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

Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor
Progressive Jewish Alliance Award Dinner,
Los Angeles, CA,
Thursday, May 26, 2011

Thank you Kent, for that introduction.

Kent, Maria Elena and I have been working together on behalf of California workers for longer than any of us is willing to admit publicly.

Their counsel has always been invaluable to me, and I know it is to you.

I'm excited to be here on such an important day.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice are merging for all the right reasons.

Blending a respected national voice with an energetic grassroots network is a recipe for greater influence and success.

So congratulations on a partnership that will take your advocacy to new heights!

I know about the great work of the Alliance here in California.

We worked together when I was in Congress, and I'm thrilled to be here today as a member of President Obama's cabinet.

Serving as Labor Secretary has been a great honor — and a great challenge. It's given me a national platform to fight for those without a voice in our society.

But holding this job during an economic recovery has put a few gray hairs on my head.

It's a lot of late nights, long flights, and big decisions.

So many people are counting on you, so you wake up every day determined not to let them down.

So I'm proud to accept this award today, because it's an opportunity to highlight issues we all care about.

It reminds me of where I came from. And of how much progress we've made in my lifetime.

I was raised Catholic, but I find inspiration in both the New and Old Testament.

The book of Deuteronomy says, "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer — whether a fellow countryman or a stranger — in one of the communities of your land."

I think about this passage as we remember the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

It opened our eyes to the tragic consequences of unsafe working conditions in industrial America.

Today, we remember that when the smoke settled that day in Manhattan, the scene revealed a workplace unfit for any human being.

In 28 brief minutes, 146 workers — mostly young women and girls — were killed.

Two and a half years ago, when I took this job, I vowed to enforce the laws of this nation for all working people — especially for our most vulnerable.

I did that not only because it was the necessary and right thing to do.

I did it because I know what it's like to be vulnerable.

I've been learning these lessons all of my life.

I learned them as a young girl. I was raised by hard-working, immigrant parents who went to work in unsafe conditions.

Like the workers at the Triangle factory, my parents needed better protections to ensure a fair wage and a safe workplace — to give my brothers, sisters and I a better life.

I learned these lessons as a state senator in California, when in my district, 75 Thai immigrant workers were freed from a sweatshop.

I had thought that sweatshops were a thing of the past. But I was wrong. They had in fact just spread from factories in New York City to cellars in Los Angeles.

And I'm still learning these lessons everyday as Labor Secretary.

We've made historic progress in workplace safety in the last 40 years, but Americans are still dying every day in preventable workplace accidents.

Every day, 12 people go to work and never come home.

Our work will not be done until no worker has to risk her life for her livelihood.

I'm also proud that you're using this day to remember the Freedom Riders as a turning point in the fight for racial justice in America.

Next week, I will travel to Tennessee to mark another major moment in the civil rights movement: the 1968 strike of the Memphis sanitation workers.

As Americans, we all know Dr. King's famous speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop."

We lost one of our nation's great leaders for justice in Memphis. But many do not know why he was there, or who he was marching with.

He was there to stand with a group of black sanitation workers who stood up for what was fair and right.

These men were working for welfare wages. They got no overtime pay, no matter how many hours they worked.

They had no grievance procedures. No vacation. No sick leave. If they got hurt on the job, they were fired.

When two workers died on the job, they finally said, "Enough is enough."

They demanded a union. When the mayor ignored them, they went on strike.

They endured police brutality and held up signs with four simple words: "I AM A MAN."

One of the real unsung heroes of this story was a Jewish American of Polish descent named Jerry Wurf.

He was the international president of the AFSCME public workers union.

There's this great documentary of the Memphis sanitation strike made by students at the University of Tennessee.

In it, you see Jerry Wurf literally screaming at the good old boys network. He's standing there in a City Council meeting, surrounded on all sides by African-American janitors.

Jerry Wurf shakes his finger and he shouts into the microphone, "So long as these men want help and support, by God, they are going to get our help and our support!"

The janitors erupted into cheers.

This solidarity lives today in your support for the Domestic Workers.

Thanks to the alliance of so many Jewish leaders with civil rights and faith leaders, the Memphis workers got their union.

Their victory spawned more unions and better working conditions for African-Americans across the Deep South.

Unfortunately, today, collective bargaining rights are again under attack across this country.

So thank you for standing up against those politicians who want to move us backward, not forward.

In this, we stand together!

I know that the bond between the Jewish community and the labor movement is deep and unshakeable.

I am proud to receive this recognition today, and I'm blessed to count you as my partners in our enduring struggle.

Our cause is just. The need is great. But our collective power is even greater.

So the fight continues! We will press on! And we will win!

Thank you, and God bless you.