Our political leaders have a choice:

They can work with us for a future where the middle class is secure and growing, where inequality is on the decline and where jobs provide ladders out of poverty.

Or they can work for a future where the profits of insurance companies, speculators and outsourcers are secure. There is no middle ground.

Working America is waiting for an answer. We are in a "show me" kind of mood, and time is running out.

(See Profile of Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO President.)

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