by James Parks
The United States needs a new economic strategy to replace the failed model of the past 30 years–one that focuses on developing a workforce with world class skills and world class rights and trade policies that serve the interests of the American people, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the City Club of Cleveland today.
But we cannot talk about any meaningful workforce strategy without confronting our own “contradictions, hypocrisy and history on immigration,” he said. In a dynamic global economy in the 21st century,
we simply cannot afford to have millions of hard-working people without legal protections, without meaningful access to higher education, shut off from the high-wage, high-productivity economy.
It is just too costly to waste all that talent and strength and drive.
The labor movement and a broad coalition of faith-based and immigrants’ rights groups worked with former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall to put together a comprehensive immigration reform plan, Trumka said. (You can find the plan here.)
As President of the AFL-CIO, my message to working people is that we all are bound together by our lives as workers, our dreams for our families, and our hopes for this country’s future.
The labor movement stands for giving all workers in America the right to dream the American Dream.
And so when we talk about making the American Dream real, the labor movement stands for making it real for all of us who do the work of our country.
All of us–no matter what we look like, who we choose to love, or where we come from.
Surely there we can find common ground.
Immigration reform is not just an economic issue, he added. The way we as a nation treat the immigrants among us is also about who we are as a nation. He pointed out that we are a nation of immigrants, chronicling how his parents fled poverty and war from different corners of Europe.
When I was a kid, there was an ugly name for every one of us in all twelve languages spoken in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania–wop and hunkie and polack and kike.
We were the last hired and first fired, the people who did the hardest and most dangerous work, the people whose pay got shorted because we didn’t know the language and were afraid to complain.
And yet, he said, today he hears working people, including some in his own family say that immigrants are taking our jobs, ruining our country. But workers should know better, he said:
When I hear that kind of talk, I want to say, did an immigrant move your plant overseas? Did an immigrant take away your pension? Or cut your health care?
He added that the union movement grew not because of workers’ differences, but because of their common concerns. Today, the union movement needs to build on those same principles, he said:
Our strategy must help us be the kind of country we want our children to thrive in-the country our history tells us we can be.
Despite promises that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would create good jobs in Mexico and the United States, Trumka said, the reality is that inequality has grown and workers’ rights have eroded in both countries and illegal immigration flows have tripled.
At the center of our failed immigration policy, Trumka said, is the fact that many U.S. employers actually like the current state of the immigration system-”a system where immigrants are both plentiful and undocumented-afraid and available.”
Our immigration system makes a mockery of the American dream. The people doing the hardest work for the least money have no legal protections, no ability to send their children to college, no real right to form a union, no economic or legal security.
You can read Trumka’s full speech here.