Skip to page content
Office of the Secretary
Bookmark and Share

The Honorable Alexis M. Herman

United Auto Workers

June 22, 1998

Thank you Steve Yokich for your introduction, your leadership and your unwavering commitment to America’s workers. I also want to thank and acknowledge Secretary Treasurer Roy Wise and Vice Presidents Ernie Lofton and Carolyn Forest who are all retiring after decades of service and achievement to the UAW. We wish you all the best.

Let me just say, it’s great to be in Las Vegas--the hottest union city in the country. And it’s great to be with the UAW--because you literally keep America on the move.

You know, on my flight here this morning, I was thinking about the work and the history of the UAW--and I couldn’t help but recall a story that my friend former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall once told me. Ray was my old boss at the Labor Department when I worked there 20 years ago.

And as Secretary he would often visit our nation’s schools to talk with students about their education and its relationship to work. Well, one day while visiting a school, a young girl ran up to Secretary Marshall--and she could hardly contain her excitement. She said: “Mr. Secretary, I want you to know I’ve been elected ?Labor Secretary’ of my 4th grade class.”

Secretary Marshall said: “Well, what do you do?” And she said: “Well...I wash the blackboard. I clean the erasers. I pick up all the mess. And on Fridays, everything that’s in the wrong place, I put back in the right place.”

Then she said: “Mr. Secretary, what do you do?” And he just looked at her and said: “That pretty much describes it.”

The fact is, for over 60 years, the UAW has fought to put things in the right place--and keep our nation on the right track. You not only build the best cars in the world, you have kept America’s engine of economic and social justice running strong.

And you’ve helped move our country further down the road of progress and dignity for working families.

From the struggle to form the UAW in the your calls for equal pay for equal work in the marching for civil rights in the 50s and 60s...the UAW has led the way.

It was the UAW that worked to protect pensions and win the passage of ERISA in the 1970s--remembering the words of Walter Reuther who said we must remember those who were “too old to work and too young to die”.

The UAW made sure in the 1980s that workers had advance notification of plant closings. And I especially want to thank you for all we’ve achieved together inh the 90s under the leadership of President Clinton.

Family and Medical Leave. The minimum wage. Lower taxes for working families. The largest boost in education and children’s health care in over a generation. The American people have it because you fought for it.

Quite simply, the history of the UAW is the history of American progress and social justice in the 20th century--and you should be very proud of that.

We know that change never comes easy. Almost 40 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a UAW Convention like this and said “Social progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. Men and women all over the nation must work for it.”

And that’s why all of you are here at this Constitutional Convention. To work for social progress and to chart a course to a new century.

I can tell you that as I travel our country as your Labor Secretary, I am reminded time and again of how vital the labor movement is to people’s lives and their hopes for a better future.

And as we face that future together, this Administration will continue to stand up and say: We are proud.

We are proud to wear the pro-worker, pro-family, pro-union label.

And it’s no accident that our Administration has a pro-labor record while our country has a record strong economy. Because the two go hand in hand.

Our economy is the healthiest in a generation. Unemployment is at a 28 year low. Inflation is at a 30 year low. Over 16 million jobs have been created since President Clinton took office. After nearly a decade of decline, we have over 150,000 new auto jobs. America’s auto industry is number one-- and our budget deficit is zero. That’s not a bad deal.

But you and I know these numbers hide another truth. Because too many families are not part of that prosperity. Too many Americans are getting left behind--young people in our inner cities and rural communities...those struggling to reach the next rung on the ladder of opportunity...families working full-time but living paycheck to paycheck. And we know prosperity that is not broadly shared is false prosperity.

I am proud that our national unemployment rate is 4.3%. But it’s not 4.3 % in far too many of our neighborhoods and communities.

And, of course, the challenge is not just about getting jobs. We need to lift wages. We need to close the gap between rich and poor. We need to grow together.

This is a time of opportunity--but it’s also a time of challenge. Look at what’s happening all around us. Our workforce is literally changing before our eyes. We are becoming more skilled and more diverse than ever before.

Our workplace is also changing. We are becoming more global. Technology is a growing part of our lives--at work and at home.

Times like these are not times to rest. As the President has said, these are times to build. And all of us in this room know that in order to build you need a strong foundation.

And, to me, the labor movement has always been about keeping the foundation of American values strong as we build America’s future. That’s the legacy of the labor movement.

Leading the way, giving voice to the values that define who we are, the values that built the American middle class.

Because you know that our world changes. Our work changes. Times change. But values don’t.

So the work we do and the fights we wage are not about protecting laws-- they really are about protecting values.

What do I mean by that?

We as Americans believe in the value of responsibility and that means the right to a safe workplace. That’s why together, we’ve fought for a strong OSHA--one that can do its job by protecting workers in theirs.

I’m proud that last year was the safest on record in the American workplace. But one worker killed or injured on the job is one too many.

And that’s why I can assure you that the President, the Vice-President, and your Secretary of Labor will fight to protect OSHA as it protects America’s workers. Our bottom line is this: No worker should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood.

So when you go back home, you can tell your union brothers and sisters: Legislation to weaken OSHA may pass Congress--but it won’t pass the President’s desk.

That’s what we mean by responsibility.

We as Americans believe in the value of free speech. We were proud to stand with you in California to defend the rights of union members to participate in the political process.

Working together, we now have defeated the so-called Paycheck Protection Act in the House, in the Senate, and on the ballot in California. Because we know it is simple. A bill that purports to protect your paycheck at the cost of your freedom to speak is no bargain at all.

We as Americans believe in the value of democracy--and that democracy doesn’t end when you start the workday.

When it comes to firing or refusing to hire union organizers--the so-called salting issue--some people are trying to say that it’s OK to punish a worker for exercising a fundamental democratic right. They are wrong.

Let’s talk straight. The issue here really isn’t salting in the workplace, it’s assaulting worker rights. No worker in this country should be forced to choose between their union and their job.

Freedom of association is a fundamental American right and it is the backbone of the labor movement.

I remember my own tutelage at the hands of my mentor a great labor leader A. Phillip Randolph. It was Randolph who said “At the banquet table of life there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take and you take what you can hold. And you can’t hold anything without power. And power comes from organization.”

And that is, my friends, I stand here to say to simply and with no reservation: I will always protect and always respect the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Period.

And let me just say I know that strikes are never easy. Layoffs aren’t easy. And as your Secretary of Labor, I can tell you, I am concerned for workers, concerned for families, concerned for communities.

But I am also confident. Confident in our nation’s collective bargaining process--and confident in your 60-year tradition of resolving differences at the table. That’s your history. And as long as the collective bargaining process is working--I am confident that workers at GM will be, too. That is the American way.

That is why we as Americans also believe in the value of competition. That competition must be fair.

And rest assured that as Labor Secretary I will not shrink from the fight to see that the rights of American workers--and those around the world--are protected...that they can form unions, and that discrimination, forced labor and intolerable child labor are abolished once and for all.

We as Americans believe in the value of justice. It is very basic. If you work full-time, you shouldn’t live in poverty. Everyone should have a fair shot and a fair share in our nation’s prosperity. And that’s why we need to reward work and raise the minimum wage.

But it’s not just wages, it’s benefits. So we must keep up the fight you helped lead on health care. That is why the President now is calling for a Consumer Bill of Rights. Because all Americans should have the information they need about quality of care. No American should be denied emergency room care. And no American should fear losing health care when they need it the most.

Lastly, we as Americans believe in the value of opportunity. We have to make sure that when any American shows up to work--they have the opportunity to compete.

That they don’t face barriers because of their gender or their race.

You know, I’ve spoken at a number of commencements this spring. And I tell the story about when I graduated from college. I remember being turned down for job after job sometimes because I was a woman...sometimes because I was black.

One employer in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama looked at me and said: “Ms. Herman, you can be a clerk. You can be a typist. Perhaps you can be a secretary.”

Well, Steve, I often wonder where that employer is today because I would like to be able to turn to him and say: “Sir, I did become a Secretary”.

That was some time ago. But the point is this. We still have work to do when it comes to lowering the barriers, opening the doors, and leveling the playing field for all Americans.

And the labor movement knows the doors of opportunity--the doors to better jobs and higher pay--are through education and training. Through lifelong learning and skills development.

Higher skills lead to higher productivity to better jobs, higher profits, and higher pay.

That’s why the President has made education and training pillars of his economic policy. That’s why we are working hard to cut class sizes in America’s put 100,000 new teachers to make college more affordable for working families...and to pass the President’s GI Bill for America’s Workers.

Now, I know I don’t need to tell you about the importance of education and training to getting the good jobs of today and tomorrow. But history shows something else. And I will end on this note.

Unions are key to ensuring the average worker not only has access to training, but access to rewards. Unions raise pay. Unions increase benefits. Unions keep workers safe. Unions help make sure more workers can share in our nation’s prosperity. Unions improve the lives not just of organized labor, but for all who labor.

So as I conclude, let me thank the UAW for keeping America’s engine revved up and running. Thank you for taking our nation down the higher road.

This is a time of challenge. But it’s also a time of tremendous opportunity. And I know that if we keep hold of our values, we will take hold of the future.

And I am confident that with your vision, your vigor and your values, the UAW will do in the next century, what you have done throughout this one: You will keep America moving.

Thank you and God bless you for all you do.