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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
National Labor College Commencement
Silver Spring, Maryland
Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thank you for that kind introduction, Richard (Trumka).

I want to thank Mr. Trumka (Richard) for his leadership as Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO and for his dedication to the working men and women of this country.

I want to thank National Labor College President William Scheuerman for his leadership in guiding this institution.

I would also like to say a special thanks to the AFL-CIO for having the foresight to build this institution.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct honor to be here with you today and share this wonderful occasion.

I want to take a brief moment to thank the family members with us here today.

To the fathers, mothers, cousins, aunts, and spouses of the graduates — congratulations!

We are here to celebrate today's graduates, but I know all of you have helped — usually by taking the kids to the park so that Dad could study or offering to stay up late to help your spouse to study for a test, but most importantly with your love and support. I know that all the students here today appreciate and understand that without your support they would not be sitting here today.

And to the National Labor College class of 2009... Congratulations!

Today you can say with pride — my hard work has paid off!

I congratulate you, but I also thank you. I thank you because you have made a commitment to yourself, to your families and to the working families in our country.

Students like Leah Rambo, who graduates today with her Bachelor of Arts in Labor Education. I met Leah last month in New York, while touring the Nicholas Maldarelli Apprentice Training Center where she and her fellow sheet metal worker members are working with youth in that community to provide them with job and life skills. Leah is just one example of the great work that you all do.

Your time here has provided you with the tools you need to be successful in a competitive work environment and to make a better life for your family.

This year I have given quite a few commencement speeches across the country, but this is not going to be your typical commencement address, because you are not the typical college graduate. Many of you have families, a mortgage and other bills to pay. Many of you have worked in your craft for years. And many of you have been on the frontlines, fighting for your rights in the workplace.

In other words, you've been there and done that! But, the knowledge and teaching you received during your time here will continue to help you throughout your life, both in the workplace and at home.

My story is not all that different from yours.

My father was a Teamsters shop steward working in a battery recycling plant for more than 20 years.

My mother worked at a toy factory and was a member of the United Steel Workers Union.

They raised seven children and taught us to love this country. They also taught us that there is value and dignity in a hard day's work. They joined the Teamsters and the Steel Workers for many reasons — to ensure they received a fair wage and good benefits, that their workplace was safe, that they were paid the overtime they earned, and that they could retire with dignity.

There is no doubt that unionized workers are more knowledgeable and more empowered than those who are not able to organize. There is also no doubt that knowledgeable, empowered workers mean safer and secure workplaces. So, I can honestly say that I feel right at home with all of you today.

Now, some have walked across this stage during easier times. Times of economic prosperity and peace. Times when jobs were easier to come by and would provide a steady paycheck.

Unfortunately, today we find ourselves under different circumstances. Today, we find ourselves at a critical juncture in our nation's history once again. We are facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Our national unemployment rate is 9.4%. 6 million people are unemployed.

And for underrepresented communities, the national unemployment rate is even higher than that. The rate for Latinos is 11.3% and for African Americans it is 15%. For youth, it's almost a whopping 22%.

But as you are facing these challenges keep this in mind: our nation has been defined by our courage in the face of unexpected challenges. From the Great Depression to 9/11, Americans know how to pull ourselves together and lift each other up during tough times. This time will be no different.

We must face these economic challenges with the same can-do spirit that has characterized us in the past. I have great faith we can overcome this challenge.

The fact that I am here as the Labor Secretary is a testament that anything is possible in this great country.

I was told by my high school counselor that I was best suited for an office job, something like a secretary, and I wasn't college material. Well, I guess he wasn't wrong after all.

I was suited to be a secretary all right... A Cabinet Secretary!

Like many of you I have traveled an unexpected journey to get where I am today. My path could not have been forged without my family's support, a good education, the passion to make a difference in my community and the attitude to never settle for less.

And these are the values I take with me everyday to the Labor Department. Providing American workers with safe workplaces is a primary responsibility of my department, and I believe in the promise of providing American families with good jobs.

At the Department of Labor we are focused on Good Jobs for everyone — and I know you share that commitment. The workplace safety rules that have been so neglected over the past 8 years were put in place to protect people like all of you. The wage and hour standards that labor fought for were put there to make sure that people like my parents were paid a fair wage for their work.

Before I continue, I would like to say that the Department of Labor is looking for quality people like you to help ensure that American workers are safe and secure. If you are interested in continuing to work in a field that is in line with the values that all of you hold dear as graduates of the National Labor College, I encourage you to contact the Labor Department for opportunities. In a single year, we will be adding nearly 670 investigators, inspectors and other program staff to carry on the mission of the Department.

Not only must we provide safe and secure jobs, but also, the Department of Labor must help workers by prioritizing job training and assistance. We need to make real investments in worker training and workforce development. I am already working to re-invest in and restructure workforce development and ensure a strong unemployment insurance system.

These are the principles taught at the National Labor College and this is my vision for 21st Century Labor Department. But, these values are not new to you and your families, and they are not new to my Department. The mission of the Labor Department is to protect workers by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, and strengthening free collective bargaining.

The last few years the Department had forgotten what it stood for. I am here to tell you that under my watch we will live by the true meaning of our mission and we will work everyday to fulfill our commitment to the American worker!

And I want you all to know that you have a friend when it comes to protecting collective bargaining rights, creating good paying jobs and enforcing workplace safety and health laws for all Americans.

Let me be very clear on this issue... The Labor Department is back in the enforcement business.

We are facing unprecedented challenges, but also unprecedented opportunities. So, I am challenging you today - to step up and help us transform this country.

The American journey throughout history has been a continuous hand-off to the next generation of leaders. However, in order to lead you must truly be willing to fight for what is just — because it is not always popular, or easy, but it is necessary.

One of my role models, Dolores Huerta, has a quote that inspires me every day — "Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk."

I say to you today, that it's time to begin that walk to a better future for American families and American workers.

Thank you all so much, and congratulations once again.

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