Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis
The Faith & Politics Institute
St. Joseph's Breakfast
Phoenix Park Hotel
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Thank you, Rich, for that introduction and for the AFL-CIO's commitment to creating an inclusive labor movement, and thanks to Father Kiley and Rabbi Sapperstein for your spiritual leadership. I also want to acknowledge Christine of UNITE Here for her inspirational artwork. In the face of adversity, you responded by moving us with these powerful and provocative images. Thank you.
I also want to recognize our many labor leaders here today for everything you've done and will do to protect the rights of all working men and women. Finally, I want to recognize Senator Harkin, our co-hosts, Congressmen Pascrell and Lobiondo, and the entire Congressional Advisory Board of the Faith & Politics Institute for working to bring Republicans and Democrats together.
Don't believe the cynics when they say that bipartisanship is not possible, because we know they're wrong. Your work has never been more urgent, and it can make a difference.
We saw it just last week in two votes to protect the rights of workers on military construction projects. With bipartisan support, the House voted to preserve Davis Bacon protections so prevailing wages are paid to our construction workers. And they voted to preserve the use of project labor agreements, so large projects get completed more efficiently, while protecting the health and safety of our builders.
I was delighted to learn that this year's breakfast is focused on the contributions of immigrant workers. Last year, I joined Rich at a special symposium to celebrate the great victory in welcoming 15,000 New York City taxi workers into the AFL-CIO. Many of these workers are immigrants, and if you strike up a conversation with one, you'll learn that they have fascinating stories to tell of escaping persecution and poverty in their native country.
We've all relied on them to keep us safe on the busy streets of Manhattan, but we have an obligation to keep them safe, too. Did you know that cab drivers are more than 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than any other workers? That's a truly chilling statistic. On top of that, New York City taxi workers have seen their wages fall by 25 percent over the last six years. That's why it's so important to have the AFL-CIO fighting to give them a voice and helping them get a fair deal with the city and the fleet owners.
I'm proud to report that OSHA is doing its part as well by advocating so more taxi workers can get the protections they deserve. I'm talking about things like security cameras, car alarms, GPS, and bullet-proof partitions, which have reduced attacks on taxi workers nationwide by 88 percent. This is just one example of how the labor movement and the Labor Department can work together to be a voice of all working people from all walks of life.
I've said it many times: There is dignity in all work, and all working people in this country, no matter where they were born, have a right to be treated with respect. That means a lawful wage and safe working conditions.
One of my most vivid memories as a lawmaker was the fight to help Thai garment workers who were held in virtual slavery in El Monte, California. I recall seeing a green INS bus in town, thinking this must be an illegal worksite. I'll never forget that moment. I'll never forget the brutal treatment those workers had to endure, some for more than 7 years. There was actually barbed wire to keep people from escaping the compound.
I'll never forget the wage theft, the sexual assaults and the fear those 72 Thai women lived with every day. It opened my eyes to the sweatshop conditions that still exist in America today. Today, it is organized labor that's stepping up to make sure this nation knows that sweatshops are not a relic of the past. Good businesses that play by the rules and treat their workers well shouldn't have to compete against companies that break the law to turn a bigger profit.
Leviticus teaches that "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong." These are words we should all live by.
I've been involved in the labor movement since I was a young girl. The rights I'm fighting for today are the rights my Dad fought for as a Teamsters shop steward. I grew up in a home where both of my parents were union members. My father grew up in Mexico and my mother is Nicaraguan. They taught me the value of a hard day's work. My father taught me about the difference unions can make in the lives of workers.
As a ninth grader, I sat at our kitchen table and helped Dad translate the workers' grievances from Spanish to English. Their pay was meager. The work was dirty. The conditions were unsafe. It wasn't fair. They taught me that injustices in the workplace exist and that workers need a voice on the job.
I believe in my agency's mission. I believe in safeguarding workers' rights and advancing job opportunities for all Americans. So today, with humility and gratitude, I am proud to accept this award.
I accept it on behalf of the millions of immigrant workers in America who are working so hard every day to give their families a better life. I accept it on behalf of trailblazers like Dolores Huerta, César Chávez and all of the pioneers of the farm worker movement. We recently inducted the pioneers into the Labor Hall of Honor in honor of the 50th anniversary of the United Farm Workers this year. What an incredible legacy of change we owe to the UFW!
My father was a Bracero. He worked on the land, and I know he was inspired by this movement and the advances they made for so many migrant workers. That ceremony was such a special day for me—one that I'll never forget.
We also recently inducted two other labor leaders into our Hall of Honor who fought for the rights of all workers. One was Addie Wyatt of the UFCW. She worked her whole life to integrate the labor movement and make sure that African-Americans had a seat at the table. The other was Mark Ayers of the Building Trades. He passionately made the case that in diversity lies strength.
As long as I'm the Labor Secretary, we'll continue this struggle together and honor their sacrifices. My Wage and Hour Division will continue to reach out to workers in their native language, and we'll continue to recover millions of dollars in back wages for vulnerable workers whose rights have been violated.
So let me close today by thanking each and every one of you for fighting for the most vulnerable workers, and for honoring the lesson of Matthew 25:35 and the words we know so well: "For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
Thank you, my friends, for doing the Lord's work. Together, we shall continue to strive to make this nation all that it can and should be.