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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

“The Dignity of Working People”
Address by the Honorable Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor
Harvard University
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Friday, October 1, 2010

Thank you President Sweeney for that kind introduction. 

Thank you as well for your leadership and years of service to working people. 

You spent years fighting for the rights of janitors to have dignity and respect –and then years leading the AFL-CIO to champion justice for all working people. 

Not just your own members – I remember well from when I was on the Hill who was standing up for the minimum wage, for health care, for family medical leave – it was you and the labor movement.    

I also want to thank Marshall Ganz for hosting me today as well.

We share a history of work with the United Farm Workers and I thank you for your decades of work for social justice and promoting organizing and especially your contribution to the Obama for America campaign - training and inspiring volunteers and infusing the campaign with a spirit and theory of community organizing.

I believe as you do that there is power in connecting our own personal stories to our work for social justice and for good public policy and I welcome a dialogue with all of you about that today.

Thank you all who are here – students, faculty, and community members for welcoming me and for joining me this afternoon. 

John mentioned that I received the Profile in Courage Award – of course that was an honor to be the first woman to receive it – but mostly what it meant to me was that I had a responsibility to do even more.

It's an honor to be here at the Kennedy School Forum. 

I am all too familiar that it has been become somewhat of a rite of passage for government and world leaders to “sit on the hot seat” to not only express their views, but also participate in what some call a hard-hitting round of questioning. 

I was asked to join you today at Harvard to share some lessons from my public service over the years and to describe the work we are doing to reinvigorate the Department of Labor in the Obama Administration.

And as busy as my schedule is, I am happy to join you here today – not just because I couldn’t say no to John Sweeney’s gracious invitation, but because I believe in investing in the leadership of young people.

Many people along the way took out time to encourage me, to mentor me – and I believe in giving back.

But I also made the time to join you today because I want to seek your help.

We have an urgent economic crisis for working people in this country. 

You have seen the new poverty data – 40 million Americans now living in poverty according to the Census Bureau. 

You have seen the new data on income inequality – the top 1% keeps getting richer and the rest of us are falling farther and farther behind.   

This is not sustainable for our economy or our democracy.

When I say “working people” I do not mean just the least of us – although I have grave concerns about growing poverty – the vast majority of Americans work hard. 

However, how does a family of four survive in today’s world on just $21,954?

The Census’ report also showed that the poverty rate increased for all racial groups except Asians. 

Even before the recession hit, middle class incomes had been stagnant and the number of people living in poverty in America was unacceptably high, and the recent numbers make it clear that our work is just beginning. 

And I don’t have to tell you that many Americans lost their jobs during 2009.

And even with the median income in the United States now a little more than $50,000 a year. 

“Working people” is not someone else – it is MOST of us.  

Listening to, and respecting the experiences and the challenges of working people are critical to our way forward.

And for me, my earliest lessons about the dignity of work came from my parents.

You see my father and mother met in a citizenship class. 

They both came to this country – my father from Mexico and my mother from Nicaragua to improve their lives and to be part of the American Dream.

Growing up we didn’t have much, but we had each other. 

I didn’t even know that we were poor, because my family was rich in love and togetherness. 

My parents taught my siblings and I many lessons while we were growing up. 

I learned that there is no shame in where you come from.

I learned that no matter your lot in life, you can be a success.

And I learned early in life that there is dignity in a hard day’s work. 

My father taught us that you should work hard to provide for your family.  That work is more than just a paycheck, that it gives you pride, it gives you self-esteem, and with that comes respect. 

My parents also told me that you must have pride in yourself and that everyone deserves to be treated fairly both at work and at home. 

You see, my parents fought for their rights and the rights of their co-workers.  My father was a teamster shop steward and my mother was a member of the Steele Workers Union.

That’s where I learned what a union was – watching my dad working in a battery recycling plant organizing his co-workers for workplace safety, for health care benefits.  I remember as a young girl helping my father translate grievances that his fellow workers had given him – so, you can say that my first lessons in service to community were from him.

My mother toiled in toy factory for years to provide for her family as well.  She showed by her work ethic what it meant to be held to a standard of honesty, integrity, and most of all dependability. 

My parents were the rock of my family’s foundation and they showed us every day what that if you work hard, if you are honest, and you treat others the way you want to be treated, then you will be successful in life.

They also understood that an education was vital to our success.

My parents didn’t have much of an education growing up.  They went to work at a very young age to help their families survive.

But, they wanted more for their family.  They wanted us to have it better than they did.

I was the first in my family to go to college, and it wasn’t easy.  

I was told by a high school counselor that I was not college material – that perhaps I could be a secretary.  – I became a secretary all right – Secretary of Labor.  I love to tell that story!

And I love this story for many reasons, but moreover because so many young people of color and in low-income households don’t get all the opportunities they deserve. 

I can honestly say that college opened up a whole new world and opportunities.

Thank goodness for Pell Grants and for the people who mentored me and helped me get that opportunity. 

I participated in several campus organizations like MEChA and I served as a college recruiter to my community.  Already I knew I wanted to give back – to engage in public service.

I understand that Harvard has a new Latino Leadership Initiative for students – I applaud that – we need to create opportunities for ALL young people – and each of you needs to take advantage of every opportunity to learn, to better yourself and to lift others up with you.

Soon after college I applied and was thrilled for the opportunity to work in the Carter Administration in the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs as an intern and as part of my Master’s Program.  There I learned that, government can do great things for our citizens – but I wanted to return to California to work in my community. 

It was when I was Director of the California Student Opportunity and Access Program, helping disadvantaged youth gain necessary preparation for college that I first pursued elected office.  

In 1985 I decided to run for the Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees at the urging of friends.   In that capacity I was able to do even more to improve vocational job training at the college and to increase the number of tenured faculty positions held by minorities and women. 

I continued to become more and more involved in politics and community service and in 1992, mentors like L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina and State Senator Art Torres encouraged me to run for the California Assembly.

I wore out the soles on my shoes because of all the walking I did on the campaign trail.

My family was involved as well…my mother made burritos for my campaign volunteers!

During my time in the State Assembly, in the midst of harsh attacks on immigrants I was a strong supporter of the bill to maintain access to education for young people – sound familiar?

It was a precursor for the debate we are having now on the Dream Act.

I worked with labor in supporting a bill that banned smoking in all workplaces. 

I served on committees dealing with education, labor, and environmental issues, including a new committee that dealt with groundwater contamination and landfill leakages. 

When my mentor and friend Art Torres left his Senate seat for statewide office I was approached to run for the California State Senate. 

With the support of friends and family, of labor and women’s advocates I took that next step.

I was the first Hispanic woman to ever serve in the California State Senate and the first woman ever to represent the San Gabriel Valley. 

I was also the Senate's youngest member at that time.

In the State Senate, I authored 17 bills to prevent domestic violence and championed labor, education, and health care issues.  

One of my proudest achievements was raising the California minimum wage. 

In 1995, I sponsored a bill to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75; it was strongly opposed by business organizations and the restaurant industry and vetoed by Governor Pete Wilson. 

But that did not stop us.

We knew how desperately working people needed us to press on.

I organized to make the issue into a ballot initiative the next year, using my own campaign funds to rally support.

I’m proud to say that the initiative passed and other states followed with similar initiatives.

While I continued to work for fair pay for working people, I have always felt that a good job must be a safe job. 

Because as my father always said – there is dignity in work.  It is more than a paycheck – it is who we are, it defines us. 

In the summer of 1995 I held high-profile hearings on labor law enforcement after a sweatshop raid in El Monte that discovered over 70 Thai workers existing in slave-like conditions. 

I called garment manufacturers to explain themselves and pushed for tougher enforcement of anti-sweatshop laws.

I was also an environmental champion in the State Senate, due to concerns that stemmed from a childhood spent within smelling distance of the Puente Hills Landfill and making frequent visits to the San Gabriel Mountains.

In 1997, I worked to pass environmental justice legislation with a law to protect low-income and minority communities from newly located landfills, pollution sources, and other environmental hazards. 

It was this work that caught the attention of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and of course I was humbled and honored to receive the Profile in Courage Award.

In 2000, I took these same passions for workers rights, women’s rights and environmental justice to the U.S. Congress when I was elected to represent the 32nd Congressional district.

I was asked by David Bonior to serve as freshman class whip and quickly forged strong relationships with great leaders like Nancy Pelosi, George Miller and Rahm Emanuel.

In the Congress I continued to work on women’s rights, workers and immigrant rights, drafting and supporting legislation. 

I am especially proud of my work to author and to pass the Green Jobs Act – linking my commitment to workers rights and environmental justice – the future of our country is in good Green collar jobs, sustainable development and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

All of these experiences shape my vision for the Labor Department. 

From the experiences that I shared with my parents and their struggles to fight for fair wages and a safe workplace, to my time working advocating for better educational opportunities for my community, to fighting for raising minimum wage, to ensuring that residents in San Gabriel did not have accept living next to a landfill, to passing the Green Jobs Act, everything that I have done has been to better the lives of working families.

As the Secretary of Labor I continue to seek out connections to real people from all across our great country, not just my hometown in California.

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 need 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 the private sector, labor organizations, universities, and community organizations to provide registered apprenticeship training for young people.

I’ve talked with the police officers, firefighter, and EMT’s…..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.  

I’ve heard from casino workers, nurses and call center workers who want to organize a union to improve life for their families – but are intimidated, harassed, even fired when they try to join with their co-workers to take action. 

I’ve met carwash workers, farmworkers and domestic workers who, as immigrant workers, are even more vulnerable in their workplaces.

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.

I have always had an OPEN DOOR - to hear real people’s stories – men and women who want and need jobs – they don’t want a handout – they want a hand up.

For many people the idea of working with your hands and your back, doing a menial job, was something you didn’t take a lot of pride in.  It was something you did when you couldn't find anything else to do.  As a country we may be sympathetic to those workers that are low on the totem pole.

But, I do not forget where I came from.  And our President does not forget where he came from.  

That is why our hopes for them center on getting them the help they want, the skills and education they need, so they don’t have to work with their hands and their backs.

Today the changing needs of a high-tech economy put a premium on jobs that require a high degree of education.

But, whether we want to admit it or not, we will always need people who work with their hands and backs, which is why we owe them something more than poor pay and a bad attitude.

And that is just what we are doing.

Remember, we inherited an economic crisis like we have not seen in generations – when President Obama and I took office; we were losing 750,000 jobs a month. 

The loss of jobs during this Great Recession was the equivalent of adding together the recessions of 1969, 1973, 1980 and 1983—four recessions rolled into one. 

Our entire financial system was poised on the brink of collapse with many fearing that what has been called the Great Recession would become another Great Depression. 

You remember that.

Every first Friday of the month at the Department of Labor is what we call Numbers Day.

It’s my job as Labor Secretary to issue the jobs report and the unemployment numbers – but for me these are not just numbers, these are real people. 

They have mounting bills, families to feed, tuition to pay, and retirement to plan for.

These people are on my mind every single morning when I wake up and every evening when I go to bed.   

My focus – and the focus of the Obama Administration – is to create and provide jobs for the millions of Americans that are out of work.

But, we must remember that we have been making steady progress.

We have a long ways to go, but because of the Recovery Act, we are doing the hard work to come out of this Great Recession and we did NOT plunge into our own generations Great Depression – which was a real possibility

Because of the Recovery Act funding construction projects, high speed rail, investments in clean and renewable energy projects are positioning the United States as an economic leader for the 21st Century. 

The Recovery Act was designed to get money into local communities to get local economies moving again, and to build the foundation for a more stable economy going forward. 

It contained tax cuts for middle class families to put more money into family budgets. 

And it provided funds to help those looking to get into the workforce get good jobs with a long and stable future. 

And we cannot forget the millions of jobs that the Recovery Act saved in so many communities across the country. 

I’m proud to say that things are looking up for American workers. 

Productivity is up and hours people are working are up.

We are seeing an increase in manufacturing employment for the first time since 1998. Last month we finally saw a rise in construction employment.

In fact we’ve had private sector job growth every month for the last 8 months and that’s good news.

But, we are still not anywhere close to being satisfied. 

Millions are unemployed and millions more are underemployed and plenty of families were hurting before this economic crisis.

That is why at the Department of Labor our sole vision is “Good and Safe Jobs for Everyone.” 

What do I mean by good and safe jobs?

  • Jobs that support a family by increasing incomes, provide retirement security and narrows the wage gap;
  • Jobs that are safe and secure – meaning every worker goes home at the end of their shift;
  • Jobs that give people a voice in the workplace and 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.

Providing workers with good and safe jobs is what we are working towards.

And because of this vision we are getting Americans back to work by linking job seekers with employers looking for new or replacement hires, providing education and training opportunities to job seekers looking to upgrade their skills, and strengthening the safety net to support those workers who’ve lost their job.

We have made unemployment assistance available to more American workers, and efforts by the administration have resulted in unemployment benefits being extended as many job seekers simply haven’t been able to find work.  

Since January 2009, the Department has ensured that 29 million Americans received the unemployment benefits they earned.

From March 2009 to March 2010, we’ve served over 39 million Americans through the Employment and Training Administration programs, like comprehensive job training programs and career counseling or resume assistance. 

And as a result, over 641,000 workers have been placed into new jobs through the Department’s Workforce Investment Act Adult and Dislocated Worker programs. 

Investing in our future workforce has also been a driver of our focus. 

The transition to a clean energy economy reduces our dependence on foreign energy, enhances our national security, and will provide new jobs for American workers. 

Through the Recovery Act, we invested in 189 green jobs training programs to make careers in solar, wind, biofuels and other clean energy sources available to Americans throughout the United States. 

This is the first concerted federal green job training program, and we’re continuing to work to make green jobs a part of our nation’s overall job training programs.

We have invested in youth employment, job training for ex-offenders, and communities with rates of poverty because we believe that everyone—not just a select few—should benefit from the recovery.

But while we have and continue to make strategic investments in workers, we must also remember that – it’s not a good job, unless it’s a safe job.

I have always been an advocate for worker safety, but this year has made this the cause of my lifetime.

In April of this year, 29 miners were killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, 7 steelworkers, that same weekend in Washington State and 11 workers in an oil rig explosion south of Louisiana.

It makes me sad to say that 14 workers die a day in this country.

Yet, you or I never really hear about it. 

The story in the evening newscast is as blunt as it is brief: “local man killed during workplace fall” or “worker crushed by machine.”

The familiar images of yet another tragic accident at work call us urgently to action, but they then dissolve smoothly into the next news item. 

I will never forget the time I spent in living rooms and at kitchen tables with family members of the West Virginia miners.

I think everyone in this room can agree – no one should have to go to work afraid that they might not return home safe from their shift.

Whether it’s a dramatic explosion or slow steady exposure to unsafe chemicals, or housekeepers – breaking their bodies with increased workloads – the Labor Department can and will hold employers accountable and say NO MORE to preventable accidents and injuries!

Some people call me the “New Sheriff in town” and I will tell you  - a sheriff is what we need – for too many workers, the workplace has become the wild wild west with basic protections neglected and employers taking a “catch me if you can” approach to wages and safety and workers benefits and pensions – NO MORE!

Put simply – the Labor Department is back in the enforcement business.

Today the mission of the Department of Labor as a worker protection agency is more clear and needed than ever.

With a renewed emphasis on protecting workers and businesses that play by the rules, our goal is simple: Save Lives.

Our tools are enhanced enforcement, a forward looking and progressive regulatory agenda, expanded outreach, and a relentless commitment to enforce existing laws.

But, even more must be done.

In addition to stepping up our own game, we are committed to working with Congress to modernize and strengthen the very laws that protect worker safety in all of our nation’s workplaces.

Some argue that workplace health and safety inspections, enforcement, and regulations are "inconvenient and intrusive." 

My reply:  No paycheck is worth a life, and no quest for profit should ever be allowed to circumvent our law.

So wherever workers are in danger, the Department of Labor will act decisively.

To this end, we have restored worker protection agencies and hired hundreds of new investigators – folks who speak multiple languages and who we are training to work with community allies to ensure worker protections.

We have filed a record number of egregious safety cases and issued the highest fines in OSHA’s history – to companies like BP – sending a strong message that we will not tolerate neglect of worker safety and health.

We’ve recovered hundreds of millions of dollars in back wages for workers and we are just getting started.

And we launched a multilingual “We Can Help” outreach campaign to educate workers about their rights on the job.

All of this is good for workers and good for employers.

Businesses that play by the rules should not have to compete with low road companies that do not.

An even and level playing field for business is what we want and it is what business wants.  And in the end, it is what workers want.

Whether it’s providing a safety net for our most vulnerable citizens, or giving them the tools they need for a successful career, or providing all workers with the protections that are entitled to them, the dignity of working people can and should be the greatest opportunity and challenge for this historic moment and for your generation.

I had the great privilege of joining President Barack Obama in Milwaukee last month for Labor Day, where he issued this charge to all of us:

“So the problems facing working families, they’re nothing new.  But they are more serious than ever.  And that makes our cause more urgent than ever.  For generations it was the great American middle class that made our economy the envy of the world.  It’s got to be that way again. We’re not going to move this economy forward with just a few folks at the top doing well, hoping that it’s going to trickle down to working people who are running faster and faster just to keep up”

My message to you today at Harvard and to young people all over this nation is a call to action.

We need the best and the brightest – whether you are from Harvard or L.A. Community College – whether you come from privileged or from humble beginnings – we need our best and brightest focused on Good and Safe Jobs and a restored American middle class.

Your generation is coming of age in the Great Recession.

This is of course a crisis, but also an opportunity. 

Like great generations before you that rose to the challenge of the Great Depression, of World wars, of the civil rights movements – this is your opportunity to shape the future – to invent your own new “profiles in courage.”

I challenge you to be the generation that leads us in:

  • Reinventing sustainable manufacturing in America – leading technologies for the 21st century Green jobs;
  • Reconnecting hard work and financial security for working families – restoring and expanding workers’ voice at work;
  • Pioneering Worker Safety – putting an end to preventable workplace injury illness and death;
  • Ensuring access and opportunity for all – for the full diversity of all America’s working people; and
  • Forging new collaborations: labor, business, government, and NGO’s working together on new win-win strategies.

For these great challenges we need all kinds of public servants; we need organizers and economists, we need policy makers and coalition builders, we need innovators and risk-takers.

Whether you serve by supporting a group of workers who are standing up for themselves, or serve by running for elected office – find your place in this great and urgent endeavor to make a just and prosperous 21 Century for all of us.

And I challenge you to make real connections with people and their communities.

This is more than theory, this is about real people’s lives and you will be better public servants if you draw on your own experiences and seek out those of others.

I have economists at my disposal who provide me with charts and stats, etc. 

This is necessary, but I learn more from the people I meet with and I am connected to them because of this. 

The challenge to you is do what you’re doing and more.

Study the theory, read the books, understand how public policy is made – master your material.  And get out there, talk to people and listen. 

In closing I want to invoke another Kennedy, the late Senator Ted Kennedy and his autobiography: “True Compass.”

We came from very different backgrounds, but shared this basic commitment to, and faith in the Dignity of Working People and a profound belief in the promise of the American Dream – that the son of working people could be President, that the daughter of an immigrant union shop steward could be Labor Secretary.

And that millions of sons and daughters of working people could just have a decent life.

By any measure, public service has always strengthened our country and fostered a new wave of active and engaged citizens of all ages and walks of life.

I truly believe that people who love their country can change it. 

I thank you for joining me to today – and tomorrow and the next day – I invite you to devote your life’s work to the working people of our great country.

Thank you.