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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
American Bar Association
Honoring the 75th Anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act
Washington, DC
November 5, 2009

Good evening!

It’s a pleasure to be here.

First, I want to acknowledge Chairman Liebman for her leadership and service.

She has had a distinguished legal career and I am very pleased President Obama named her Chairman of the NLRB.

I also want to welcome former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, who played a major role in expanding public service and job training programs for workers during the Carter Administration.

I am sure he shares my sentiment — being humbled to serve as Secretary of Labor and being charged with caring for our nation's workers.

And I understand former Secretary of Labor Bill Usery is also here with us this evening — it’s wonderful to have you here!

I am honored to share the stage as well this evening with Peter Herkin — thank you for your years of public service at the NLRB and the FMCS.

I also want to thank the American Bar Association and the National Labor Relations Board for inviting me and for giving me the opportunity to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act.

Thank you to all the hardworking men and women at the NLRB who make that important institution work. 

And thank you to all the lawyers who are here this evening — committed to providing the checks and balances and making sure we meet the needs of employers and employees — I share that commitment with all of you.

In 1935, when the NLRA was signed into law, American was in the midst of the Great Depression.  Unemployment skyrocketed and workers were desperate for jobs.

While we are no where near the challenges of the Great Depression, I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that we are facing tough economic times. 

This morning, my agency released new unemployment numbers and we received more sobering news.

This past October, the economy lost 190,000 jobs, bringing our unemployment rate to 10.2%.  

We have known for some time now that the unemployment rate could reach this level and it is an unacceptable situation, but let me emphasize that our economic situation has been improving slowly over the months.

Last winter, the U.S. economy was losing 700,000 jobs a month. 

Today, as a result of aggressive actions taken by the Obama Administration, our economy is no longer in free fall and we are beginning to see some encouraging signs. 

Just last week, we saw that the economy is growing, rather than shrinking, for the first time in a year.

The Recovery Act has been a major factor in saving the country from a depression.

According to estimates we saved about 1 million jobs with Recovery Act funds and further estimates project that we will save or create 3.5 million jobs by next year.

At the Department of Labor, we have moved quickly to protect workers who have lost their jobs and to create opportunities for workers looking to upgrade their skills. 

We have modernized unemployment insurance and have expanded who qualifies for help and we have also extended COBRA to allow greater access to health insurance for workers who have lost their jobs.

We have allocated over $700 million to educate and retrain dislocated workers, and help them transition into new high-growth sectors like renewable energy and health care.

As we move forward and continue to make investment to ensure the long-term economic stability of our nation, let’s not forget the lessons history has taught us.

The NLRA was signed into law at a time when our nation faced an increasingly high unemployment rate and a rapidly declining standard of living.

At a time when the economy was spinning out of control many people were hesitant about a law that empowered workers — sound familiar?

But President Roosevelt considered the Wagner Act a centerpiece in his efforts to rebuild the economy.

FDR and his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, understood the importance of giving workers bargaining power. They understood this to be a critical component of getting the economy back on the right track.

The famous economist John Maynard Keynes would later write a letter to FDR praising his efforts and emphasizing the expansion of collective bargaining as an essential effort to the economic recovery.

We need to remember this lesson.

We must also recall that Frances Perkins and FDR worked to pass a number of other programs through the New Deal. 

These programs have changed our lives for the better, but were considered groundbreaking and controversial when they were passed.   

  • Social security,
  • Unemployment insurance,
  • Laws regulating child labor,
  • And a federal minimum wage.

These policies helped get the nation's economy moving again and put our working men and women on better financial footing.

Today, workers are once again feeling more anxiety than hope, and fear more job losses.

The economic downturn can be an easy excuse to cut corners — to pay workers less than minimum wage, to exploit foreign workers who don’t know their rights, and to deny workers the right to be heard.

We know many businesses are struggling in this economy — so too are millions of working families. But we also know now is not the time to let worker’s rights to fall by the wayside.

The issue before us is how to work together to mitigate the impact on workers and their families, and how to help them move toward long-term economic security.

In order to rebuild the middle class, we need to level the playing field for all working people and update our labor laws to fit the 21st century workplace.

We need to ensure the rights of workers to join and form unions free from coercion and pressure.

That is why the President and I support the Employee Free Choice Act.

However, my ultimate goal as the Secretary of Labor is for workers to have tools they need to find and keep good jobs. And here is what I mean by “good jobs”:

  • Jobs that support a family and put more money in the pockets of our workers;
  • Jobs that are safe and secure, and give workers a voice in the workplace;
  • Jobs that are sustainable — like green jobs — that export products, not paychecks.
  • And jobs that restore a strong and viable 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. 

As Labor Secretary, I am also charged with the enforcement of our labor laws.

My agency has begun to vigorously enforce employment laws related to payment of the minimum wage, overtime pay, family and medical leave and occupational safety and health.

To demonstrate my commitment to enforcement, I am adding nearly 670 additional investigators, inspectors, and other program staff, returning our worker protection efforts to a level not seen since 2001. 

This is just the beginning, but we are off to a very good start.

Just last week, our Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) levied the largest fine in its history — $87.4 million against BP for failing to correct safety problems identified at its Texas City refinery.

And earlier this week, the owners of Southern California Maid Service — a residential cleaning service — were taken into custody for failing to comply with a court order to pay $3.5 million in back wages and damages to at least 385 workers.

Examples like these send a clear message to workers and to employees: the Department of Labor is back in the enforcement business!

And let me be clear: I see enforcement that levels the playing field as a win-win — I know that the majority of employers believe that investing in their workforce makes good business sense and we need to make sure that businesses — that so many of you in this room represent — that play by the rules, do not have to compete unfairly with those who do not.

My friends, we are facing enormous challenges.

These are the moments in history that define who we are as country and as a people.

The challenges we faced during the Great Depression led to many of the policies that define us today — including the National Labor Relations Act.

Let’s not forget that empowering workers in the past helped our nation emerge from a Depression and also helped built America’s middle class.

Let’s not forget that our nation is strongest when we give both business and working men and women the tools they need to succeed — we can do both!

I know that working together we can confront today’s challenges like we have so many times in the past.

Together, we can create a productive workforce, a vibrant private sector and an expanding middle class — all necessary as the foundation for sustainable economic growth.
Thank you for your support and I look forward to working with the NLRB in the future.

Thank you.