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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
International Association of Firefighters
Human Relations Conference

Orlando, Florida
Monday, January 23, 2012

Good morning everyone! Buenos dias!

Thank you President Schaitberger, for that wonderful introduction.

It's great to be here.

The last time I saw Harold we were on Air Force 2 on our way to Ohio to salute our brothers and sisters for their hard-won victory for collective bargaining. And when he invited me to speak here I didn't hesitate. Though I didn't know it was going to be this early in the morning! 8am is a little early don't you think, Harold?

You guys sound pretty fired up, though — right? Are you guys fired up? Is labor in the house?

It's always great to be with the firefighters.

Harold, thank you for your leadership and your friendship. Even in the toughest of times for organized labor, you've kept organizing. You've kept training. You've kept fighting for fairness, opportunity and the values that created the middle class in this country. So, thank you for all that you do.

I also want to recognize your Secretary Treasurer, Tom Miller and Lorne West for their leadership and good work. Guys, thank you for having me here this morning.

And to all the firefighters, staff and all of the proud union members in the house today, thank you for being here. I know you're facing some incredible challenges, but each and every one of you has continued to stand proud — proud to be fighting in this movement — proud to be fighting for working people. Well, I'm proud to stand with you today. I'm proud to stand with firefighters. I'm proud to stand with labor.

I know that talking about diversity and inclusion isn't always the easiest thing to do. For a lot of people, it's something new — something unfamiliar. It takes courage to have this conversation.

But courage is nothing new to firefighters. And courage is nothing new to all of you — or to President Schaitberger. At one of the very first meetings we had, he raised the diversity issue as one of his top priorities. So I'm thrilled to see that his actions are following suit.

You know, I get to speak a lot in this job — to crowds from all walks of life. And I often talk to and about our nations' heroes. It's often in the context of the military, the men and women fighting on the frontlines abroad. And that's great. But every now and then, I have the chance to speak with a group like this one. Community heroes who are fighting for us and saving lives on the frontlines here at home.

Every day, you go to work knowing that there's a chance that you might not make it back.

And I know your jobs are about more than just putting out fires — which is no easy task in itself. You're the folks pulling people out of crushed vehicles. Performing rescue missions in swift water and from high angle cliffs. You're the brave women and men fighting raging wildfires where I'm from in California and the tornadoes and natural disasters that have taken terrible tolls across the country.

But you're also moms and dads, neighbors and friends. You're the same people that volunteer at PTA meetings and at little league baseball games. You're the folks that show up. The people that go out there and take care of their community.

You're public servants through and through. And you deserve jobs worthy of that service. Jobs that allow you to pay the bills, support your families, send your kids to school and save for retirement. Jobs that give to you as much as you've given to your communities and to our nation.

That's the promise America has always kept with those who work hard. And that's what President Obama and I and are fighting for. That's we pumped over a billion dollars into the SAFER program that saved or created 8,000 fire service jobs. We know that the single most important thing we need to do is get more Americans back to work.

But we've got some real opposition on the other side. We're up against folks in Washington and across the country who have a different vision for America. They see an America where those at the top get more and those in the middle and at the bottom get less. An America where the needs of politicians trump those of the people they were elected to serve.

I mean, just look at what happened to the American Jobs Act. This was a jobs bill that would have put thousands of firefighters, teachers and cops back on the job. We were so grateful to have your support on this. But look, not a single Republican in the Senate voted for it — not one. Republicans in the House wouldn't even bring the bill to a vote.

You know why? Most of them didn't like the way we paid for it. They said that asking millionaires to pay a little bit more was class warfare.

Well, you know what? They just don't get it. This isn't about class warfare. This isn't about being rich or poor. About being a Democrat or Republican. It's about fairness. It's about everyone chipping in and paying their fair share. This is about giving the middle class and all those trying to get into it a fighting chance and fair shot to get ahead.

Folks in Wisconsin and in Ohio figured that one out, didn't they? That's right! And you helped!

When Scott Walker tried to pit firefighters against their union brothers and sisters you stood up and said, “No way. Not now. Not when so many of us are hurting. We will stand in solidarity and we will have a voice at work!”

And I know we've got a friend with us today that was a leader in that fight. Mailen Mitchell, where are you? Stand up! Let's give him a round of applause everyone.

I was so glad to meet you at DOL last month. Mailen understands that an injury to one of us is an injury to all of us. And that the actions to strip collective bargaining rights affect all workers everywhere in the country.

President Obama and I agree. We know that a strong economy depends on a strong, growing middle class. And developing a strong middle class depends on a vibrant and organized labor movement. That's why workers still need a voice to demand dignity, respect and a seat at the bargaining table.

My parents taught me that. My mother worked at a toy assembly plant and was a member of the United Rubber Workers Union. My father worked in a battery recycling plant and was a Teamsters shop steward. I remember sitting with him at our kitchen table helping him translate grievances. He would tell me that they were the voices of the workers.

And 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 he and my mother had because they were union and how those things created a better life for me. 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 them rather than eroding their rights.

And thanks to your courage, your support and your advocacy, our nation is a better place. Working families in Wisconsin, Ohio and across the country still have their chance to get ahead. Because of you, the promise of America remains alive. And this conference is about making sure that all people — regardless of where they come from — have access to it.

Last week, I spoke on a panel at the JFK Foundation in New York to honor the 50th anniversary of JFK's presidency. We spoke about the importance of inclusion and diversity in the global economy. I was brought in to provide the government perspective.

But this issue is, personally, very important to me. As a woman, and certainly as woman of color, I've had to face some pretty unique challenges to get where I am. As young girl of very humble means, I never imagined I would be the first in my family to go to college, or the first Latina in the California State Senate, or the first Latina Labor Secretary for that matter.

But the point is I was all of those things. And I'm here today because I was lucky enough to have incredible mentors along the way. Women and men, some of which shared my background, looked like me, and others that didn't.

So I spoke a lot about the importance of mentorship at the panel. And I think that point still applies here. But allow me to speak briefly to the broader point of diversity.

President Obama believes that when we align the diversity of our workforce with that of the citizens we serve, we come up with better solutions. We make better decisions. And we deliver better outcomes for both workers and employers.

The efforts I direct affect millions of people from all walks of life. What we do at the Department of Labor spans across every background, language and income-level. Every community has different needs. So it's critical that my staff — from top to bottom — be able to understand and relate to those communities. It's always good to have someone on the inside that's “been there.”

On everything from job training, to regulating workplace health and safety, and protecting wages I need to make sure that all Americans have total access to the services we provide — especially our nations most vulnerable workers. So we've worked aggressively to make sure our team is as diverse and as inclusive as possible.

Few professions serve a more diverse population than the fire service. So it benefits everyone to create a team of responders that reflects the diversity of the communities you serve. By stretching the fire service to become more inclusive, you can better reach members of the community with safety messages and work together to develop new solutions to safety challenges.

You provide the most intimate and immediate form of service for our public. At the snap of finger, you're forced to make tough decisions that directly affect the lives of people that you may even know by name. You respond to us in our most vulnerable and traumatic of times — often moments of life and death.

And it's in those moments, that all the things that can sometimes divide us — race, background, sexual orientation — those things disappear. In those moments, all you see is a fellow brother or a fellow sister with a common goal — performing one of the most selfless acts of public service any person can.

I mentioned mentorship earlier. This is critical — not just in recruiting diverse candidates, but to retaining and moving them up in the ranks. Mentorship is welcoming and helps to build team, which I know is important not only to your work, but also to what goes on in the firehouse.

I know your jobs are personal. You live together, eat together and place your lives on the line for a career that prides itself on tradition. So many of you learned about these jobs because and uncle, a neighbor or a guidance counselor said you would be good at it. We need more of that — across all walks of life.

True inclusion engenders trust. An environment where each person is valued becomes a place where individuals are challenged and motivated to do their best work every day — and that makes the community safer for all of us.

So I want to thank all of you for shining an important light on this issue for firefighters. It's not easy and it does take a lot of courage. That's why I'm so glad that firefighters are making the impact.

And not just on diversity. But on our battle to ensure all workers have a voice on the job and on helping our President as we work to create more jobs for the American people.

As we do, I'll be thinking about the millions of people who report to jobs that don't pay enough, or worse, those who have no job at all. I'll be thinking about my dad and those conversations we used to have in our kitchen. I'll be thinking about this union and about the fact that, now more than ever, workers still want and need a seat at the table. And brothers and sisters I want you to know that I'll never stop fighting for it.

Thank you firefighters, for all that you do for working people and thank you again for having me here.

God bless you and God bless the United States of America.