By Richard Trumka
More than 70 years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “If I were a worker in a
factory, the first thing I would do would be to join a union.”
Barack Obama recently referenced FDR’s statement and took it further:
“I think that’s true for workers generally. I think if I was a coal miner, I’d want a
union representing me to make sure that I was safe and you did not have some of
the tragedies that we’ve been seeing in the coal industry. If I was a teacher, I’d
want a union to make sure that the teachers’ perspective was represented as we
think about shaping an education system for our future.”
Like Roosevelt’s, Obama’s words were spoken in the midst of painful economic
upheaval—the recession that almost became the second Great Depression.
So why are the benefits of joining a union so clear to presidents when the bottom falls out
of the economy?
In both cases, the revered financial sector failed our country and left working families
with the disasters of joblessness, destruction of wealth and little hope for climbing out.
In both cases, the presidents realized that stimulating the economy—reviving
consumption—was essential at a critical moment. And unions, which enable working
people to bargain fairly with employers for decent wages and family-sustaining benefits,
make that possible.
In both cases, presidents knew that if the powerful minority continued to grow more
powerful and the rich minority grew richer while people who work for a living suffered
horribly, the fundamentals of our nation would not be sustainable.
They knew what unions are—people. People who come together to improve their
workplaces, improve their lives, strengthen their communities and have a real voice for
social and economic justice in public policy.
They knew unions could build and now rebuild the middle class, the engine of democracy
and of national prosperity.
They knew unions could make “Made in America” a symbol of national pride and an
imprimatur that means quality.
They knew unions could bring balance to our workplaces and win protection from
abuse—whether it was federal prohibition of child labor in Roosevelt’s day or
crackdowns on dangerous coal mine operators and Wall Street rogues today.
I did work in a coal mine—so I know first hand how right President Obama was. In
1890, the mineworkers who came together in Columbus, Ohio to form their union
were black and white, they spoke more than a dozen native languages. They had dirty,
dangerous jobs. Bosses cheated them on paychecks, charged them for the tools they
used and placed less value on their lives than on the lives of the mules hauling the coal.
But when they joined together as workers who shared a common fate, they began to build
a better life. And when they built a better life for themselves, they helped build a better
life for everyone in America. When they sent their children to college, America got a
That’s what a union meant a hundred years ago, 70 years ago. And it’s what a union
Working people coming together to build a better life. To build a middle class. To build
opportunity for the next generation. To foster social and economic justice at work and in
our society. To strengthen democracy and spread prosperity throughout America.
Today’s unions—that’s who we are.
Richard Trumka is president, AFL-CIO.