Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
September 14, 2009
Good morning everyone.
Thank you President Sweeney for that introduction.
Before I begin, I want to congratulate President Sweeney on his outstanding career and for his life-long commitment to the working men and women of the AFL-CIO and this country.
John's first interaction with unions was as a boy when his father would take him to union meetings, and it was there that he began to build his roots in the labor movement. He has worked as a grave-digger, porter, clerk, researcher, contract director and union local president. Is there any job you haven't done? All kidding aside, he has been a voice for American workers and their families for decades and his leadership is second to none.
Please join me in congratulating President Sweeney for his years of service and for his much-deserved retirement.
I want to also acknowledge all of the hard work of Rich Trumka and Arlene Holt Baker, and I look forward to working with the new leadership team!
It is so great be here in Pittsburgh, the Steel City, with so many friends and colleagues.
I feel at home when I'm with the men and women of the AFL-CIO because my story is not that different from many of the people in this room. My father toiled in a battery recycling plant as a Teamster shop steward for more than 20 years. My mother worked on her feet for hours on end on a toy assembly line and was a member of the Steel Workers Union.
I come from a home that showed me the value of a hard day's work, a home that taught me to fight against injustices in the workplace, and a home that was proud to be union. Like generations before them, my parents worked their bodies to the bone so that their children would have a better life. A life, where their children would go on to be engineers, a contractor, a health professional, and, yes, one day, the Secretary of Labor!
I am proud to be the daughter of a Teamster and a Steel Worker. I am proud to have walked the picket line, proud to have fought for workers and women's rights, and I am proud and humbled to be your Labor Secretary.
Everyone in this room, and Americans all across the country, know that we are facing unprecedented economic challenges today. The unemployment rate is 9.7%., and for communities of color it is even more dire: African Americans 15%, Latinos 13 %, and for our youth it's an astounding 23%. While these are numbers to some, to me these are real people, facing real issues. They have mounting bills, families to feed, tuition to pay, and retirement to plan for.
This is why it is even more important that we have an active Department of Labor advocating for the needs of working people. Their worries, fears, and problems are the single most important focus of the Department of Labor, and they are whom I am fighting for everyday.
I have traveled over 35,000 miles in the past seven months visiting 35 cities and towns in 20 states. In Memphis I met with members of IBEW who work at the Sharp Electronics plant. The plant used to make televisions and now thanks to innovation and flexibility and a good labor-management partnership is making solar panels and still keeping good family-supporting jobs in that community.
In West Virginia, I traveled 2 ½ miles below the earth's surface with United Mine Workers of America president, Cecil Roberts, and other officials. I saw first-hand the amazing work these miners do to provide Americans with the energy resources needed to go about their daily lives.
I've met workers who have re-invented and re-educated themselves for 21st Century jobs. From a woman in Miami who became a union electrician late in her career, to a member of the UAW in Kansas who went from the assembly line to the life line as a nurse. I've met youth in Job Corps and with educators in community colleges in Pennsylvania, California, New York, Iowa, and Ohio that are partnering with many of your members here to provide registered apprenticeship training for young people.
I've talked with the police officers, firefighter, and EMTs brave men and women who keep our communities safe. I've met with teachers, custodians, school bus drivers, and others who work tirelessly to educate, feed and nurture our children. And, I've talked to and listened to not only those who work in offices during the day, but also those who clean the offices at night. They are proud of their work, and proud that they can contribute to our country in their own way.
Every one of these people renews my belief that we will overcome the challenges we're facing right now. From the Great Depression to 9/11, Americans have faced tough times and we have beaten them together, and I'm here to tell you that this time will be no different.
I have had many wonderful experiences that have shaped my life. Many people have educated me, mentored me, and inspired me people like Dolores Huerta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Bobby and Ted Kennedy, and Cesar Chavez. I am a product of the women's movement, the labor movement, the environmental movement, the social justice movement, and I'm married to a small business owner.
I'm proud of all that. It is what defines me and shapes my simple goal in this job: My goal of GOOD JOBS FOR EVERYONE.
And let me tell you what I mean by "good jobs":
- Jobs that support a family by increasing incomes and narrowing the wage gap;
- Jobs that are safe and secure, and give people a voice in the workplace through the right to organize and bargain collectively;
- Jobs that are sustainable, like green jobs, that export products, not paychecks;
- And jobs that rebuild a strong middle class.
In this economy, that's a tall order, but, that's what our President is all about, and that's what I'm about.
Just weeks after taking office, President Obama signed the historic Recovery Act.
We moved immediately to protect workers who lost their jobs, and provided new worker training opportunities for those looking to upgrade their skills. At the same time we are strengthening our social safety net by extending COBRA coverage and reducing premiums, and upping unemployment checks by $25 per week.
We've also extended unemployment insurance eligibility, with $7 billion available in Unemployment Insurance Modernization funds. Frankly, it's not just about modernizing the UI system, we are revolutionizing it.
More workers, including part-timers and people upgrading their skills, are now eligible for benefits for the very first time.
Now as we help workers through these challenging times, our real focus is investing in their future.
- We've made $220 million available to help dislocated workers transition into new high-growth sectors like allied health and information technology.
- We're providing $500 million for green job training, which will not only jumpstart our economy, but lay the foundation for our long-term competitiveness, and will reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
- We've awarded $114 million to community groups across the nation to provide education and training to young people.
And I want to be very clear on this point, I am personally making sure that funds go to the right places so that communities of color, youth, veterans, workers with disabilities, and women participate in these opportunities.
And here's why:
- Women earn 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. We need to get more women into the highest paying professions.
- I know that many of you here today are veterans, and I salute you for your Helmets to Hardhats program that helps returning veterans get training and good union jobs. Just as our soldiers pledge to leave no one behind on the battlefield. I pledge to leave no veteran behind.
- And shockingly, 77% of individuals with disabilities do not participate in our labor force. I'm making sure that we utilize this untapped, highly motivated, and highly educated workforce.
I'm confident that these efforts will make a difference because we have seen that the Recovery Act has also kept Americans working. Now our critics say that we are wasting tax-payer money and that jobs are not being created. Well, that's simply not true, and I'll give you proof.
The Mayor of New York, an Independent, and the Governor of Florida, a Republican, have both said publicly that without the Recovery Act thousands of teachers in their city and state would have been let go. Just ask Randi Weingarten of AFT, she'll tell you. That's true not only for teachers, but for police, and firefighters, and EMTs too. And countless businesses both small and large have said they avoided layoffs thanks to the Recovery Act.
To date, more than 30,000 Recovery Act initiatives, health care center, transportation projects and military facility upgrades have been approved. Without a doubt the Recovery Act is helping to pull our economy back from the brink, b ut creating and maintaining jobs is only part of my agenda. My philosophy is: It's not a good job unless it's a safe and secure job. Workplace enforcement and safety is not only our responsibility, its out moral obligation which means the Department of Labor is once again back in the enforcement business.
To show my commitment, I am adding nearly 670 additional investigators, inspectors, and other program staff, returning our worker protection efforts to a level not seen since 2001.
- So far these resources have allowed the Wage and Hour Division to ensure that contractors on federal stimulus projects pay their workers the prevailing wage rates that they are entitled to.
- Since July OSHA has done 689 inspections, issuing nearly 1,100 violations resulting in $1.6 million in fines.
- And the Employee Benefits Security Administration has already yielded results of over $24 million by obtaining 17 indictments under the Employee Contributions Project.
While we are pleased with these results, there is still much more work to do to protect workers and to work collaboratively with business. This is why we are proposing reform of the temporary agriculture worker program, also known as H2A. This effort will reverse what I believe are unjust wage issues and working conditions for vulnerable U.S. and temporary foreign workers. Our proposed regulation will ensure that before we import temporary workers to meet some labor shortages, U.S. workers have first dibs.
And just as important, I want to be sure that U.S. workers as well as the temporary foreign workers are provided the full protections that they are entitled to, including fair wages, safe working conditions and freedom from exploitation.
An injustice to one worker is an injustice to all workers.
It's not enough to have fair wages and a safe workplace -- workers also need a voice on the job! Some people say that, given the state of the economy, we can't afford unions right now. They've got it backwards. Today unions are more important than ever. Workers are facing unprecedented challenges, and they need the voice on the job that unions provide. That's why I will work with the White House so that together we make the strongest case possible for the Employee Free Choice Act; because I believe, and I know, that:
- Union jobs are good jobs;
- Union jobs pay higher wages.
- And union jobs provide flexibility and benefits like paid leave, childcare and education assistance.
The President has said, "We need to level the playing field. This is about fairness and balance." I support the Employee Free Choice Act because union jobs are good for America. Union jobs help build the middle class, get money into the pockets of working families, and ensure the safety and security of the American worker.
The President said it best on Labor Day: Labor's not the problem it's the solution. When labor is strong, America is strong. And that's why we will join with you to fight for the Employee Free Choice Act. Not only do the President and I support Employee Free Choice Act, we are strong supporters of Project Labor Agreements. We know that they are a win-win: good for workers and for contractors.
President Obama issued an executive order encouraging the use of PLAs for large federally funded projects, and we have been working very hard at DOL and through the Middle Class Task Force to ensure that Project Labor Agreements are really encouraged and used. The President has encouraged all agencies to use PLAs, and we'll keep looking for opportunities to make sure that federal projects do right by workers.
These are all important issues, and they're issues that organized labor has fought for many years, but there is perhaps no more important piece of the working family agenda than the fight for universal health care. On Wednesday night, the President made it very clear to Americans that his plan has at its core three overriding goals:
- For those with insurance, like those workers fortunate enough to be represented by a union, the President's plan will provide more stability and security.
- For the more than 40 million Americans without insurance, the President's plan will provide quality, affordable health care options.
- And for all Americans the President's plan reins in the cost of health care for our families, our businesses and our government.
When it comes to the cost of health care, this much is clear: the status quo is unsustainable for families, businesses and government. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of uninsured U.S. residents increased by 7.9 million. Between 2000 and 2008, the fraction of U.S. residents with private insurance declined from 72% to 66%. Health care costs are crushing family, business and government budgets. Our failure to rise to the challenge of fixing a broken health care system something Washington has talked about for decades has led us to a breaking point.
Don't believe the misinformation and distortions perpetrated by those whose agenda is only to kill reform at any cost like that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens, or that reform will insure illegal immigrants or use federal dollars to fund abortions. These are lies and, as the President said, he is going to call them out.
Universal health care has been an important priority for the labor movement for decades. Without your leadership on this issue, we wouldn't be having this conversation today, but we are at an absolutely critical time in our nation's history. Never before have we been so close to reform.
As a former football player, I know Rich Trumka understands that you don't give up when you're a yard short of the end zone, and I know you all know it to. Now is the time to stand together, to set the record straight, to pass true health care reform so that all Americans and their families have quality health care now and in the future.
My friends, we are facing enormous challenges. These are the moments in history that define who we are as country and as a people. History has shown that the American people not only rise to the challenge but come out bigger, better, and stronger.
This is a tremendous opportunity for our country, and for our nation's working people. This is our moment, and you are a vital part of the profound change we want to make in this country.
I think back to a quote from my mentor Dolores Huerta, "We criticize and separate ourselves from the process. We've got to jump right in there with both feet."
This quote was as relevant 40 years ago as it is today. We need the men and women of the AFL-CIO to jump in with both feet and help us put our footprint on our nation. Now is the time, and let it start right here in Pittsburgh with the AFL-CIO.
Are you with me?
I know you are.
We can get this country back on the right foot and the men and women of the AFL-CIO will help make that happen.
Yes, we can si, se puede!
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America!
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