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Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman

Remarks of
Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman
National Press Club
August 31, 2000

"The State of the American Workforce 2000:
Great Possibilities and Open Doors"

Thank you, Tonya, for your introduction and thank you for being an inspiration. I remember so well when I first met Tonya three years ago at the Cleveland Job Works program. I asked Tonya how do you spend your day. She said, "Most of the time I'm sitting there looking at myself in the mirror at home, talking to myself and saying 'you can do this, you can do this' but I haven't yet found the courage to go out and believe that I can." Well, here you are three years later. We're very proud of you. God bless you.

Every year, just before Labor Day, the Secretary of Labor reports on the state of the American workforce. It is my honor to do so again on this - the first Labor Day of the 21st century. A few years ago, The Washington Post wrote: "For the Labor Secretary, Labor Day is not a holiday so much as a patron saint festival."

Well, if that's true, then I can't think of any better place to give my annual state of the American workforce speech than here at the National Press Club. Eric Severeid famously once said of this place: "It's the Westminster Hall, it's Delphi, it's Mecca, the wailing wall for everybody in this country having anything to do with the news business." He said, "it's the only hallowed place I know of that's absolutely bursting with irreverence."

It sounds like every day here is a patron saint festival.

I'll give you a chance to burst with irreverence during the question-answer session. But first I want to update you on the condition of working people in America today -- and describe how we came to this moment. Then, since this is my last Labor Day address as a member of President Clinton's cabinet, I want to talk about the future - about where we need to go to ensure that this growing economy in fact continues to lift all of our people.

So let me begin.

Ladies and gentlemen, with immense satisfaction, deep pride, and even a little awe, I am delighted to report that on Labor Day 2000, the state of the American workforce is prosperous, strong, and it is facing the future with confidence.

We knew economies could be good - but we didn't know it could be quite this good. We knew economies could break records - but we didn't know they could literally rewrite the entire record book. Today, in many ways, we are living in a "Tiger Woods economy".

Indeed, the statistics are breathtaking.

We are now in month 113 of the longest and strongest economic boom in American history.

Since President Clinton and Vice President Gore took office, the great American jobs machine has created 22 million new jobs.

This year unemployment reached its lowest rate in 30 years. Unemployment among women hit its lowest in more than 45 years. And the unemployment rate for Hispanic and African-American workers is the lowest ever since the Department of Labor began keeping the records.

Wages for most working Americans - and not just those at the top - have begun to increase. Family incomes are climbing. And the poverty rate is falling. We have the lowest poverty rate in nearly 20 years - and the lowest poverty rate for single mothers ever recorded.

Today, the percentage of Americans on welfare is the lowest in more than 30 years. Hardworking Americans like Tonya are a national treasure, which is why I've made welfare-to-work one of my top priorities.

Make no mistake: This is the people's prosperity . . . this is the people's progress. It is their sweat, it is their toil, and it is their tears that have taken this nation to new heights of possibility.

What makes it even more remarkable is that just a few short years ago, so many said it couldn't be done. But they made a big mistake. They underestimated both the willingness of this administration to make tough choices and they underestimated the will of the American people to do great things.

For example, when President Clinton and a bipartisan majority in Congress raised the minimum wage in 1996, some called it "a job killer cloaked in kindness."

They said that giving two fifty-cent raises to people struggling to gain a foothold in the world of work would trigger "a juvenile crime wave of epic proportions." Well, four years later, that job killer turned out to be a myth. We added over 11 million jobs since the first minimum wage increase in October of 1996. And--by the way--the crime rate has been going down for eight years running.

On the budget deficits, too, they said it couldn't be done: that we were stuck with our towering debt, that we might as well get used to it - and that any action would only make matters worse. Here are some of their predictions. These are direct quotes, but I won't name names - to protect the guilty: "We are buying a one-way ticket to recession." "This plan will not work." "This does nothing, absolutely nothing, to reduce the huge budget deficits that we have had."

What happened? Well, the naysayers were partly right. We didn't reduce the deficit. We eliminated it. The administration that inherited the largest budget deficit in history will now bequeath to our successors the largest budget surplus in history. And if we continue to do things right, we can eliminate the national debt for the first time since before the Civil War. Working families don't want to squander this moment with deep tax cuts for Americans who don't need the help.

Some people also said the sky would fall if we passed the Family and Medical Leave Act. President Clinton's predecessor vetoed it. And many predicted that allowing workers time off - unpaid - to care for their baby or tend to an ailing parent - would wipe out jobs. Again, they were wrong. During the period when millions of Americans took family and medical leave, the sky didn't fall. But unemployment did. Family and medical leave didn't cost jobs. It saved jobs - and it strengthened families.

Now, no single political party or institution had a monopoly on bad predictions. There were others marching in this parade of pessimism. Even the media - which, by the way, is usually infallible - they, too, had some misgivings.

For example, few in the press believed that the unemployment rate could fall as low as it has without reigniting inflation. Many said that if unemployment dropped below 6 percent - or possibly 5.5 percent - inflation would awaken.

In the spring of 1994, when the unemployment rate was 6.4 percent, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the U.S. was "closer to the danger point than it has been in years."

6.4 percent. Close to the danger point.

Well, tomorrow, as on the first Friday of every month, I'll announce the nation's unemployment rate - this time for August. Let me tell you the unemployment rates that I have announced for the last 15 months: 4.2 . . 4.3 . . . 4.3 . . . 4.2 . . . 4.2 . . .4.1 . . . 4.1 . . . 4.1 . . . 4.0 . . .. 4.1 . . . 4.1 . . . 3.9 . . . 4.1 . . 4.0 . . . 4.0.

People tell me I'm starting to sound a little bit like those old East German Olympic diving judges who refused to give American divers a 5.

The unemployment rate has been below 6 percent for nearly six years. Every month for the last three years, the unemployment rate I've announced has begun with the number 4. And still, there are few signs of inflationary pressures on our economy.

What we may be learning about this new economy is that it differs from the old economy in yet another important respect. It's not a zero-sum game of inevitable trade-offs - in which one person's loss is another person's gain. It may well be a virtuous circle of progress - in which one person's success actually enhances another person's success - an economy in which we each do better if we all do better.

One example of doing better together is the agreement that the Communications Workers and Verizon worked out last week.

The two sides agreed to limit the number of mandatory overtime hours for covered workers. They came up with an arrangement that lets the employer meet its needs to stay competitive in the new economy, but at the same time assures that workers don't have to sacrifice their family needs to meet the requirements of the job.

Now, let's be honest here. Collective bargaining isn't very pretty or easy. Sometimes we'll have strikes.

But this strike was settled the right way - with the two sides sitting down in tough negotiations and coming up with a resolution that may offer a path into the new economy.

This innovative solution, this coming together, is another reason why, in our new economy, predictions of gloom and doom aren't just wrong. They're dangerous. It comes down to this: When we expect more, we achieve more. And as your Labor Secretary, I've seen the power of heightened expectations to turn dashed hopes into big dreams. Let me give you two specific examples.

John Grier is an elevator starter and a member of SEIU Local 32BJ in New York City. Under the collective bargaining agreement between his union on the New York Real Estate Advisory Board, John received computer training and a personal computer. Now he can earn a better living and get those high tech skills that are going to be needed in the new economy . And he can make the increasingly computerized building where he works safer and more hospitable for its tenants. John is a living embodiment of why I've focused national attention on technology and technology training. He's one elevator starter who is truly reaching new heights. John's here today. John, I want you to stand and be recognized.

John is an example of why we must all understand that it is never too late to get the skills we need for the economy today.

Expecting more and achieving more is the moral of the story and is why we launched the Youth Opportunity Movement at the Department of Labor - we call it simply YO! - because this is our opportunity to invest in our young people to give them better opportunity, to give them a better future.

Chemika Brown is one of our new youth participants in Detroit and, like many trapped in the inner city, she got on the wrong path. But now she has turned her life around. She became a youth recruiter, earned her GED, even bought a car. Now she's enrolled at Wayne County Community College. I'm looking forward to spending some time with her on Labor Day in the Motor City.

Expect more. Achieve more.

It's against this backdrop of rising prosperity and climbing expectations that we will make serious choices this year. Finding--and keeping--that balance is our national challenge.

Each day, new technologies obliterate old truths. Surging change swells anxiety. But warding off change drowns opportunity. We can't let people simply fend for themselves and give a prize to the last one standing. Nor can we keep them penned up and monitor every step they take. To borrow from this summer's popular TV shows, our policies must fall somewhere between the extremes of"Survivor" and "Big Brother."

Honest, hard-working families understand this. And countless times, they've told me what they need to make their own way in the new economy.

Working families know that the link between brainpower and earning power is tighter than ever. So they need a little help paying for new learning - they need targeted tax cuts for college and job training, for example. I have often said that even with the tight labor markets we have today, we don't have a worker shortage in this country, but we do have a skills shortage. It is important that we make this distinction. While technology has been driving our productivity . . . to spectacular levels . . . it's the investment in our people that will cement permanent gains in our standard of living. The key to this is making lifelong learning and developing skills a lifelong pursuit and a national priority.

When I talk to working families around the country, one subject comes up again and again: health insurance. For some, the cost is too high. For others, the quality is too low. They tell me that they want to level the playing field with the big HMO's, and get access to emergency care and to specialists. They want medical decisions to be made by doctors, not accountants. My husband is here with me and he's a family physician. Recently he told me a story about a patient, a man who came to see him at the office, and he diagnosed the patient as having a heart attack and admitted him to the hospital. He was in the hospital for more than a week. Fortunately, he recovered. But that's not the end of the story or the end of his pain. His HMO refused to pay the hospital the $20,000 medical bill because he did not personally call to clear his admittance within 72 hours. The fact that he was in intensive care and in nearly a semi-conscious state seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.

This is why in our country today we need a strong and enforceable Patients' Bill of Rights. Our working families deserve this and our nation owes it to them.

As we talk about the choices that are on the landscape today, earlier I mentioned the minimum wage. Even though we raised it four years ago, adjusted for inflation, it's still 25 percent lower than it was in 1979. Someone who works full-time, year-round, at the minimum wage earns less than $11,000 a year - that's below the poverty line for a family of three in this country. Anyone who works full-time in this country should not have to live in poverty. Raising the minimum wage will raise the hopes -- and the pay -- of millions of hardworking Americans and allow families in our country to live out their lives in dignity.

I was heartened by Speaker Hastert's announcement the other day that he believes there is room to get this done before Congress adjourns. It is important to give the lowest paid workers in our country a raise, but I hope, as we begin these negotiations that we recognize that taking overtime pay from millions of other workers is not the way to raise the minimum wage. I can think of no better Labor Day gift for America's working families than to make a commitment that we will get this done this year.

Equal opportunity and equal justice, working families tell me, also means taking a new approach to our newly diverse society. We shouldn't tolerate diversity. We should cherish it, embrace it.

Workers in the 21st century will look different. And work will be different. By 2050, one in two workers in America will be a person of color. We'll have more women, more people with disabilities, more older workers. And yet there are some in this country who will still decry affirmative action, debase those who speak a different language, and deny others their rightful place in our American family. Those attitudes are venom in the American bloodstream. But here's the antidote: respect for all, a deep belief in our common dignity, and new laws to stop hate crimes and prohibit all forms of employment discrimination.

Opening the doors wider in the 21st century means that our rhetoric must match our reality. And that our values are not for putting on a stage, our values are for putting into action.

If we truly believe in the value of opportunity, then we must pass the minimum wage.

If we truly believe in the value of democracy, than we must protect the fundamental rights of workers around the globe. We cannot talk about free trade without talking about fair trade. We must put the issue of worker rights first on our economic and global agenda. Because globalization cannot be a race to the bottom. It must be a race to the top.

And if we truly believe in the value of basic human dignity, than we must always respect and protect a fundamental right in American law and life: the right to organize and bargain collectively.

I find it odd, really . . . in this time of tremendous change, in this era of unlimited opportunity, in this age of the PC, the iMac, and the Internet . . . it seems like some people's computers have only three keys: shift . . . backspace . . . and return.

This year, the American people have a choice between two very different philosophies, two very different directions, and two very different visions of how we can prosper in the new economy. Will we continue going forward? Or will we begin to creep back? Will we bring everyone along? Or will we abandon some by the side of the road?

Will we squander the surplus, roll back protections for workers, allow the income and technology gaps to widen? Or will we invest wisely, protect compassionately, and build bridges instead of walls?

Perhaps most fundamentally, will we have high hopes for America and big expectations for all her citizens? As we move forward, will we honor the values that built our nation? Or will we declare that good enough is good enough, that some people just can't make it, and that big dreams inevitably end in bigger disappointment?

My friends, the answer is easy. Because the answer is here in this room: the remarkable life of Tonya Phillips, my friend, my mentee, and an inspiration to all of us. Tonya once said that moving from welfare to work allowed her to see the big picture. The days aren't always easy, she said. There are still more doors to enter. But she says that today for the first time in her life, "There are great possibilities before me and those doors will open."

Great possibilities and open doors. That's what it's all about.

I've always believed that work serves a purpose larger than a paycheck - that it's not simply a source of income, but a source of dignity. The Psalms tell us, "Sustain me according to your promise, and I will live; do not let my hopes be dashed." We cannot dash the hopes of working people like Tonya - not through misguided policies, not through outright neglect, and not through low expectations. The best way to put everyone on the high road is to close off the low road.

So, in a sense maybe Labor Day is a patron saint festival. We often give too much credit to important public figures - and too little credit to the people who really make our economy go. Quietly, passionately, and sometimes invisibly, they do America's work: The men and women who build the jets and fix the computers and sweep the floors. The firefighters who race into burning buildings, the police officers who patrol our streets, the teachers who help America's 21st century workforce learn how to write an essay or do long division. And the dedicated souls who watch other people's children, or spoon medicine across the lips of the ailing, or who do the Lord's work simply by having a conversation with an elderly woman in a nursing home. These are the saints of Labor Day.

Over the next few months, we'll hear a lot about honor and dignity. Well, I've seen honor and dignity. I've seen it in coal mines and in classrooms, in office suites and garages. On construction sites and in factories. I have seen it in workplaces all across the country.

I've seen it so deeply, so profoundly, it will be with me the rest of my life. It has amazed and humbled me. For those working Americans we must, in Tonya's lovely words, make the 21st century a time of great possibilities and open doors.

Thank you very much. And to each and every one of you: I wish you a safe, prosperous and a very happy Labor Day.

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