Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis
United Food & Commercial Workers
Legislative and Political Action Conference
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Good afternoon, UFCW. Thank you for that warm welcome. It's great to be here in Chicago with my labor brothers and sisters.
Let me start by thanking my dear friend, Joe Hansen, for that wonderful introduction and for being an incredible partner in the fight for workplace justice. Joe and I go way back, and this union and I go way back.
I'll never forget being a sophomore member of Congress back in 2003. I stood on the picket line with UFCW members in my home state during the supermarket lockout. Is California in the house today? Let me hear you. You remember that fight. It lasted five long, difficult months. The big grocers wouldn't even let us gather in their parking lot. But that didn't matter, because we found a public lot to assemble. We took our megaphones there, and we made our voices heard. I brought meals into that lot to help give those picketers strength. It was the very least I could do, given all this union has done to put food on our tables.
That lockout was about standing up for fair wages and affordable health care. And some things never change. I remember the argument the big grocery chains used back then. They said Wal-Mart was expanding across southern California, so they had to freeze wages and roll back your benefits to stay competitive. They wanted to win a race to the bottom. It was wrong then, and it's wrong today. The workers who feed our families deserve better. You have your own families to feed. You deserve an honest day's pay for an honest day's work.
I don't have to tell you that the labor 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. They say that given the state of the economy, we can't afford unions right now. I say: They've got it backwards. President Obama feels the same way.
Labor unions aren't the cause of America's problems. They are a big part of the solution. That's why we continue to speak out against those who want to use budget challenges as an excuse to attack collective bargaining rights. We know that's the wrong way to go.
In places like Wisconsin and Ohio, the labor movement is fighting back and defending the unions that built America's middle class. I want recognize Pat Bauer of Indiana and Dave Hansen of Wisconsin. They represent our great leaders who've played amazing defense against assaults on workers at the state level.
But most of all, I want to thank you to the grassroots leaders of UFCW for having their back every step of the way. You kept mobilizing. You kept organizing. And you kept fighting for the American Dream.
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.
I know where our nation's unemployment rate stands. I have to report it every month. But we've now added private sector jobs to our economy for 26 months running. Since President Obama took office, we've created 4.2 million new jobs. That's no small potatoes when you consider we were bleeding 750,000 jobs a month when this President took office. I know we've got a lot more to do. But we're making progress.
Isn't it great to be led by a President who understands the importance of organized labor? Isn't it great to be led by a President who never forgot where he came from? President Barack Obama understands how hard you work, and he understands what it takes to create jobs not just any jobs, but good jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. That's what's at stake.
Know this: President Obama has your back, and so do I. We'll never stop fighting for the American worker! We'll never stop fighting for investments to provide job training, affordable health care, Medicare and your right to a safe retirement.
Last year, I had the pleasure of spending time with one of your incredible leaders. She joined me at a special event at the White House hosted by Chicago's own Valerie Jarrett. Our purpose was to honor women who are leading the fight to organize in communities across the country. Women from all walks of life shared their stories of standing up for workplace justice, and I was proud to stand side by side with the UFCW's own Ernestine Bassett.
Ernestine works as a cashier at Wal-Mart in Laurel, Maryland, and she's committed to bring a collective voice to workers at the company. Ernestine's courage inspired me. She knows that when workers have a seat at the table, your workplaces are safer, you do better work and your families are more secure.
Some of you may have seen that my department made some news last week with Wal-Mart. My Wage & Hour Division recovered $4.8 million for Wal-Mart workers.That's right $4.8 million. And we collected another $434,000 in civil penalties.
The case was initiated under the previous administration. We continued that case, and we finally got the workers the wages they deserved. Wal-Mart had classified more than 4,500 workers as exempt from overtime pay, but they were not exempt. So our team pressed forward, and we sent a signal to other companies: When violations are found, the Labor Department will act to ensure that workers receive the wages they've earned.
The fight for fair wages and safe workplaces is very personal to me. My parents immigrated to this country from Nicaragua and Mexico to give their children opportunities they never had. My father was a proud union member. He worked as a farm worker, a railroad worker, and a Teamster shop steward at a battery recycling plant.
When I was in 9th grade, 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 crumpled notes given to him by his co-workers. There were all sorts of things scribbled on them: Grievances about health and safety violations and questions about paychecks that didn't add up.
He'd ask me to translate them from Spanish into English. 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. It was a way to give workers a seat at the table and a voice in their futures. So at a very young age, I learned about the ways that organized labor makes a difference in the lives of real people.
This is especially true for vulnerable workers, including immigrants who may have language barriers. In 2012, we know that many workers are being taken advantage of in this country. In states like Alabama and Arizona, we know that some leaders are trying to drive a wedge between working people.
Some of our opponents are even standing against efforts to help our best and brightest earn citizenship by excelling in school or joining our military. I want to thank the UFCW for leading the charge for comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act. If young people are willing to fight and die for America, and if they're acing their school work and can help us grow our economy ,then they deserve an opportunity to become citizens of the only country they've ever known.
Last year, Joe and Esther Lopez brought one of your outstanding local leaders, Moises Zavala, to Washington for National Labor Rights Week. Is Local 881 in the house? Moises was with me as my department signed new partnerships with Latin American embassies to protect immigrant workers from exploitation. Thank you for making the trip to the capital.
We know that food workers are employed in some of America's most dangerous jobs. That's why OSHA, our worker safety agency, has a national emphasis program to prevent amputations in the workplace. We know this is a big issue in the meat and poultry industries where many UFCW members work.
Last year in the United States, more than 4,500 workers lost their lives in a workplace accident. Let me put that number into perspective for you: More Americans were killed in workplaces tragedies in one year than were lost in nine years of war in Iraq. As Labor Secretary, I have no more solemn responsibility than worker protection.
OSHA also been has translating more materials into Spanish and Chinese languages to ensure that language barriers never compromise worker safety. And we're also making sure that when employers provide training, it's in a language that workers understand. I know the members of this union aren't looking for a handout. You just want to go to work, provide for your families, and get home in one piece.
So I'll close today by remembering a UFCW leader who spent her lifetime fighting for all working people no matter their race, their gender or their ethnic background. She was a trailblazer, a reverend and an American icon: the great Addie Wyatt.
She believed that dignity and respect belonged to everyone: no matter where you came from or what job you worked. Addie was the first African-American woman to lead a local labor union. She was the African-American woman to lead an international union as an international vice president of the UFCW. And today, she will become the first African-American woman to be given the Department of Labor's highest honor.
We are fortunate to be joined today by Rev Addie's sister, Mrs. Maude McKay; Addie's son, Mr. Claude Wyatt III; and Rev. Willie Barrow, a dear friend to Addie and another critical figure in the civil rights movement. Will the three of you please stand and be recognized?
I feel fortunate to work in a building that houses the Labor Hall of Honor. It serves as a reminder not just of our labor history, but also of our continuing responsibility to the American worker. It's a place where we can learn from our past and draw strength for a better future, even in the hardest times.
Addie came from humble means. She worked as a meat-packer right here in Chicago for many years, and she rose to the highest ranks of the American labor movement. She was an ordained minister who built bridges of understanding. She was a woman of great faith, and she had great faith in the American worker.
Addie stood up for workplace justice, and she worked tirelessly to integrate the labor movement. Early in her career, Addie worked with Dr. Martin Luther King on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Later in her career, she counseled a young community organizer named Barack Obama as he came up the ranks here in the Windy City. Addie was true champion for all working people and she leaves behind a remarkable legacy of compassion and positive change. It's fitting that we induct her today at this conference, because Chicago was her city and community action was what she was all about.
So on behalf of President Barack Obama, today on May 8th, 2012 I hereby induct Addie Wyatt into the U.S. Department of Labor Hall of Honor. She joins a group of trailblazers that includes heroes like Frances Perkins, Mother Jones, Samuel Gompers, John Lewis and Cesar Chavez. I'm so proud that the next time you visit DOL headquarters, you'll see Addie Wyatt listed in the Hall of Honor where she so clearly belongs. We hope you'll visit us soon. You'll always have an open door at the Department of Labor.
I promise that as long as I hold this position, I'll never stop fighting for labor. I'll never stop fighting for our retail workers, our food workers, our chemical workers and our distillery workers, because the stakes are so high. We are at a critical moment: We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while more Americans barely get by. Or we can embrace the President's vision and build an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.
The President will continue to fight for this vision of America, and so will I. And with your members engaged and involved, there's nothing we can't accomplish together.
UFCW: I have a question for you. Are you fired up? Ready to go? Good, because so am I. Thank you again, UFCW, for everything you do for this union and for our country. God bless you. God bless our working families. And God bless the United States of America.