Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks for Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
September 12, 2011
Las Vegas, NV
Good morning, LIUNA! Buenos dias.
Thank you, Terry, for that introduction and for your incredible leadership on behalf of the men and women who built this country. Now, President Obama and I are counting on you to help rebuild this economy. Are you up for the challenge? I know you are.
Let me also thank Secretary-Treasurer Sabitoni and the General Executive Board. And I have to give a special shout-out to my California amigos: Rocco Davis, Mike Quevedo, and Oscar de La Torre. It's great to be back with you guys.
I'm going to be honest. When I accepted this invitation to be with you months ago, I had no idea how perfect the timing would be. Did you see the President's speech last Thursday? It wasn't just an amazing speech. It was an amazing plan to get this country back to work.
There's not a single group I can think of that deserves more credit for putting infrastructure in the national spotlight than this union. Your "LIUNA Builds" campaign was so effective. I mean, it was right on point.
We were the first country in the world to build a super highway system, but too many of our highways are clogged and crumbling. Our bridges, damns and levees need to be repaired. And I know LIUNA stands ready to do this work.
You built the Hoover Dam Bypass. You built Nationals Stadium. You built a new bridge over the Potomac. You expanded the Port of Oakland. I know you're just getting started, and the President does, too.
Think about it: The Chamber of Commerce supports infrastructure investment. The labor movement supports infrastructure investment. There's absolutely no good reason why the United States House of Representatives shouldn't support infrastructure investment.
We have to give more opportunities to construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing boom went bust. Congress should support President Obama's "Project Rebuild." This initiative will leverage the private capital that local communities need to create jobs by rehabbing foreclosed homes, fixing shuddered businesses and lifting up entire communities.
Congress should pass a Highway Bill that creates jobs instead of destroys them! We've got to invest in our infrastructure, right now. The President's plan includes $50 billion in immediate investments for highways, transit, rail and aviation. It will help to modernize an infrastructure that right now gets a grade of "D" from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
We need a National Infrastructure Bank. We could put your union brothers and sisters back to work right now by giving loans to companies that want to repair our roads and bridges, our airports and seaports, our railways and refineries.
These are all good ideas. But for good ideas to become good law, you need to make your voices heard.
You're the leaders of one of the best unions in the entire American labor movement. If we're going to put 1 million construction workers back to work in this country, now is the time to get out those megaphones. Your President hears you loud and clear. Your Labor Secretary hears you loud and clear. Now, it's time to make your members of Congress hear you loud and clear.
We need you to mobilize and hold rallies. Not just one, but many. We need you to call your Representative. Not once, but until you're on a first-name basis with the staff member who answers the phone. We need you to send emails. Not just one, but one a day until they get our builders working again. We need you to take your case to the media and on to the Internet, because now is the time to hold our lawmakers accountable for creating jobs. We can't afford to wait 14 months until the next election to address unemployment.
In his speech, President Obama asked a question that we should keep asking again and again until we get a good answer from Congress. The President said: "Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us an economic superpower, and now we're going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads? At a time when millions of unemployed construction workers could build them right here in America?"
LIUNA, does this make sense? Are we going to stand for it? No, we're not!
We know there are some folks in Congress who will say "no" to anything the President proposes. The only job they care about saving is their own. But rebuilding America shouldn't be a partisan issue. You need to talk to your family, friends and neighbors. You need to ask them to call their Representative and give them a piece of their mind. Because as Harry Truman once said, "If we can't get them to see the light, we're going to make them feel the heat!"
LIUNA: You guys know what it's like to work in the heat. Even in the toughest of times for organized labor, you've kept organizing. You've kept training. You've kept growing. You've kept fighting for the values that created the middle class in this country.
Brothers and sisters, I don't have to tell you that our movement is facing its greatest threat in generations. In states across the country, our opponents are waging attacks on working people at the worst possible time. Some state officials are saying that we can't afford unions right now, that organized labor is to blame, that labor unions are the problem in this country.
Well, I think they're just plain wrong. President Obama thinks so, too. Unions like yours are crucial, now more than ever. You can and must be part of the solution. That's why I've continued to speak out against those who want to use our financial crisis as an excuse to take this country backward by attacking workers rights.
In states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, some governors are saying we can't afford to invest in our workforce. They say we can't afford the social safety net unions fought so hard to create, but here's what I say back: We can't afford to turn our backs on the working families who make America great.
This is no time to be attacking collective bargaining for public sector workers, our firefighters, police officers and teachers. Working people want to get back to work, not divisive Right to Work laws. We know that's the wrong way to go. When workers have a voice, their workplaces are safer, they do better work and their families are more secure. You know that working people want and need a voice to demand dignity, respect and a seat at the bargaining table.
My parents taught me that as a young girl. My mother worked at a toy assembly plant and was a member of the United Rubber Workers Union, which is now the Steelworkers. My father worked in a battery recycling plant and was a Teamsters shop steward. When I was in ninth grade, my dad would come home at the end of the day and ask me to sit with him at our kitchen table. From his pockets, he would pull pieces of paper with writing in Spanish on them. They were notes given to him by his co-workers.
There were all sorts of things scribbled on them: grievances about health and safety practices at the plant, questions about paychecks that didn't add up and ideas about how to improve the efficiency and productivity of the line.
He'd ask me to translate them into English for him. At first, I didn't understand what they were. When I asked, he explained: "They are the voice of the workers." He said that the paper scraps started a conversation between the union and management. He told me it was a way to get them together "at the table."
As the attacks on workers rights have carried on throughout the country, I've often recalled those talks with my father. I think about the benefits and the protections he and my mother had because they were union, how those things created a better life for them and our family. I think about the millions of working families today who depend on those same kinds of benefits to create a better life for their own children. I think about our struggling middle class and how lawmakers should be supporting working people, not eroding their rights.
We know that a strong economy depends on a strong, growing middle class. And developing a strong middle class depends on a vibrant labor movement. We need jobs that are sustainable and innovative, that export American products not paychecks. In this economy, that's a tall order. But that's what our President is all about, and that's what I'm all about.
I know where our nation's unemployment rate stands. I have to report it every month. Working families here in Nevada have been hit harder than most. But let's keep it in perspective. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month when President Obama took office. And since that time, we've created 2.4 million jobs. It's not enough. I know we've got a lot more to do. But we're making progress.
Beyond infrastructure, there are things Congress can do right now to create jobs. President Obama has called on Democrats and Republicans alike to put politics aside and work together to help grow this economy. We've got to stand with him on this. We need to extend the payroll tax cut for working families to help them make ends meet and create more demand for our businesses, right now. We need to make sure the millions of folks looking for work can access unemployment benefits, right now. We need to invest in a strong manufacturing sector that will allow our companies to sell more products in countries abroad, products that we make right here in the USA.
I know we can do it, because I've seen for myself the incredible talent you can produce. This past winter, I went to Detroit and toured your LIUNA training center. You're partnering with young people enrolled in my department's Job Corps program, and you're changing lives and starting careers.
I saw your state-of-the-art green jobs training program. You're improving our energy efficiency and teaching youth from low-income backgrounds how to weatherize homes, remove asbestos and operate scissor lifts. You're helping them get industry-recognized credentials that lead to good-paying green jobs.
At the Department of Labor, we've made historic investments to link job training to emerging sectors like clean energy, healthcare, IT and advanced manufacturing. We've made tens of millions of dollars available through grant competitions to foster private and public sector partnerships that support innovation that create career opportunities for ex-offenders, at-risk youth, women, veterans and their families. Our opponents on Capitol Hill have tried to strip training programs from our budget. They say they don't help working people and the middle class. We know they're wrong.
We've had to fight to extend unemployment benefits. We've had to fight to protect Medicare and Medicaid. We've even had to fight for Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, which has always enjoyed bipartisan support. This is a program that serves as a lifeline to workers who've had their jobs shipped overseas. TAA has been around for half a century. It has given countless workers the skills training and support they need to re-enter the labor force. These are programs workers and job-seekers need, especially in tough economic times. That's why we've fought so hard to preserve them.
We've fought hard to preserve Davis-Bacon protections for our construction workers. This year alone, the House majority has voted five times to try and undermine Davis-Bacon protections and Project Labor Agreements. But thanks to unions like LIUNA, we've garnered bi-partisan support and won all five votes. Since the Great Depression, Davis-Bacon has protected your right to receive local prevailing wages. Thanks to your help, we've succeeded in safeguarding this important law. Terry serves on the Davis-Bacon committee. His leadership has been critical in innovating and updating our surveys to make sure you get the wages you're owed.
We can't allow workers to have their livelihoods undercut when doing public works projects. I'm proud that my Labor Department has doubled investigations of Davis Bacon violations. We've added hundreds of new investigators to our Wage & Hour Division. We've collected millions of dollars in back wages owed to workers, and we've debarred contractors who break the law.
We're also going after general contractors who have cheated the system for years by passing the blame to their subcontractors. We're cracking down on employers who misclassify workers as contractors, when they're doing full-time work for them. As you know, the construction industry has seen too many employers abuse this practice. They create layers and layers of contractors and subcontractors. They think this means they're not responsible for violations of overtime and minimum wage laws. They're wrong, and the Labor Department has made greater compliance in the construction industry a priority.
We're making sure contractors know the law, and we're stepping up our enforcement. It's not fair to you. And it's not fair to employers who are doing the right thing. They shouldn't be put at a competitive disadvantage by companies that break the law.
My department is updating our rules and regulations to fit the 21st century workplace. This means re-invigorating OSHA. We want to make sure that you wake up in the morning knowing you'll come home safely to your family at night. My department has a zero tolerance policy for preventable workplace injuries and deaths. We've filed a record number of egregious cases, and issued new rules to protect construction workers from the dangers that cranes and derricks can pose.
The bottom line: We're doing more, and we're using every tool we have to make sure you get the protections you need and deserve. That's a message I'll never let up on. Whether it's about staying safe at work or making sure you get paid for the hours you work, you need a voice to demand decency, fairness and respect. Construction workers aren't looking for a hand out or a free lunch. I know you just want a level playing field with clear rules, an opportunity to work hard and a fair chance to help your family get ahead.
So let me close by saying: We're with you. President Obama and I are with you. I promise we'll continue to fight for you in Washington. But we can't do it alone. We need you to keep the pressure on our opponents. We need our labor allies to create momentum that our opponents cannot stop. Let's build that momentum together. By lifting up your industry, we'll lift up all of America at a time when this country is counting on you more than ever before.
Let's not lose heart. Let's keep fighting. Let's do the hard work that needs to be done to restore this economy and make America the land where ANYONE can make it if they work hard and really try. God bless you, LIUNA. And God bless the United States of America.