TOPIC: Economy & Labor
July 25, 2005
AFL-CIO National Convention
you, and welcome to Chicago.
It would be naive
of me to start without acknowledging what's been on everyone's mind
during this convention. As America tries to find its way in a global
economy, we meet here at a challenging time for the labor movement.
There are questions of strategy and tactics, leadership and power.
And I can imagine that many of you are anxious not only about labor's
future, but yours. You're wondering, will I be able to leave my
children a better world than I was given? Will I be able to save
enough to send them to college or plan for a secure retirement?
Will my job even be there tomorrow? Who will stand up for me in
this new world?
In this time of
change and uncertainty, these questions are expected - but they
are by no means unique.
From the earliest
days of our founding, they have been asked and then answered by
Americans who have stood in your shoes and shared your concerns
about the future.
At the heyday
of the Industrial Revolution, millions from around the world flocked
to this very city in search of opportunity. Immigrants from Europe,
African-Americans from the Jim Crow South, and ethnic groups from
every corner of America made their home in these neighborhoods and
a living from the mills and factories that crowded a bustling Chicago.
The work was brutal
and the pay was low, but none more so than on the South Side between
Halsted and Ashland Avenue, where you could smell the stench of
the meatpacking stockyards from miles away.
in what Upton Sinclair would later call "The Jungle,"
under some of the most dangerous and oppressive conditions in America.
Twice the workers tried to organize, and twice they were ferociously
beaten back by employers willing to use violence, race-baiting,
and starvation in order to keep wages at 32 cents an hour.
But these workers
made a choice - a choice that this would not be their future. And
so in 1937, as the CIO begin organizing mass industries all across
America, meatpacking workers began to follow their lead.
Imagine - these
people would slave away in these plants all day long, freezing in
the winter and sweltering in the summer, watching coworkers get
their bones crushed in machines and friends get fired for even uttering
the word "union" - and yet after they punched their card
at the end of the day, they organized. They went to meetings and
they passed out leaflets. They put aside decades of ethnic and racial
tension and elected women, African Americans, and immigrants to
leadership positions so that they could speak with one voice.
They could have
accepted their lot in life or waited for someone else to save them.
Through their actions they risked life and living.
They chose to
In time, they
won. It started with victories as small as putting fans on the factory
floor, and ended with paid holidays, and wage increases, and a seniority
system, and pensions.
It started with
hope, and it ended with the fulfillment of a long-held ideal. A
humble band of laborers against an industrial giant - an unlikely
triumph against the greatest odds - a story as American as any.
For this has always
been the way with us - at the edge of despair, in the shadow of
hopelessness, ordinary people make the extraordinary decision that
if we stand together, we rise together. And we do.
At the end of
the Civil War, when farmers and their families began moving into
the cities to work in the big factories that were sprouting up all
across America, we had to decide: Do we do nothing and allow the
captains of industry and robber barons to run roughshod over the
economy and workers by competing to see who can pay the lowest wage
at the worst working conditions? Or do we try to make the system
work by setting up basic rules for the market, and instituting the
first public schools, and busting up monopolies, and fighting so
that working people could organize into unions?
and sit-ins, petitions and rallies, and leaders who kept opportunity
alive, we chose to act, and we rose together.
Years later, when
the irrational exuberance of the Roaring Twenties came crashing
down with the stock market, we had to decide: do we follow the call
of leaders who would do nothing, or the call of a leader who, perhaps
because of his physical paralysis, refused to accept political paralysis?
decision that political freedom would mean nothing without economic
freedom to labor's tireless fight for that same principle, we chose
to act - regulating the market, putting people back to work, expanding
bargaining rights to include health care and a secure retirement
- and together we rose.
Today, we face
a challenge and a choice once more.
Too many of you
have seen this challenge up close - when you drive by the old factory
around lunchtime and no one walks out anymore. When you can't get
that raise or that health care plan you hoped for because your employer
is competing with companies who pay foreign workers a fraction of
what you make.
I saw it during
the campaign when I met the union guys who use to work at the Maytag
plant down in Galesburg and now wonder what they're gonna do at
55-years-old without a pension or health care; when I met the man
who's son needs a new liver but doesn't know if he can afford when
the kid gets to the top of the transplant list.
It's as if someone
changed the rules in the middle of the game and no one bothered
to tell them.
But as we all
know, the rules have changed.
It started with
technology and automation that rendered entire occupations obsolete.
Then companies were able to pick up and move their factories to
the developing world, where workers are a lot cheaper than they
are in the U.S. Now, advances in technology and communication mean
that businesses not only have the ability to move jobs wherever
there's a factory, but wherever there's an internet connection.
have transformed the American worker into a kind of global free
agent - if you can learn the right skills and get a great education,
you can out-compete any worker in the world for the high-paying
jobs of tomorrow. But it also means that the days of lifetime employment
at a company that provided wages, health care, and pensions you
can bargain for are coming to an end.
At time of such
insecurity and vulnerability, there has never been a greater need
for a strong labor movement to stand up for American workers.
But the question
we need to answer is: how will this movement and our people win
in this new global economy?
Once again, we
face a choice. We know that globalization is not just another issue
you can be for or against - it's here to stay. And so the question
is not whether we can stop it, but how we respond to it.
Some answers are
clear. When you have an administration that says "no"
to a labor-friendly labor board, "no" to organizing rights,
"no" to overtime pay, and "no" to a higher minimum
wage, you say "no" to that administration and put someone
else in office.
The Bush Administration's
philosophy says we can't do much about the new challenges we face
as a nation. And since there is not much to do about global competition,
the best that can be done is to give everyone one big refund on
their government - divvy it up into individual portions, hand it
out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own
health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, education,
and so forth.
they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has
been another term for it - Social Darwinism, every man and woman
for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require
much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health
care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - tough luck.
It allows us to say to the factory workers who have lost their job
- life isn't fair. It let's us say to the child born into poverty
- pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
But there is a
problem. It won't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact
that it has been government research and investment that made the
railways and the internet possible. It has been the creation of
a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public
schools - that has allowed all of us to prosper. It has been the
ability of working men and women to join together in unions and
demand justice and opportunity that has kept America upwardly mobile.
Our economic dominance
has always depended on individual initiative and belief in the free
market, it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each
other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that
we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity.
So part of the
fight is political - and part of the solution is to strengthen the
right to organize across all industries and professions.
But it's not enough
just to say "no" to Bush. They may not have helped, and
they may have made things worse, but they did not cause globalization.
And no matter what comes out of this convention, the labor movement
must squarely confront the fact that the economy is changing. The
old ways of doing business are not working, and we must have a strategy
that meets these new challenges.
I won't stand
up here and say that coming up with this strategy will be easy,
or pretend to know all the answers.
But part of the
answer is recognizing that while unions and government can no longer
provide this opportunity in the form of lifetime employment; they
can ensure that every American worker has lifetime employability
in this new economy.
That means fixing
our schools to make sure every child in America has the education
and the skills they need to compete - and that college is affordable
for every American who wants to go. And it means that unions can
play a real role in finally creating a real system of lifelong learning
so that workers who lose a job really can retrain for other high-wage
It means spurring job creation and innovation by investing our resources
into research and development projects -- not cutting them. It means
investing in broadband and in medical technology; working with local
communities to create centers of innovation. It's time to fuel the
genius and the innovation that will lead to the new jobs and new
industries of the future.
Right now, all
across America, there are amazing discoveries being made. At Pittsburgh's
Carnegie Mellon University, researchers have developed a virtual
algebra tutor that has helped inner-city kids in under-served schools
raise their scores an entire letter grade. In rural Virginia, telemedicine
recently allowed a cardiologist 75 miles from the hospital to view
an ultrasound and diagnose a congenital heart defect that required
immediate medication, saving a young child's life. And in the very
cornfields of Illinois, farmers are literally growing the biofuels
that could ultimately run our cars on 500 miles per gallon. Breakthroughs
like these won't just improve our lives, they'll create thousands
of jobs that could be filled by American workers trained with new
skills and a world-class education.
In this new economy,
we should be able to tell workers that no matter where you work
or how many times you switch jobs, you will have health care and
a pension you can take with you always. We'll never rise together
if we allow medical bills to swallow family budgets or let people
retire penniless after a lifetime of hard work, and so today we
must demand that when it comes to commitments made to working men
and women on health care and pensions, a promise made is a promise
Our vision of
America is not one where a big government runs our lives; it's one
that gives every American the opportunity to make the most of their
lives. It's not one that tells us we're on our own, it's one that
realizes that we rise or fall together as one people.
And yet, we also
know that, in the end, neither policy nor politics can replace heart
and courage in the struggle you now face. Because in the brief history
of the American experiment, it has been the ability of ordinary
Americans to act on both that has allowed our nation to achieve
It's why farmers
put down their ploughs and picked up arms to overthrow an Empire
for the sake of an idea. It's why young men and women would take
Freedom Rides down South to work for the Civil Rights movement.
And it's why workers would stand cold, hungry, and penniless on
picket lines until their labor was treated with the dignity it deserved.
Almost a century
earlier, during the struggle for the soul of Chicago's stockyards,
Hank Johnson, a leading African-American union organizer, told a
crowd of laborers that in the end, speeches don't make unions. He
said that "The real job of organizing has to be done everyday
by the men and women who work right in the plant."
That's as true
today as it was then - the real job of organizing working America
- politics and policy, vision and mission, heart and soul - belongs
to each of you. And if you have the courage to succeed, labor will
rise again. America will rise again. And hope will rise again. Thank
you and God Bless you.