Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Labor Day Remarks at the Union League Club of Chicago
September 2, 2009
Thank you all for that warm welcome.
Dennis Gannon, thank you for that kind introduction and, more importantly, thank you for what you do for working people in Chicago, throughout Illinois, and across the country.
Let me also thank James Gatziolis, the next President of the Union League Club for hosting me at this beautiful venue. And let me take a moment to acknowledge my former House colleagues: Jan Schakowsky and Danny Davis and so many of my current colleagues from the Labor Department's Chicago Office.
I understand this is the very first time that the ULC and the Chicago Fed have partnered on an event together so we are making a little Labor Day history.
I am also privileged, as the first Latina in a President's Cabinet, to stand at the same podium as my predecessor, and first female Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins did in 1933. For so many reasons, this is the right place for my first Labor Day speech because Chicago is the City that Works.
One of your most famous citizens, Carl Sandburg wrote in 1916:
"Come and show me another city with lifted head singing...
so proud to be alive...
strong and cunning."
That really does describe Chicago. Some people call it "The Windy City," but I call Chicago "my boss' hometown." It's also home to more than 140 Fortune 500 companies, and the epicenter of business that is the envy of many and replicated by few.
You have a rich labor history too: the Pullman Strike, Haymarket, and the Republic Steel dispute. These events evoke turmoil and strife, but also progress, change, and hope. And the city's changing demographics reflect change happening across the country.
Now, speaking of change, Chicago changed my life. And that change happened right across the street in the Federal building. Back in December, I received a call in California, where I am from, to come to Chicago at the request of President-elect Obama about a possible job in the administration. Ladies and gentleman, you have to understand this was my first job interview since 1984! And wouldn't you know it. It was December in Chicago, but I dressed like it was December in Los Angeles.
Needless to say, since I wasn't wearing boots, I slipped and nearly fell on the ice at the corner of Jackson and Dearborn before my interview. And to make matters worse: when I left the building after the interview, confident that I did pretty well, I could not for the life of me get a taxi!
So this is the right place and with all the right people for my first Labor Day address.
So let me begin.
For over a century, we've set aside a day to honor the contributions of workers. This is a unique American holiday. It is devoted to no particular gender, event, individual, battle, group, or saint. It is a holiday we all share.
There were times in our history when we have had great prosperity during Labor Day, but today, I make my remarks at a time when workers feel anxiety, and fear more job loss. This is a turning point in our history. We've been forced to take bold action to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and put the brakes on the economic downturn. Our economy is once again showing signs of life, but we aren't there yet.
Our unemployment rate is 9.4%. And let me be specific: Latinos have an unemployment rate of over 12%; African Americans at over 14%; and for our youth, it's nearly 24%. And close to 15 million Americans are jobless and looking for work. For some, these are raw numbers, but for me: they are real people and real families.
Earlier this year, I met autoworkers in Michigan the day after they learned that their plant would be closing. Their reaction to the news surprised and inspired me. They didn't want a hand out they just want to work. That's the same spirit I've seen all across the country.
In my seven months in office, I've traveled from Los Angeles and Las Vegas to New York and Miami and 35 cities and towns in between. I've met employers, labor and faith leaders, community organizers, elected officials, students, educators and activists. And I've seen, heard and felt their hope and optimism. I've been to a factory that used to make car windshields. Now it makes solar panels. I've been to another where the workers literally turn remnants of old homes into beautiful, modern furniture. I've met workers who have re-invented themselves for 21st Century jobs. From a woman in Miami who became a union electrician late in her career to a man in Kansas who went from the assembly line to the life line as a nurse. I've seen a workplace program in San Antonio, where safety is their bottom line, and I met Tribal leaders in New Mexico who are focused on the future but still honor their sacred traditions.
I've seen the difference registered apprenticeship programs can make in construction careers, how adult literacy programs can open new opportunities for older workers, and how new technology not only creates jobs but keeps the nation competitive and energy efficient. I've talked to and listened to not only those who work in offices during the day but also those who clean the offices at night. And I've traveled 1,100 feet below the earth's surface to a coal mine and seen first-hand how union and management make sure that everyone comes home safe at the end of the shift. These stories renew my faith that we will overcome the challenges we're facing right now.
From the Great Depression to 9/11, Americans have faced tough times and we beat them. Together. This time will be no different. The fact that the daughter of immigrants is the nation's 25th Secretary of Labor is testament that anything is possible in our country. My mother was a minimum wage worker at a toy assembly plant and was a member of the United Rubber Workers Union, now the Steelworkers. My father worked in a battery recycling plant and was a Teamsters shop steward.
Many people have influenced me, mentored me, and inspired me:
- Martin Luther King Jr. who sparked my passion for civil and human rights;
- Dolores Huerta who had her ribs broken in the struggle but never her spirit; and
- Cesar Chavez, who inspired me and the world by simply saying: "Si Se Puede!" --Yes, We Can!
I am a product of:
- The women's movement.
- The labor movement.
- The environmental movement.
- The social justice movement.
- And I'm married to a small business owner.
I'm proud of all that. It is what defines me and shapes my goal as Labor Secretary: Good Jobs For Everyone.
And here's what I mean by "good jobs":
- Jobs that can support a family by increasing incomes and narrowing the wage gap;
- Jobs that are safe and secure, and give people a voice in the workplace;
- Jobs that are sustainable and innovative like green jobs that export products not paychecks.
- And jobs that rebuild a strong middle class.
In this economy, that's a tall order,but that's what our President is all about, and that's what I'm all about.
As we all know, almost 200 days ago, President Obama passed the historic Recovery Act. His goal: rescue and rebuild the economy. In my first 100 days in office, my department released $45 billion of the $46 billion for Recovery Act efforts. We moved immediately to protect workers who lost their jobs and provide new worker training opportunities for those looking to upgrade their skills. At the same time, we are strengthening our social safety net, by extending COBRA coverage and reducing premiums; and upping unemployment checks by $25 per week.
We've also extended unemployment insurance eligibility and have 7 billion dollars available for states who modernized their UI system. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have done it, and now more workers including, women, part-timers and people upgrading their skills are eligible for benefits. Illinois is one of them. Last June, the state received $100 million for your UI modernization efforts, and today the state received an additional $200 million in national emergency funds to help recently laid off workers through job training and health assistance.
While we are helping workers through these tough times, we are also investing in their future.
- We've made $220 million available to help dislocated workers move into high-growth employment sectors like allied health and information technology.
- We're providing $500 million for green job training, which will not only jumpstart our economy but lay the foundation for our long-term competitiveness and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
- We've awarded $114 million to community groups across the nation to provide education and training to young people.
- And through our summer youth employment program, nearly 225,000 young people will get work experience that will benefit them for a lifetime including 4,000 kids here in Chicago.
And I want to be very clear on this point; everyone must benefit from what we are doing. So I am personally making sure that funds go to the right places and that communities of color, youth, veterans, workers with disabilities, and women, participate in these new opportunities. And here's why:
- Women earn 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. We need to get more women into the highest paying professions.
- Our soldiers pledge to leave no one behind on the battlefield. I pledge to leave no veteran behind when they come home and want to find work.
- And shockingly, 77% of individuals with disabilities do not participate in our labor force. I'm making sure that we utilize this untapped, highly motivated and highly educated workforce.
I'm confident that these efforts will make a difference because we have seen that the Recovery Act has also kept Americans working.
Want proof? The Mayor of New York (an Independent) and the Governor of Florida (a Republican) have both said publicly that without the Recovery Act thousands of teachers in their city and state would have been let go. That's true not only for teachers but for police officers, and firefighters and EMTs too. And countless businesses both small and large have said they avoided layoffs thanks to the Recovery Act.
To date, more than 30,000 Recovery Act initiatives have been approved. These efforts create jobs and create a ripple effect as demand for supplies and services increases. Without a doubt, the Recovery Act is helping to pull our economy back from the brink. But creating jobs is only part of my agenda.
My philosophy is: It's not a good job unless it's a safe job. Two weeks ago we reported that there were more than 5,000 fatal work injuries in 2008, so that's why I'm adding 130 OSHA inspectors to my payroll. Workplace safety is not only our responsibility, it's our moral obligation especially since low-wage, low-skilled and immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable to workplace injury and death. This is why I am announcing today that I will be convening a first-of-its-kind national dialogue and action summit on construction safety and the Latino community in 2010. Everyone will have a role in this summit-- from employers, contractors, labor groups, safety advocates, and government officials, to the entertainment community, the advertising industry, and other non-traditional partners.
We will forge new ways to educate workers and employers about job hazards and their rights and to educate employers about their responsibilities. No matter who you are, no one should have to die for a job, and I will not be satisfied until there are no workplace deaths. States have a role to play in worker safety, too.
Illinois knows this and that why the state is one of five the Labor Department approved to operate its own public employee OSHA program. For the first time, one million public employees in this state will have the same workplace and safety protections that private employees do. This action is long overdue, and I'm proud to have been the Labor Secretary to do it.
Now, as much as I believe that workers have a right to safety, I also believe they have a right to fairness. That's why I will work with the White House to make the strongest case for the Employee Free Choice Act; because I believe and I know that:
- Union jobs are good jobs;
- Union jobs pay higher wages.
- And union jobs provide flexibility and benefits like paid leave, childcare, education assistance and pension security.
The President has said, "We need to level the playing field. This is about fairness and balance." His Labor Secretary agrees, and in order to rebuild the middle class, we need to level the playing field for all working people.
My friends, we are facing monumental challenges, but the question is not when the challenges will end, but rather what happens once they do? I've been thinking a lot about "endings" lately, especially since the passing of my friend, Senator Ted Kennedy. It breaks my heart that he won't be with us for one more Labor Day. He often said, "I have seen throughout my life how we as a people can rise to a challenge, embrace change, and renew our destiny." I'm more convinced than ever that we can accomplish that, and here's why.
I arrived in Chicago yesterday as we say in Washington "under the radar" and right from the airport went to the Paul Simon Job Corps Center, one of 125 centers the Labor Department operates. I went without the TV cameras and without an entourage.
As much as I went as Labor Secretary Solis, I went as citizen Solis and as Hilda. One of the best things about being Labor Secretary is visiting my Job Corps students.
I wish you could have seen what I saw. I saw the promise of education and training in fields ranging from culinary arts to brick-laying, from hospitality to allied health care, and from carpentry to clean renewable energy technology. I met a young man who wants to build windmills and not in the Don Quixote way. I saw young pharmacy tech students, so proud of their skills, but even prouder that they all have jobs. And I met a young man, who looked like he just got out of high school, but in fact, just got back from Afghanistan, who learned about Job Corps from a TV commercial and will start the welding program next week.
Participants in Job Corps are often are called "at-risk youth." But what I saw yesterday was "our best youth." These kids, many of whom were written off by society, are investing in themselves and their future. They, like the thousands of kids in the program throughout the country, amaze me, inspire me, and give me hope. In my visit yesterday, I saw the best of our nation because I saw our future at work.
As a result, I am more eager than ever to serve the American people and to lead the Department in creating opportunities for hard-working families. But I can't do it alone. So I invite each and every one of you to take that journey with me. I said earlier that the Union League Club and the Chicago Federation of Labor's partnership made a little Labor Day history. I'd like to suggest that all of us make a little more.
Let's make Labor Day a "Day On" instead of a "Day Off." Sure, we can still have picnics and barbecues and use the day to do last minute back-to- school shopping, but let's do something else too. Let's use Labor Day as a day where we all personally commit to play a role in the recovery of our economy and our nation. Let's use the day as an opportunity to mentor a young person, or volunteer at a Veteran's center or just help a friend looking for a job.
Let's all do the work that will get America working.
Now, in closing, to each and every one of you: your Labor Secretary wishes you a safe, prosperous, and healthy Labor Day. Thank you very much. God bless you and God bless America.
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