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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance Convention
2011 Annual Convention
Oakland, California
Friday, July 22, 2011

Good morning, APALA!

It's so great to be back home in California among friends. And it's great to look out today and see so many young people ready to take the torch and run with it. Let me start by acknowledging a few leaders whose work is making a difference from coast to coast.

I want to recognize President Luisa Blue and Gregory Cendana for organizing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to help rebuild the middle class. I also want to acknowledge Mary Kay Henry of SEIU, Liz Schuler of the AFL-CIO, Lee Saunders of AFSCME, and Art Pulaski for their leadership.

And I want to thank Victor Uno of the IBEW here in Northern California and Josie Camacho for her trailblazing work as the first Pacific Islander to lead a central labor council in America. Victor, thank you for being here. And Josie, it was great to see you at the White House a few months back as we honored women organizers. But I also want to thank both of you for something else. And that's your son, Amado Uno, who's on my staff at DOL and has been such a strong advocate for AAPI workers. Finally, I have to thank Kent Wong, my great friend and compadre, for starting this incredible organization 19 years ago and for a lifetime of advocacy for AAPI workers.

It's always great to be with APALA. I was honored to join you last year in Las Vegas for the powerful worker rights hearing that you organized. And when I heard that APALA was coming to Oakland for this year's convention, I was excited to be a part of it.

Not just because Oakland is one of America's most diverse cities. Not just because Oakland voters just made history by electing the first Asian-American woman to lead a major U.S. city — thank you, Mayor Quan, for breaking another barrier in this country! — And not just because Oakland is where APALA sent a strong message to those who think it's ok to exploit AAPI workers.

Because of your actions, justice was finally served against Monica Ung and NBC Contractors last month. This is a company that failed to give its AAPI workers the wages, overtime, sick leave, pension benefits, health care, job training or vacation time guaranteed by law. Because of the work of APALA, the Labor Department, California Labor Commissioner Julie Su and local authorities, Ms. Ung plead guilty last month to multiple felonies. And NBC contractors paid more than a million dollars in back wages and back taxes to the workers compensation fund.

Wage fraud is illegal and it's immoral. And brothers and sisters, we simply won't stand for it, will we?

I'm excited to be here today for so many reasons. Your energy and enthusiasm is contagious. And your work here at APALA is more important than ever. Every day in Washington, I wake up thinking about what we can do at the Department of Labor to help more Americans find work. We've come a long way already, but we're not there yet. We were bleeding 750,000 jobs a month when President Obama took office. In the last 16 months, we've created 2.2 million jobs. We have a lot of work ahead of us to achieve a full recovery that leaves no one behind. And we are counting on groups like yours to fight for our future. You can be game-changers.

In the short term, we have to shift the national debate back to strategies to grow our economy, create jobs and give new opportunities to our families. The Obama administration wants to build roads and bridges right now to put Americans back to work. We want to make it easier and quicker right now for our innovators to invent things.

We want to grow a new green economy — and create new, high-tech industries that will produce high-skilled, high-paying jobs, right now. We want to invest in education and training right now so our young people have the skills to fill those jobs. We want to increase our exports, expand our trading relationships and reform our immigration system right now... so America can thrive in a globalized economy right now!

Am I right?!

Of course, achieving these goals means we have to pay our bills and raise the debt ceiling, so that we don't default on our obligations. For weeks now, we've been in negotiations about ways to reduce our country's debt. But there's one thing our President won't negotiate: That's the livelihood and well-being of workers and middle class families. He refuses to scapegoat working people who've borne the brunt of the recession already. He refuses to end Medicare as we know it and give seniors vouchers to buy private insurance on their own. He refuses to cut Pell grants and education funding.

The President believes everyone must do their part. He believes if students and seniors are going to make sacrifices, then oil companies and corporate jet owners should, too. Fortunately, we are beginning to see some bipartisan momentum in the debate about reducing our debt. The President has made it clear that we need to get our fiscal house in order. Doing so will put us on stronger footing to invest in the American worker.

Two policy debates in Washington this year show how this administration is fighting to help the American worker. The House majority wants to pass free trade agreements without approving any help for workers who lose their jobs because of foreign trade. Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, has been around for almost 50 years. The two parties have always come together to support this program to help workers left behind by shifts in the global economy.

But now some Republicans are saying we can't afford TAA. I say we can't afford to turn our backs on the men and women who've spent a lifetime working in our factories building things. TAA has provided a lifeline to displaced workers who lose their jobs due to foreign competition. It has given so many Americans the skills training and support they need to re-enter the labor force. That's why we're fighting so hard to preserve this program. It works.

We're also fighting to preserve a law that has helped our construction workers since the Great Depression. The Davis Bacon Act says construction workers must be paid the prevailing local wage on public works projects. It says contractors can't bring in workers from another city or state and pay them less than what local workers would make. Undercutting workers like this can devastate local economies. I'm proud that my Labor Department has doubled investigations of Davis Bacon violations.

We've collected millions of dollars in back wages owed to workers, and we've debarred contractors who break the law. But this year, the House majority has voted five times to try to undermine Davis Bacon protections and Project Labor Agreements that help create and protect local construction jobs. Fortunately, thanks to the work of the building trades union, we've gotten some bipartisan support and won all five votes in the House to preserve these programs.

Washington is not the only place where we're seeing attacks on workers. In many states, conservative governors are using the financial crisis as an excuse to take this country backward by attacking collective bargaining rights. But you know that's the wrong way to go. In places like Wisconsin and Ohio, you are fighting back and defending the labor unions that built America's middle class. You helped collect 1.3 million signatures in Ohio so citizens can veto what's happened there. And in Wisconsin, six officials who stood against public sector workers are now facing recall elections.

They need to understand that American workers still want and need a voice at the table.

We know collective bargaining gives them that seat:

  • To demand safer working conditions.
  • To make a living wage to provide for their family.
  • And to give them dignity and the chance to earn a better life.

President Obama understands that labor unions are not the cause of America's problems. They are part of the solution. As soon as he took office, President Obama signed executive orders to outlaw government money being spent on union-busting activity. He has supported a strong National Mediation Board committed to ensuring that union elections are democratic. Under the old law, anyone who didn't vote in an election was counted as a vote against the union. That made no sense. Now, we're just counting the people who actually vote — like any other election.

At the Department of Labor, we recently proposed a new rule requiring employers to report spending on consultants they hire to "persuade" workers not to form a union. Workers have a right to know. Fortunately, there was some good news recently for those who believe in collective bargaining. More than 40,000 TSA workers voted to form a union for the very first time. It was an important victory for the men and women who keep our airports safe. What makes organized labor so special is that you not only fight for your members, you fight for all working people. The Chinese-American workers who were exploited by NBC Contractors here in Oakland weren't members of your union. But you held hearings. You fought for them. You rallied against injustice. You understand that two-thirds of Asian Americans have limited English proficiency. That's why it's so critical that you reach out to your neighbors — in their native language — and share your vision for the labor movement and for our country's future. It's why you must keep fighting back against new laws in many states that make it harder for young people and minorities to vote.

Social justice movements have always relied on the solidarity of our youth. Programs like Generations United give me great hope that we will win these battles in the states — and we will rebuild the labor movement for the 21st century. I remember that it was students who helped get justice for a group of Thai garment workers who were held in virtual slavery in El Monte, California.

You remember that case. I know I'll never forget it.

I'll never forget the brutal treatment of those workers. I'll never forget the wage theft, the sexual assaults, the fear those women lived with every day. It opened my eyes to the sweatshop conditions that still exist in America today. I carry that memory with me to work every day. Today, it's students like you who are stepping up again to make sure our colleges and universities know that sweatshops are not a relic of the past. Good businesses that play by the rules and treat their workers well shouldn't have to compete against companies that break the law to turn a bigger profit.

I have been involved in the labor movement since I was a young girl. The rights I'm fighting for today are the rights my Dad fought for as a Teamsters shop steward. My father is of Mexican descent and my mother is Nicaraguan. I grew up in a home where both of my parents were union members. They taught me the value of a hard day's work. My Dad will proudly tell you he was a laborer, a farm worker and a railroad worker. My mother worked at a toy factory and raised seven kids.

We had to face challenges. Growing up in La Puente, California, the air was not always fit to breathe. In my zip code, we had one Superfund site, 17 gravel pits, and 5 polluted landfills — including one in the backyard of an elementary school. Nine miles away in area code 90210 — Beverly Hills — there were zero landfills, zero gravel pits, and zero chemical plants.

I grew up with a strong understanding that there were "haves" and "have-nots" in this world. My father taught me about the difference unions can make in the lives of workers. Growing up, I remember sitting at the kitchen table and helping him translate the workers' grievances from Spanish to English. Their pay was meager. The work was dirty. The conditions were unsafe. It wasn't fair. They taught me that injustices in the workplace exist and that workers need a voice on the job. All of this shaped me to be YOUR Labor Secretary.

I believe in my agency's mission. I believe in improving working conditions, safeguarding workers' rights, and advancing job opportunities for all Americans. And, make no mistake, this includes the AAPI community. When I served in Congress, one in five of my constituents were an Asian American or Pacific Islander. I understand that many AAPI workers are thriving and living the American Dream. But there are many others who are being mistreated and struggling to find jobs.

As Labor Secretary, meeting the diverse needs of the AAPI community is a priority for me. Today, I'm proud to release a new DOL report called "Asian Americans in the U.S. Labor Force." You can read it at dol.gov. Just click on "reports" on our home page. There are some very interesting findings. AAPI workers make up 5 percent of the American labor force. The median wage for Asian Americans is the highest of any ethnic group.

However, AAPI workers who lose their jobs stay unemployed for much longer than either Latinos or whites. In 2007, before the recession began to take hold, the unemployment rate for Asians was 3 percent. For Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander, it was 4.8 percent. Three years later, the Asian unemployment rate has more than doubled to 7.5 percent. For Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander, it has almost tripled to 12 percent.

Education and job training are the keys to turning these numbers around. We need to nurture the contributions of our Asian Pacific American immigrants — so we can win the global race to create new industries and new high-skilled jobs. We need to out-build and out-educate so that we can win the future. America needs the AAPI community's knowledge, work ethic, and creativity. We don't have a person to lose. We can't spare anyone's talent.

That's why President Obama will not let up on our fight for a more sane and humane 21st century immigration system. For AAPI youth who were brought to this country as children by their parents, it's time to pass the DREAM Act. Here, in my home state of California alone, approximately half of all DREAM Act beneficiaries are of Asian descent. We must harness the talent and patriotism of these students who love this country — and offer a path to citizenship to those who serve in our military or excel in the classroom.

This is the President's vision and mine.

But until Congress acts on immigration reform, I will continue to do all I can as Labor Secretary to help the AAPI community. This includes fighting wage theft and exploitation. It's still happening right here in California. In April, my Wage & Hour division concluded an investigation of Ayara Thai Cuisine — a restaurant a mile away from LAX airport in Los Angeles. We found it had committed multiple violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Management paid its AAPI workers far below the minimum wage. It forced them to work 12-hour days and paid substandard wages. They kept terrible records so there wouldn't be a paper trail to document their wrongdoing. Well, we made that restaurant pay its 35 employees every penny it owed them in back wages. More than $162,000 total. And the restaurant agreed to broad policy changes to ensure this behavior never happens again.

At the Department of Labor, we understand that we serve all workers, including those whose primary language may not be English. As part of our "We Can Help" campaign, we've translated more of public information into other languages, including Asian languages. As a result, more workers with limited English proficiency will have resources available to them in their native language.

In the aftermath of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we worked to ensure that Southeast Asian American shrimpers, crabbers and fisherman received training on cleanup procedures and safety materials in a language they could understand. We also just finished a safety guide for nail salon workers. Eighty percent of these workers in California — and 40 percent nationwide — are Vietnamese. We are committed to providing the tools they need to protect themselves from harmful chemicals, infectious diseases, and pain caused by sitting and standing in stress positions all day.

We do a lot at the Department of Labor, in many cases because we partner with terrific groups — like this one. I want to thank APALA for co-hosting OSHA's AAPI Worker Protection Summits this year. We held summits in New York and San Francisco, and both were a big success. We're committed to ensuring that AAPI workers understand their rights under the law — and know about the resources available to help them.

So let me close today by thanking you again for your actions and your activism. As we continue our vital work together, I hope you know that you have a true friend — un gran amiga — at the Department of Labor. Someone who understands the unique challenges — and unique potential — of your community. Someone who's committed to fighting for the most vulnerable members. And someone who will do everything in her power to be a resource for leaders like you.

Thank you for working alongside me — and with our President — to build a 21st century economy that leaves no one behind. God bless you, APALA. God bless the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. And God bless the United States of America.