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

Remarks for Secretary Hilda L. Solis
AFSCME Women's Conference
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Friday, September 30, 2011

Good afternoon, AFSCME! Let me start off by thanking Gerry McEntee for that introduction and for his great leadership of this union. And Lee Saunders for his tireless devotion to public-sector workers.

I also want to acknowledge Walthene Primus for her work as the chair of AFSCME's Women's Advisory Committee. In Spanish, we call women like Walthene “luchadoras" — strong women who are fighters and let nothing stand in their way. Looking around this room today, I see a whole convention full of “luchadoras.”

I also want to thank Gerry, Lee and everyone at AFSCME who had a hand in that powerful ad for the American Jobs Act. It was spot on. We know that job creation and economic growth not only help our workers, but they also help our nation's balance sheet. President Obama understands our deficit is a problem, and he has offered a balanced approach to address it. But here's what separates our President from the leaders of the other party: He understands that our most urgent deficit is our jobs deficit.

That's the issue the American people want Washington to focus on. It's great to be with so many grassroots leaders here in the birthplace of AFSCME... Here, in the state where you took your stand and united the house of labor earlier this year.

That's what I love about your union. When the issues are hot and the stakes are high, AFSCME is always right there — providing progressive leadership to solve our country's biggest challenges.

We know these are tough economic times. But that's no excuse for what's happening here in Wisconsin and in states like Ohio and Michigan. Some say that we can't afford unions right now... that labor unions are the problem in this country. But I think they've got it just plain wrong.

Unions like AFSCME helped build America's middle class. You are now — and always will be — part of the solution. Some governors say we can't afford to maintain our public-sector workforce. They say we can't afford to invest in good jobs that offer good benefits, secure pensions and family-sustaining wages.

But here's what I say back to them: We can't afford to turn our backs on the nurses who care for our sick. We can't afford to sell out the sanitation workers who clean our buildings and our communities. We can't afford to downsize the home health care workers who care for our elderly, or the cafeteria workers who feed our kids, or the librarians who nourish their minds. We can't afford to take you for granted, AFSCME. What you do is too important.

There's a word to describe a policy agenda that says we can't afford critical services that communities depend on. And that word is “bankrupt.”

But AFSCME, you didn't take these attacks lying down. I'm so proud of your Main Street Movement. The recall elections you orchestrated here in Wisconsin captured the nation's attention. Not only did you help elect incredible leaders like Jessica King, you sent a message heard around this nation:

American workers still want and need a seat at the table. We know collective bargaining gives them that seat — to make a living wage to provide for their family and to give them dignity and the chance to earn a better living.

It's like Aretha Franklin sang when I walked out here: It's about getting some of that R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

The women of AFSCME know how important bargaining rights can be. This summer, I made sure your voice was heard at a special event the White House held to honor women organizers in the labor movement. We heard from some incredible leaders that day. One of them was Deanna Vizi, a child care worker in Ohio who organized her colleagues through AFSCME. Deanna has been a leader in the fight to restore worker justice in Ohio, and she spoke powerfully at the White House because she knows that having a voice makes her a better caregiver. That's what unions do: They help people realize their God-given potential.

I know what it means to have a union. I've 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 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 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: “Hilda, they are the voice of the workers.” He told me 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 and how those things created a better life for us. I think about the millions of working families today who depend on those same kinds of benefits to create a better life for their children. I think about our struggling middle class and how lawmakers should be supporting working people rather than taking away their rights. We know that a strong economy depends on a strong, growing middle class — and a strong middle class depends on a vibrant and organized labor movement.

The recovery of our economy and our nation depends on good jobs that can support a family by increasing incomes; jobs that are safe and secure, jobs that give workers a voice. 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 times are tough for America's workers. I have to announce our unemployment rate every month. But I also know that we've made steady progress in rebuilding an economy that was bleeding 750,000 jobs a month when President Obama took office.

We've added 2.4 million jobs and seen private sector job growth for 18 months running. Unfortunately, some of those gains are being offset by job losses in the public sector. Since the last election, local governments have cut 290,000 public sector jobs. Those cuts have hit women the hardest. Of the 290,000 jobs lost, 175,000 were held by women.

Since the beginning of my career in public service two decades ago, I've made improving the lives of women a top priority. Today, as Secretary of Labor, I see a recession and a recovery that have affected men and women differently. At the beginning of the recession, the majority of job losses occurred in industries that employed men at higher rates, such as construction and manufacturing.Women saw a smaller drop in unemployment because more worked in industries that took smaller hits, like education and healthcare.But as we've moved into the recovery period, many hard-hit private industries have begun to see strong recoveries.Thanks to our President, manufacturing and the auto industry are growing at rates not seen in years. But the recovery has been challenging for public workers, as you know, which means it has been challenging for women, who are employed in this sector in greater numbers.

That's why it's so important for Congress to pass the American Jobs Act. Independent economists say this plan would put as many as 2 million Americans back to work. It would provide a lifeline to state and local governments to prevent public-sector layoffs. President Obama's plan includes funding to prevent up to 280,000 layoffs of teachers and first responders. It would keep more educators in the classroom, where they belong. And it would keep more police and fire fighters on the beat.

The American Jobs Act would fix our crumbling roads, bridges, airports and schools. There are a million out-of-work construction workers in this country right now. The President's bill would help many of them go back to work. The bill also cuts the payroll tax in half for middle-class workers. That means more money in your pocket to spend, which will increase consumer demand and help get our economy going again. This plan includes tax credits for businesses that hire our returning veterans. And it extends unemployment benefits to prevent 5 million Americans from losing their benefits at the end of the year. Workers pay into this system, and they depend on it to make ends meet for their families. Now is not the time to cut them off.

To pay for the Jobs Act, the President is asking the wealthiest Americans to start paying their fair share. Warren Buffet doesn't think he should pay a lower tax rate than his secretary, and neither do we.

So sisters — and I know we have a few brothers here, too — let's join hands again and fight to pass this bill right now. Let's go make some history together. Are you fired up AFSCME? Are you ready to go?! Good, because so am I.

I'm ready to fight on! President Obama is ready to fight on! We're going to fight on for our public sector workers. We're going to fight on for the families who are struggling right now. We haven't got a person to lose — or a second to spare. We've got work to do, AFSCME. So let's get to it!

Thank you for having me here. Thank you for all that you're doing. Please, keep it up your great work and have a wonderful conference! Si se puede!