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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
AFL-CIO Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Banquet
Detroit, Michigan
Sunday, January 15, 2012

Good evening, AFL-CIO. Buenas noches.

I know it's still a few hours until midnight, but let me be the first to say, "Happy MLK Day." I want to start by thanking my longtime friend, Arlene, for that wonderful introduction and by saying how proud we are of you. Dr. King said that, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

I've known Arlene since my earliest days in office in the California state Assembly. There's a reason she was the very first African-American elected to high office in the AFL-CIO. It's because she always stands up for what's right. She always speaks out against injustice. She has been a fearless voice in the struggle for civil rights and workers rights and equal rights. Our labor movement is a powerful force for change, because women like Arlene Holt-Baker are leading it.

I also want to recognize Saundra Williams and Karla Swift, who've kept the labor coalition strong here in Michigan. And finally, I want to thank each of you here today for leading your Locals back home and for your work in the community. For a quarter-century, the AFL-CIO has used this meeting to bring community leaders and labor leaders together. I understand that on Friday, you went out into local neighborhoods and built homes, served meals to the homeless, and volunteered at Boys and Girls Clubs. It was a wonderful tribute to Dr. King's legacy. He taught us that "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause us to overlook the economic injustices which make philanthropy necessary."

My former colleague, Congressman John Conyers, understands this. I know you honored him Thursday night, and what a great tribute that was. He is the reason America will celebrate a federal holiday tomorrow to ensure that Dr. King's Dream never dies. Back in 1968, it took four days for Congressman Conyers to propose a federal holiday honoring Dr. King after his tragic death in Memphis. But it took 15 years of speaking truth to power make that holiday law. Congressman Conyers never stayed silent.

And brothers and sisters, I won't be silenced either. Not when collective bargaining rights are under attack; not when middle class jobs are under attack; not when voting rights, immigrant rights, and human rights are under attack. Not when right-wing politicians appear on our TVs every night, attack our President and try to convince the American people to turn back the clock on the progress we have made. We can't afford to fall backward. Progress is made by marching forward!

It was here in Detroit where we first learned about Dr. King's vision for equality. Not many people know this: But it was right here in Motor City USA where Americans first heard the greatest speech ever given. Two months before Dr. King marched his followers to Washington, he stood before thousands of people in a new arena along the Detroit River. He began 10 different sentences with the words: "I have a dream." This is the city where the famous speech was first given. The historians don't write about that enough.

Walter Reuther — the legendary UAW President — secured a room here in Detroit for Dr. King to write those famous words. Do you know what the building was called where Dr. King sat and wrote? It was called Solidarity House. That's right: We Are One.

History was first made right here along the Detroit River. So it's with great humility that I accept the "At the River I Stand" award. And tonight, it's here by the Detroit River I stand to make my voice heard.

Because Dr. King was right: In the End, we won't remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. Tonight, I stand up for the dignity of work and for your right to be heard. And I challenge all politicians — governors, mayors, or appointed financial managers — who try to balance their budgets by taking away your seat at the table.

I stand with our President Barack Obama, who wants to rebuild our industries, our schools, our roads and our bridges. The President and I were here in Detroit on Labor Day. Back in 2009, some politicians argued to let the auto industry go bankrupt. They said to compete against countries where workers had no rights, we had to take away the rights of our own. They wanted to win a new race to the bottom.

Fortunately, President Obama understands that organized labor helped create the American middle class. He called for shared sacrifice in Detroit, and he bet big on the American auto worker. This administration knew labor and management could sit across the table and work together and help both the bottom line and workers on the assembly line. President Obama's actions helped save the American automobile industry — the industry that built the African-American middle class after Jim Crow.

We're now seeing the Big Three invest back into their American factories. Entire auto communities have been spared. Last month, U.S. auto sales climbed for the seventh month in a row. Our domestic auto industry created 100,000 jobs last year. The Big Three are adding more jobs than they have in over a decade.

America's manufacturing future lies in "in-sourcing," not "outsourcing." That's what we believe. That's what drives us. This week, President Obama announced that we've added more than 334,000 manufacturing jobs over the last two years. That's our strongest growth since the late '90s. The President believes the best way to grow our economy is for labor and management to play on the same team. We succeed when we work together.

Dr. King taught us that in Memphis in the final crusade of his life. One of my favorite moments of my three years as Labor Secretary took place last year. We inducted the striking Memphis sanitation workers of 1968 into the Labor Hall of Fame.

Back in the late '60s, African-Americans were shut out of jobs that paid an honest wage in Memphis. For many black men, sanitation work was the only job they could get. They did the work, and they did it proudly. But the city paid the sanitation workers so little, they still qualified for welfare benefits. The working conditions were hard and they were unsafe. There was no workers' comp. If you were injured on the job and couldn't work, you were fired. Tough luck!

When the sanitation workers tried to organize to improve their working conditions, they were ignored. When they kept trying, they were eventually fired. So they went on strike in protest. They took a stand for human dignity with four simple words: "I am a man."

Dr. King lost his life standing up for the Memphis sanitation workers. But they continued their peaceful protest — and they finally won their union. Through everything, they stayed true to their non-violent philosophy. The sanitation workers set an example for all of us that day.

Their example lives on today in places like Ohio and Wisconsin. Public-sector workers are mobilizing and demonstrating and recalling politicians who take their work for granted.

Dr. King's example also lives on in Alabama, where human dignity itself is under attack. I want to commend Bill Lucy for leading an AFL-CIO fact-finding mission to Alabama last year. You stood up against the harshest anti-immigration law in American history.

It's a law that makes it a felony for an undocumented immigrant to sign a lease or a water bill. The law is not worthy of this great nation. And President Obama feels the same way!

My department is letting all workers in Alabama know they still have the right to be paid the federal minimum wage. No state law can take that away. And we're fighting the exploitation of Latinos and other immigrants who work in the state. The Obama administration is fighting Alabama's law in court, and we will continue to stand up for our Alabama brothers and sisters.

Tonight, I also stand up for the right to vote. And I stand against those who want to make it harder for minorities, seniors and young people to cast their ballot. We're seeing more states pass partisan ID laws that make it harder for millions of lower-income Americans to vote. We're seeing states restrict same-day registration and early voting. We're seeing attacks on language assistance at the polls that help Spanish-speakers and Chinese-speaking citizens exercise their right to vote.

Did you see last month in Maryland, a campaign manager in the governor's race was convicted for trying to suppress the black vote? He approved 100,000 Robocalls to mostly African-American households. The recording told voters to "relax" and stay home because their candidate already had the race won. That's outrageous. The ability to vote in America is a right — not a privilege. And it's not just any right. It's the right that gives meaning to all other rights.

It was Dr. King who said that "as long as I do not possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind; it's made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, I can only submit to the edict of others."

Without the right to vote, we can't hold politicians accountable. Without the right to vote, we can't elect leaders who care about working people and organized labor, who care about the other "99 percent."

As soon as he took office, President Obama signed executive orders to outlaw government money being spent on anti-union activity. He has supported a strong National Mediation Board so union elections are democratic. Under the old law, anyone who didn't vote in a union 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.

This President has fought for "Made in America" provisions in the Recovery Act to support companies that keep jobs here instead of shipping them overseas. And he continues to fight for the American Jobs Act. This fight is not over. You don't give up on a plan that independent economists agree will create 2 million jobs. This administration has created 3.2 million jobs over the last 22 months, but there's more to do.

We're fighting to extend unemployment benefits for our friends looking for work. We're fighting to preserve payroll tax relief, so your paychecks don't go down by $1,500 a year. We're fighting for summer jobs for disadvantaged youth from our neighborhoods. We're fighting for education and investments in our community colleges. We're fighting to preserve job training programs that prepare millions of African-Americans — and Americans of all races — for good jobs. We're fighting against employment discrimination, too. My department has audited 12,000 federal contractors, and we've collected $30 million on behalf of 50,000 victims of discrimination.

So, yes, we're fighting every day, and I'm so proud that the AFL-CIO is in the trenches with us. Brothers and sisters, we've come along way but we have a long way to go. But together, I know we'll get to that mountaintop!

So let's keep marching. Let's keep fighting. Let's keep working. Let's keep believing. Are you fired up? Ready to go! Good, so am I! Dr. King's Dream will never die. Muchismas gracias. Si se puede. Good night, my friends, and thank you.