Honorable Alexis M. Herman
Prepared Remarks: The Moral Case for Shared Prosperity"
National Cathedral, Washington, DC
August 31, 1997
I come before you on the eve of Labor Day to report on the state of the American workforce. This has been something of a tradition among my 22 predecessors as Secretary of Labor. And it is a tradition I am proud to carry forward -- with one refinement.
I have chosen to offer my report at an unlikely hour from an unlikely place.
Not in the middle of what some call the work week but on a Sunday, a day of rest and reflection.
Not from behind a bank of microphones or the imposing table of a congressional hearing room but from the pulpit of this grand cathedral.
So let me begin by posing the obvious questions. Why now? Why here?
The National Cathedral is actually my final stop of a week of travel. For the past eight days, I have traveled the nation to see America at work. From Seattle to West Virginia and Minneapolis, El Paso, and Nashville along the way I have listened to Americas working men and women. I have witnessed what it is like to hold a job and raise a family today. I have heard testimony to works pleasures and its pains, its wonders and its woes.
And what I heard on my journey affirmed a truth I discovered as a young girl in my hometown in Mobile, Alabama: next to family and faith, the most sacred thing in our lives is the work that we do. And as Princess Diana helped us understand, it is not just in the paid work but it could be in volunteer work, as we give of ourselves.
Why now? Why here?
Because in America, work has a spiritual dimension, a moral value that transcends the accountants measure of profit and loss. It affirms our humanity; it strengthens our soul.
The Proverbs tell us: Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. But the wealth to which the Scripture refers is not the accumulation of material riches. It is something far more valuable something that can only be fashioned with diligent hands.
It is dignity.
Let there be no mistake: work is as much a source of dignity as it is a source of income.
And what more fitting place to talk about dignity than this dignified house of God? Standing higher than even the Washington Monument, the National Cathedrals mission is to be a great church for national purposes. And for 90 years, it has achieved that mission with power and with grace. This is the place where Bishop Tutu told America about the evils of apartheid. Where great leaders who passed from our lives including my friend Ron Brown have been honored and remembered. Where every President since Theodore Roosevelt has spoken to the nation.
So from this high place, on this day set aside for reflection, let me tell you what Ive seen.
My friends, on Labor Day 1997, the state of the American workforce is solid, strong, and proud. Americas workers are in better shape than in many, many years. Working families tell me they are feeling better about their lives.
After all, our economy is the healthiest in a generation. Unemployment has dropped to a 24-year low. We have added nearly 13 million new jobs in the last five years. Our Gross Domestic Product is climbing at a healthy rate. Inflation is at historic lows. Corporate profits are rising and setting records.
These are indeed prosperous times.
But, still, a quiet unease lurks in our land -- a nagging sense that this new prosperity belongs to someone else, a dull fear that our nation will declare success before all Americans have the opportunity to claim their fair share.
Across our nation, I have encountered working people who worry that Americas rising economic tide may be casting our citizens toward two separate shores. In one direction, this tide may be carrying some Americans to a promising destination a new economy, full of opportunity and challenge. But in the opposite direction, this same tide may be stranding other Americans on the shoreline of an old economy that is quickly washing away beneath their feet.
On Labor Day 1997, the task before us as a nation . . . as a moral people . . . I dare say, as children of God . . . is to make sure that the economys new buoyancy lifts the lives of all Americans. That a nation moving forward leaves no one behind. That we do not declare our work completed until Americas new prosperity is shared by all.
For prosperity that is not broadly shared is in fact a false prosperity. The great religions teach us that. In the fifth book of the Torah, God says that justice requires that landowners allow the worker in the field to share in the produce he or she is harvesting. Romans IV reminds us: When a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.
Not a gift. An obligation. An obligation that is both softhearted and hardheaded. Permit me to make it plain this morning: narrowly held prosperity is not only morally troubling it is economically unsustainable.
Now, take it from someone who ran her own business: theres nothing wrong with rising profits. In capitalism, thats pretty much the point. But if profits rise and paychecks dont, something is out of whack. If the economy booms, but only a few feel the tremors, something clearly has gone awry.
Economies do not grow for long if one persons gain is another persons loss. The American economy is not some creaky vehicle in which adding more passengers slows things down. Indeed, it is the exact opposite. Bringing more people aboard speeds us up. The better more of us do, the better all of us do.
Let me give you an example. Tomorrow, millions of hard-working people will get a modest raise. At midnight, the minimum wage will rise from $4.75 an hour to $5.15 an hour the second stage of the minimum wage increase President Clinton fought for, and won, last year. Raising the minimum was a matter of social justice and economic security.
But do you remember the fight? The opponents didnt argue the fairness of the measure. Instead, throughout the debate, we heard a chorus of Cassandras who predicted that giving hard-working Americans a 90-cent raise would destroy the whole economy.
Well, it hasnt. Raising the minimum wage has not hurt the economy. It has not destroyed jobs. It has not raised unemployment. What is has done is provide working people with an additional one thousand dollars a year in buying power. And theyre using that new capacity to fuel the entire economy. Bringing more people aboard did not slow us down. It sped us up, made us stronger.
On Labor Day and all days, we cannot forget: Ethics and economics coincide. The moral and the monetary are intertwined.
Some of you may know that this churchs formal ecclesiastical name is the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. I thought about that, and I realized how appropriate it was to speak here on this topic. Because to ensure that prosperity lifts up all Americans, we do not have to rob Peter to pay Paul. We can do better together. Indeed, thats our only option. The only way some of us can get ahead is if all of us get ahead.
I learned that in my tour of the American workplace this past week. The talented and dedicated men and women I met told me they agreed that our nation is now prosperous. But they said we still have more to do, that our business is not finished. They looked at their own lives and the lives of their neighbors, saw good men and women who had not yet claimed their fair share, and asked me, What does prosperity truly mean?
And then they told me.
The Americans I met last week told me prosperity means helping to move people from welfare to work. In Seattle, Washington I met with women who were receiving public assistance. Let me tell you: they were not the convenient stereotypes some people use to demonize welfare recipients. The women I met . . . their hearts and hands ached for work.
I met one woman who, in the morning, showed me her first resume. And then in the afternoon, told me she had landed a job. I was so proud of her. She and others told me that Washingtons discussions of welfare-to-work often focus on the welfare and the work, but ignore the to. What these women need what all who seek the dignity of work need is a support system. A moral and economic support system . . . one that includes child care and transportation and coaching and mentoring and sometimes just someone to lend a sympathetic ear.
Helping all Americans get a paycheck . . . that passport to dignity . . . is what prosperity means.
The Americans I met last week told me that prosperity means giving the opportunity to learn throughout their lifetime. In El Paso, I met with Chicana women who had been displaced from their jobs. They were a powerful example that as we celebrate the new economy, we must assist the good people who remain in the old economy through education, training, and skill development that leads to real jobs at the end of the day.
Later in El Paso, I met several dozen youth learning employment skills through the Job Corps. These young men and women exquisite in their blue shirts and khaki pants affirmed my faith in our future. And not just because the culinary students made me the best Bananas Foster I have ever tasted in my whole life.
One Job Corps participant told me: I have big dreams. But dreaming isnt enough. I have to work to make my dreams come true. I have to learn to make my dreams come true.
Young people firmly on the path of lifelong learning. That is what prosperity is all about.
The Americans I met last week told me prosperity means doing well at work and at home. In Minneapolis, I met with parents who work at one of the Honeywell Corporations amazing high-tech facilities. Theyre helping Honeywell succeed in the global marketplace . . . because Honeywell is helping them succeed around the kitchen table.
A Honeywell manager told me how the company helped him adopt his two daughters, and bring them from Colombia, South America. The company gave him time off, immediate health insurance for his two children, even Spanish classes. And Ill never forget the Honeywell food service worker who told me about her son. Her little boy, just five years old, had leukemia. Mom took time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
She told me something remarkable: without Family and Medical Leave and the personal and professional support of her company, her family wouldnt have been able to survive. And today, Im happy to report, the cancer is in remission. Her little boy is doing just fine.
People well-equipped to balance job demands with family obligations. That is what prosperity means.
Other Americans I met last week told me prosperity means having dignity and security not just in their working years, but in retirement as well. In Nashville, I talked with a Girl Scout troop in the morning and a group of employees of women-owned businesses in the afternoon who were looking for retirement security.
Nashvilles women and girls told me something all Americans need to hear: youre never too young to start saving for retirement and youre never too old to begin either.
Working people secure in retirement, flourishing even after theyre done working. That is what prosperity means.
And, finally, the Americans I met last week told me that prosperity means guaranteeing every working American a safe and healthy workplace -- with the rights and respect they deserve and with equal opportunity for all. In Morgantown, West Virginia in the heart of Appalachia I took a 1000-foot journey below the Earths surface, led by a group of talented, dedicated coal miners.
Mining is perilous work. Even though Friday was a sunny August morning, the mine was as cold and dark as a winter night. And by the time I came back up, I had coal dust on my skin, in my nose, and on my lips. Like those who go there every day to earn a living . . . in that hour, I felt work. Smelled work. Tasted work.
Coal mining is a dangerous profession. But one miner told me that this coal mine was not only one of the most productive in the nation. It was also one of the safest.
An America where no worker is forced to sacrifice their life for their livelihood. That is what prosperity means.
The words of these Americans are an important reminder this Labor Day. By working together moving people from welfare to work, investing in learning, balancing work and family, protecting pensions, and keeping workplaces safe, fair, and free of discrimination we can redeem the moral essence of work. And in so doing, we can complete the unfinished business of Americas new prosperity.
That is what we must do. And when I say we, I do not mean just the President or just the Labor Secretary. I do not mean just corporations and their stockholders. I do not mean just working people and the labor unions that represent them. I mean we -- in the broadest, richest, most beautiful sense of that simple word.
For the strength of our nation is -- as the President has said -- that we are one America. Not a prosperous America and an impoverished America. One America. Not a skilled America and a stalled America. One America. Not an educated America and an ignorant America. One America.
The only America worthy of the name is one America where prosperity is broadly shared and all people can truly fulfill the heights of their potential.
And ultimately, there is only one way to build that kind of nation. Technology cannot manufacture it. Enlightened minds cannot theorize it. Power cannot dictate it. In the end, the President is right: it must flow from the human spirit.
This ideal that were all in this together, that were bound by the mutual obligations of humanity is something that every religious tradition teaches. And we can be reminded of it in the most surprising circumstances.
Earlier this month, I found myself at the center of a tough and bitter strike. For fifteen days, the management of the United Parcel Service and its Teamster employees were at loggerheads. Historians will determine when the talks turned, when the deal gelled. But I have my own analysis. I think both the management and the workers realized that they couldnt survive without one another. That the success of one side depended on the success of the other side.
The settlement was a victory for collective bargaining. And it was a realization that strong companies and strong unions go hand in hand. The two sides understood they needed each other.
And the rest of us needed both of them.
Recently I heard a great story from a UPS driver on his first week back on the job. One afternoon, he came upon a woman hed been delivering packages to for 15 years. She ran up to the driver, wrapped her arms around him and said: "I'm so glad you're all right. Since you've been delivering to me, I've had three jobs and two husbands. You're the only stable relationship in my life. If anything happened to you I don't know what I'd do."
We need each other. Were in this together.
And as we celebrate work in these prosperous times, we ought to keep in mind the words of an old woman in my home state of Alabama who said, Ive been down so long that getting up now dont even cross my mind.
Let us help her up. Let us bring her to her feet. Let us make her a full participant in Americas new prosperity.
From this church of great national purposes, on this morning of reflection, on the eve of the day we honor work and all it means, let us dedicate ourselves to lifting up the people who make America work. The men and women who mop the office floors when the lights are dim. Who guard buildings in the eerie stillness of night. Who care for our babies when parents cannot. Who wipe our brow when were ill. Who tend to our bodies and our souls when we age. Who cook our food and teach our kids and fill our orders and patrol our streets and clean our clothes and do all those other things.
Let us say in a voice that never wavers: all work is important . . . all workers are prized . . . all people have dignity.
This we owe to one other.
This we owe to America.
This we owe to our God.
Thank you very much. I wish all of you Godspeed and a restful, fulfilling Labor Day.