Skip to page content
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
Bookmark and Share

Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris

Prepared Remarks
Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris,
International Association of Firefighters (IAFF)
2013 Alfred K. Whitehead Legislative Conference
Washington, DC
March 18, 2013

This video will begin shortly


Good morning, friends! Since St. Patrick's Day ended just a few hours ago, I'll try to keep my voice down. I don't want to aggravate your hangover or mine.

With the important holiday yesterday and the start of March Madness, even the acting Secretary of Labor has to accept that today probably won't be the most productive work day of the year.

Thank you so much for this opportunity to visit with you.

Thank you, Harold, for that generous introduction... but much more importantly for your decades of extraordinary service to the 300,000 men and women of this union and to working families everywhere. For all of the challenges facing the labor movement, the International Association of Fire Fighters has continued to grow every quarter for the last two decades. That says something about the leadership of Harold Schaitberger, Tom Miller, your local and regional leadership, and everyone in this room.

I know a little something about what it means to fight for working families. Almost 30 years ago, when I was a young man with a lot more hair, I worked in Houston as a field representative for your brothers and sisters in the Seafarers International Union. I worked directly with our members, helping them to navigate bureaucracies and representing them in disputes over Social Security disability benefits. Those members gave me an education that is more valuable than you could get by reading one hundred textbooks.

That experience inspired me to devote my career to the cause we all believe in and the values we all share — the simple idea that American families should be able to get good jobs, get paid a living wage, have a voice in their workplaces, and arrive home safe and healthy after their jobs are done.

Those are the values that animate my work and the work of my 17,000 colleagues at the U.S. Department of Labor every day. We are your allies in the effort to build a strong middle class and to keep open multiple pathways into the middle class.

Just one example was the Wage and Hour Division's decision, early in the Obama Administration, to ensure the proper interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act so that all firefighting personnel — including front-line supervisors, lieutenants and captains — enjoyed overtime and fair wage protections. We should all be able to agree that the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect their neighbors and their communities must receive a fair day's pay for an honest day's work.

Jobs Report: Good News/Bad News

President Obama shares our commitment to the cause of growing our economy from the middle class out, rather than from the top down. In his State of the Union address last month, the President laid out his vision for the American economy: an economic recovery powered by a growing middle class with rising wages and more job opportunities. And he knows a thriving middle class depends upon a robust labor movement and public servants who provide essential services that make middle-class life in America possible.

Here's the good news: thanks to President Obama's leadership and the resilience of the American people, the economy continues to climb out of the depths of the Great Recession. Ten days ago, my department reported that unemployment fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest it's been since December 2008. Retail sales increased 1.1 percent in February. Applications for initial unemployment benefits are low and continue to drop. Professional and business services added 73,000 jobs last month. The housing sector is bouncing back, providing a shot in the arm to construction employment, which experienced its largest one-month increase since March 2007.

In all, the economy added 246,000 private sector jobs in February — that makes for three uninterrupted years of employment growth and a total of 6.4 million private jobs created over that time.

The bad news is that shrinking public sector employment continues to be a drag on the economy — 10,000 jobs lost in February and more than 742,000 lost since June 2009. Previous recoveries have been marked by a rebound in government jobs, even when anti-government conservatives have controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. But we're not seeing it this time. Public sector employment hasn't been this low in more than 30 years.

The great majority of the public-sector job losses have been at the local level. That means fewer cops, fewer teachers, fewer EMTs and, yes, fewer firefighters.

And here's the thing: when there are fewer firefighters, that doesn't mean there are fewer fires. When there are fewer EMTs, that doesn't mean there are fewer 911 calls. Just as fewer teachers doesn't mean fewer children who desperately need a high-quality public education, and fewer cops doesn't mean fewer streets to patrol.

The demand for public services doesn't diminish when the number of public employees is reduced. So what does that mean? It means you and your members are all working harder than ever, with fewer resources, less leverage, less control over your economic destiny.

Together, we are fighting to stem this tide. The President and your close friend Vice President Biden fought for the American Jobs Act that would have restored funding for local cops, firefighters, EMTs, and teachers. Because they know that more investment in more localities for more public services makes for a strong America and a strong middle class. Because they know that public sector employees are the heartbeat of communities nationwide.

The Assault on Public Employee Unions

The problem is that many in Congress and in statehouses around the country, to put it mildly, don't exactly agree. We're facing ideological contempt for public employees and public employee unions that is unprecedented in its dishonesty and ferocity. Lawmakers and elected officials from coast to coast have decided to scapegoat public employees for their own failures to properly manage state and local fiscal challenges.

How many of you heard this one that was making the rounds a few years ago? A unionized public employee, a small-government conservative, and a CEO are sitting around a table with a plate that has a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches across and takes 11 cookies, looks at the conservative and says: "Watch out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie."

It's really unfathomable how many pundits and professional political hatchetmen looked around and somehow decided it wasn't reckless Wall Street shenanigans that crashed our economy under President Bush. Instead, they tell us, it was dedicated public servants barely getting by on middle-class wages. Have any of you ever met a firefighter who got a multi-million dollar bonus? They're as common as unicorns being ridden by leprechauns with angels sitting on their shoulders.

If the financial sector was too big to fail... then I think America's firefighters' courage is too big for us to fail them.

Let's be clear: this is not a question of you being asked to give a little more. This isn't about deferring a wage increase here, or upping your contribution to the pension plan there. We all know many of you have had to offer concessions at the bargaining table on occasion to share the sacrifice demanded by tough financial times like these.

That's not going to be enough for those who've singled you out. They want to tear apart that bargaining table until it's a pile of firewood. Their goal isn't to give you a little haircut; their goal is to cut off your head. Their goal, through a campaign of denigration, distortion and demonization, is to destroy public employee unions as we know them, to eliminate them as a force in American life.

Over the last few years, you have withstood a withering assault, standing up for collective bargaining rights that a majority of Americans support. When the Governor of Wisconsin tried to divide and conquer, the Firefighters were clear: an injury to one is an injury to all. When the issue was put to the people of Ohio, they rendered a clear verdict: workers deserve a seat at the table, not a kick in the butt.

We stand with you on this. President Obama has made clear that unions are part of the solution to our economic challenges, not part of the problem. If we're going to have growth and widely-shared prosperity, then workers have to have a voice.

Collective bargaining is responsible for so many advances in workers' rights over generations — higher wages, guaranteed pensions, reliable health benefits, safe workplaces, fair leave policies and more. But just as important, collective bargaining lets us solve workplace problems when they arise and right in the workplace. I would rather have a firefighter and his shop steward sit down with a manager to work things out than rely on politicians in a statehouse or a governor's mansion to fix what's wrong in a firehouse.

Sequestration: A Butcher's Cleaver

I wish I could say that the fiscal decisions being made in Washington are saner than what you're seeing on the state level, but sadly that's not the case.

I know that IAFF just celebrated 95 years of standing up for firefighters and the communities they serve. At the Department of Labor, we're having a birthday too — 100 years ago this month, we first opened our doors. And to mark the occasion, Congress sent us a present to both of us — it's called "sequestration."

Isn't that a great word that only Washington could come up with? I'm guessing you don't hear it very much back home, unless you have a friend who was stuck on a jury in a criminal trial for several days and thrown into a conference room with lousy food and no TV.

Let's call sequestration what it really is: another obstacle in the path of our economic recovery and the President's efforts to strengthen and expand the middle class. Instead of setting priorities and compelling lawmakers to make intelligent and responsible decisions, it imposes automatic, arbitrary, across-the-board cuts throughout the federal government. When the task called for a scalpel, Congress took out its butcher's cleaver.

I don't think about this so much in terms of line-items and dollar figures in the Labor Department's budget. I measure the impact in terms of the people we won't be able to help — the people who won't get the job training and job placement services they need; the long-term unemployed who won't get the same level of unemployment benefits they need to weather tough times.

And because there may be fewer resources available for grant programs like SAFER and FIRE that are so important to you... the impact will be felt in less training, fewer personnel, inadequate equipment and reduced safety at firehouses across the country.

Is this any way to get our fiscal house in order? The President has offered a balanced deficit reduction plan that asks the wealthy to do their fair share and proposes a serious effort at entitlement reform, but without cutting the services middle-class families need. But instead, one side in Congress is choosing to further undermine public safety and economic security... because they don't want to close tax loopholes that contribute nothing to growth, because they don't want to ask millionaires and billionaires and the largest and wealthiest corporations to pay a little more.

This is the wrong path for the middle class. It's the wrong path for the economy. It's the wrong path for the nation. And when you visit Capitol Hill on Wednesday, I hope you'll tell your members of Congress exactly that.

Conclusion: A Debt of Gratitude

Like you, I'm a government employee working for a public entity committed to serving the people. And at the U.S. Department of Labor, when people call us for help — whether it's about unemployment compensation or filing a worker's comp claim or a workplace safety issue — I can assure you it's a pretty urgent matter.

But when you get the call for help in your town and communities, it's a matter of life and death.

So to everyone in this room: I want to say: thank you. Thank you for your selflessness and your sacrifice. Thank you for the awe-inspiring responsibilities you embrace every day. Thank you for your fearlessness, for your willingness to stare danger in the face without blinking.

Thank you for being there when terrorists slammed planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon; for being there when Katrina devastated dozens of Gulf Coast communities; for being there when Sandy struck last October; for being there to save our forests; for being there — no questions asked, every single day — to give us security and peace of mind.

Thank you not just for being guardians of public safety, but one of the strongest threads in the fabric of our communities. Thank you for being generous neighbors and good citizens — an indelible part of our civic life in America.

The least we can do for you, after all you've done for us, is to build an economy that allows you a measure of security and a piece of the American Dream — a decent salary and benefits package; a home in which to raise your families; a nest egg for a dignified retirement.

That's what I'll continue fighting for. That's President Obama's North Star. You've never let us down; we'll do everything in our power to return the favor, to repay the debt of gratitude. Thank you once again for service.