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Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman


Remarks of
Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman
To The Department Of Labor
January 11, 2001

Toward An E-Society

Thank you Ed.

I have often said the average worker will change jobs at least seven times by age 35 today. Well there's nothing average about Ed. But he has changed jobs at least that many times since he's been at the Department of Labor. But whether Ed was serving as the Chief Economist, Counselor to the Secretary, Assistant Secretary for Policy or now as the Deputy Secretary - moving up the career ladder - he has been superb in each role. But, Dr. Montgomery, although I know you're qualified, let me say for the record the Secretary job isn't available yet - I've still got nine more days.

It has been an honor for me to serve as our nation's 23rd Secretary of Labor.

I grew up in the middle of this century, in the Southern part of the country, in the middle of a non-violent revolution for social change. Growing up in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, I was taught there is no duty more urgent than that of returning thanks. So let me begin today with a simple thank you to our President and Vice President who led our country so ably these past eight years and gave me the opportunity to serve as Labor Secretary.

My thanks to all of you here in the Great Hall and also those who are watching in our regional offices across the country. You and others like you are the heart and soul of our government and your contributions, wisdom, and dedication have made possible whatever I have achieved here, and I applaud you.

I especially want to thank my executive staff for your leadership and loyalty. As our President has often said, in these final days, thank you for letting me be a part of your team, a team that has won for America.

It's been a long road from working part-time jobs since the age of fifteen to building the confidence fresh out of college to land my first real job, to standing here today. I had trouble finding that first job. I was turned down time after time - sometimes because I was Black, sometimes because I was a woman.

But there was one man who I thought really wanted to hire me. He ran the local bank. And at the interview he said, "Ms. Herman, maybe I can hire you to be a clerk. Maybe, just maybe I could hire you to be a teller." He said that if I was really lucky he might be able to even hire me as a secretary. Well, I've always wanted to see him again, because if I did, I would say, "Sir, I did become a Secretary."

That's what makes this a great country.

But I did find a job, with Catholic Charities in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, helping young men from the housing projects find jobs in the shipyards in nearby Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Soon I had friends and mentors like Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women; A. Philip Randolph, the great Labor Leader and Ray Marshall, a truly great Secretary of Labor.

With their help, and the support of President Carter, I arrived at the Department of Labor at the age of 29, to head the Women's Bureau. At the Women's Bureau, our mission was to open doors of opportunity for women who work outside the home.

The values we embraced back then - economic growth, personal responsibility, equal opportunity and social justice - are those I still embrace. Because striving to improve the lives of working families has been more than a job for me. It has been the great mission -- and passion -- of my life.

One of my joys as Secretary has been getting to know so many of you.

Once, in Morgantown, West Virginia, I descended a thousand feet below the surface of the earth with a group of coal miners - and one of our mine inspectors - and I gained a new appreciation for their courage and dedication.

I've known the OSHA inspectors, the grant officers and lawyers, the secretaries and computer technicians and training specialists, and all the others who do the work that helps make America work. I know that you aren't here for wealth or glory, but because you want to contribute to a better world. And you do that, every day.

There is a temptation at a time like this to revel in accomplishments. And make no mistake, there is much to celebrate . . .When I arrived here in May of 1997, I had a vision of a department organized around three basic principles - a prepared workforce, a secure workforce and quality workplaces.

To pursue that vision, I set five specific goals.

  • To equip working Americans with the skills demanded by today's economy;
  • To help people move, with dignity, from welfare to work;
  • To assure working Americans more economic security in their retirement years;
  • To guarantee every working American a safe and healthy workplace, with equal opportunity for all; and, finally,
  • To help working people balance the demands of work and family.

In every instance, we have reached or exceeded those goals. Because of the 22.5 million jobs that we have created, because of our investments in education and training, unemployment is the lowest it has been in 30 years, and the lowest ever for African Americans and Latinos. With creativity and compassion we moved people from the welfare rolls to paychecks. We helped to make it possible for millions of women . . . and men . . . to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

We have strengthened the health and pension rights of far more than 130 million Americans. We recovered millions of dollars in lost pay for thousands in historic pay actions, and we have reaffirmed the value for millions of workers, that no worker should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood, and we now have the safest workplace record in the history of the department.

In short, we've eliminated the economic status quo and we proved you can be pro-business and pro-worker at the same time. As a former small business owner, I've always believed this was possible. We've turned the statistical books into history books.

But, for me, it's not the statistics that will linger but the stories. The stories of the people I've met across the country and around the world.

Like my friend and mentee Tonya Phillips, who moved from welfare to work in Cleveland, Ohio. No one in her family had ever worked before. She had no picture of work. Changing her life hasn't been easy, but Tonya says, "There are great possibilities before me, and those doors will open."

And there are other stories of the countless kids I've met through our YO! Movement and Job Corps, who got on the wrong path but turned their life around because you helped them to understand we can not afford to raise a whole generation of young people who may never know what it is to work.

The opportunities in this economy can be unlimited to those with the skills to navigate it, but it will be unforgiving to those who lack those skills.

And then there is Juan Alberto Hernandez of Guatemala, a young man in his teens, who came here to the Department of Labor to tell us his story of working, at the age of nine, breaking rocks with a hammer in stone quarries. Because of our efforts we have taken that hammer out of his hand and replaced it with a schoolbook.

Just yesterday, with President Clinton, at the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial, we dedicated the statue of FDR in a wheelchair. It was a powerful reminder that individuals no longer have to conceal their disabilities in order to work. We have put ability to work in the strongest economy in our history.

These stories are not finished . . . and the book is not closed. Together, we must write new and better chapters of the tale of the American work experience. It is my hope that 10 years from now, we can say with great pride and satisfaction that we kept the faith with the American working family - that we continued to raise the minimum wage to lift people out of poverty . . . that we shattered the glass ceiling and closed the wage gap between men and women. And that finally, once and for all, we abolished the very worst forms of abusive child labor around the globe.

As we move to the workplace of the future . . . one that is powered by technology, fueled by knowledge, and transformed by globalization . . . where the actions of workers around the world have a direct impact on workers around the corner . . . and where e-mail and e-trading bring workers and commerce closer and quicker together than ever before.

As a nation, we must never lose the values that got us here. Rather, we must retain our values in order to build an e-society for the future.

My vision of an e-society is not simply just an electronic society of e-mail and e-trading, but an e-society that stands for excellence, expanded opportunity and economic justice.

Machines cannot build it. Technology cannot create it. Markets cannot generate it. The e-society can only be shaped by people like us, by the work that we do, the policies we pursue, the partnerships we forge, the commitments we make and the challenges we meet.

To achieve the e-society we must continue to expand skills, to broaden our prosperity for all to share, because in today's high technology economy, what you earn depends on what your learn. To bridge the digital divide, we must add to the traditional three R's - a fourth R . . .technological readiness.

I have often said we don't have a worker shortage, but a skills shortage and skills are the ticket to the future.

The e-society must continue to demand equal pay for equal work, and we must continue to educate ourselves and others about the realities of the pay gap between men and women and people of color, and we must enforce the laws of our nation to eliminate discrimination.

The e-society must meet the challenges of our growing diversity . . .and that diversity must include full use of all of our people's talents including those with disabilities, and respecting the rights of workers around the globe.

The e-society must put excellence to work by fostering telework arrangements that increase not just our productivity, but also our morale and quality of life; reduce not just employee turn-over but also worker stress and anxiety.

The e-society will make it easier to take the office everywhere . . . to hold it literally in the palm of our hand. But if the door to the virtual office never closes, because of e-mail, cell phones and faxes, then that office holds a potential for abuse.

The challenge - and the responsibility - of the e-society is to make sure that workers use technology, not the other way around.

Throughout the 20th century, we enacted laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act to the Family and Medical Leave Act that reflect timeless American values like fairness and family. In this new century, to achieve the e-society, we face the challenge of living our values amid new circumstances and changing conditions.

But, amidst that change, the e-society must ensure that the price of workplace success must never be family failure.

For thirty years I have been committed to work-life balance, but it has become more personally important to me, having become a wife, a step-mother and a grand-mother all within the past year.

As I return to the business world, it is a gospel I will continue to preach.

So many challenges await us . . .and they will not solve themselves. These challenges transcend party affiliation and ideology. Those in public life must take a stand on the issues facing working people. Public service cannot just be lip service. Public servants must truly care about those who labor, and must be willing to fight for them.

My years as your Secretary of Labor have strengthened my belief not just in our political system and our people, but those years have also re-fired my faith in our ability to build an e-society.

I believe we can do this because I have worked beside you - the men and women of the U.S. Department of Labor, as well as our allies outside of government. I know that you have the talent and the dedication to build not just a better workplace, but also a better world.

I believe it also because of the working people I have met in coal mines and in classrooms, in office suites and in garages, on constructions sites and in factories, and in workplaces all across the country.

What I have seen has moved me so deeply and affected me so profoundly that it will be with me for the rest of my life. These hardworking men and women and their children are the real architects of the e-society.

So let us say to them, wherever they are, in a voice that never waivers: All work is important. All workers are prized. All people have dignity.

That is the real promise of the e-society. And that is the real promise of America. Let us make it good. And let us continue to work to make the promise of America the practice of America.

Thank you for your contributions, your friendship, your wisdom, and your loyalty. May God bless each and every one of you and the fine work that you do.


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