Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor
2011 Labor and Employment Relations Association Policy Forum
George Washington University
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Thank you, Gordon, for that kind introduction and for your great work at the AFL-CIO to preserve collective bargaining rights.
I also want to recognize Martin Malloy for your leadership at Ford, and I also want to acknowledge Kevin Tolbert of the UAW. Kevin, I understand your colleague Jimmy Settles was ringing the bell on Wall Street this morning with your partners at Ford. I hope they ring in some big gains today.
Two and a half years ago, when I became Labor Secretary, our economy was in a free fall. The financial system was on the verge of meltdown. Entire industries were being threatened. Credit had frozen. People's retirement savings were in jeopardy. Middle class workers didn't know whether they were going to get a paycheck or a pink slip in the mail.
Here in the Beltway, we heard a lot of different ideas about who was to blame and what it would take to put us on the road to recovery. Some conservatives argued that in a time of rapid globalization, America could either have economic growth, or we could have strong labor unions. But not both.
They said to compete against countries where workers had no rights, we had to take away the rights of our own. They wanted to win a new race to the bottom.
When the credit retrenchment hit the auto industry, some argued we should "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Never mind the cascade of harmful effects this would have on blue-collar auto communities across America.
Fortunately, President Obama understood that organized labor helped create the American middle class. He called for shared sacrifice in Detroit, and he bet big on the American worker.
This administration knew labor and management could sit across the table and retool for the 21st century in a way that's good for the bottom line and for those on the assembly line.
More often than not, the history of labor-management relations in America has been the history of adapting and competing and winning. That's exactly what happened after the Obama administration stepped in to provide support to help our auto industry in 2009.
We've come an awful long way since then. Chrysler has repaid its loan six years ahead of schedule. A million auto jobs have been saved. The auto industry has created 115,000 new jobs since GM and Chrysler restructured. The industry is experiencing its strongest job growth in more than a decade. All three big automakers posted profits last quarter. And all three gained market share for the first time in 16 years.
I'm proud to co-chair the White House Council on Automotive Communities and Workers. We're now seeing the Big Three invest billions of dollars back into their American facilities. Entire auto communities have been spared. Businesses that would have closed are still open. Families who would've lost their homes kept them.
We still have more work to do to retrain workers and retool facilities to build the cars of the future, but we're on the right path.
I'm so encouraged to be here today, because labor-management partnerships have helped drive this industry's growth during our recovery. And it's the right kind of economic growth. It's the kind that shows we can compete in tomorrow's global economy without returning to the policies of yesterday. It shows that collaboration is profitable.
Ford experienced a $6.5 billion net gain last year their biggest in more than a decade. And that was without any government help. GM earned $6.2 billion last year.
American auto companies have succeeded by working with, not against, their unionized workforce. Industry succeeds when labor sits at the table with management, and ideas are shared.
I think the sentiment was captured last week by Bob King the President of UAW. Bob said: "The public is looking at us now to see if we've learned anything from the crisis or if we'll return to business as usual." He said: "Our union has learned many lessons from the crisis. The 21st century UAW views management not as the enemy, but as a partner."
This is the right approach. When labor and management play on the same team, they are unbeatable. I've seen this in my own life. Some my earliest memories were of trying to get workers and management on the same page.
My father was a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant. When I was a kid, I would sit at our kitchen table and help translate the workers' grievances from Spanish to English. They wanted safer worker conditions and livable wages and benefits.
So, when I became Labor Secretary, I had great faith in our auto workers. I know these workers care. They want their companies to succeed. And they want to be part of a winning team.
Ford understands this, too. Management knows its workforce is an enormous asset with a lot of accumulated wisdom about car-making. They know that including labor at the table creates a higher-quality product. It creates a more motivated workforce. And it sell more cars.
This year, the Ford Explorer was named 2011 North American Truck of the Year. UAW workers in Chicago were given a real voice in how the Explorer is built.
For example, when assembly line workers saw that a bracket installation process could cause paint damage, they took their concerns to the engineers. Their voices were heard by management, and changes were made. Ford put a new protective covering on the paint surface. As a result, Explorer drivers saved a lot of money in future paint repairs.
Every day, Ford management and UAW members work together on joint quality audit teams. They look at ways to reduce waste and ensure high performance. These audits saved the company $250 million last year in warranty costs. This is money that can be used by Ford to hire workers and reinvest in the company.
In Lansing, Michigan, UAW workers redesigned a turntable to make it easier and safer to install batteries in GM vehicles. In Detroit, UAW workers helped develop the assembly-build process for the Chevy Volt. When their work was finished, Motor Trend's 2011 Car of the Year rolled off the assembly line.
We've utilized the labor-management partnership model at the Department of Labor to make big strides on workplace safety. My motto as Secretary has been "good and safe jobs" for everyone. That commitment means no worker should have to risk his life for his livelihood. It means that one workplace death or one workplace injury is one too many.
Let me just give you one example of what we're doing in my department. Last Friday, OSHA renewed our strategic partnership with Ford, UAW and Automotive Components Holding along with Michigan's state OSHA. Our approach is pretty common-sense. Through open communication in a non-adversarial setting between labor and management, we can save money and lives.
We work with our partners on safety training, leadership engagement and compliance monitoring. Our safety agreement covers 25 Ford facilities, and the results speak for themselves. In the last decade, Ford and UAW reduced occupational injuries and illness by 74 percent at participating plants. And they reduced the number of days that workers must take off to recover from incidents by 88 percent. That's what I call a win-win for workers and employers.
I appreciate the work LERA is doing to help labor and management work together across a range of industries. I was reminded of how far we've come when I traveled to Memphis last weekend.
I went to Tennessee to honor the sanitation workers who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in his final campaign for justice. It's an incredible story.
More than 1,300 Memphis workers went on strike back in 1968 because they didn't have a voice at the table. The strike started when two sanitation workers were crushed to death in a garbage packer. These workers had no voice in creating a safer workplace. If they were hurt on the job and couldn't work, they could be fired. They finally said, "Enough is enough."
Their fight for collective bargaining rights brought Dr. King to Memphis. America lost one of its great civil rights leaders in Tennessee. But after a 63-day peaceful protest, the workers finally got their union. It was a turning point in the fight for civil rights and workplace justice. Other public-sector workers across the South soon began to unionize.
Forty-three years later, these hard-won rights are in jeopardy. Collective bargaining is again being threatened in cities and states across the country. That's why the work at LERA matters.
You've all heard me say that workers want and need a voice at the table. Well, I'm committed to telling the story of good things that happen when they have that seat.
Yesterday on the National Mall, we hosted an incredible apprenticeship event. We highlighted 100 years of labor and management coming together to give workers critical skills training. Working together, labor and management have leveraged more than $700 million from the private sector in state-of-the-art worker training.
This means workers get more opportunities to find jobs and perform them well, and it means that employers get the highly skilled workforce they need to compete. It's a win-win.
So I'll close by saying this: LERA, the alliances you're nurturing give me great hope. You've shown that labor still has a vital place at the table. You've shown that we are stronger when we work together. And you've offered a roadmap for sustainable 21st century economic growth that doesn't leave the American worker behind.
On behalf of this administration, I wanted to come here today to say "thank you." Please, keep up the great work.