Thank you, and welcome
We meet here at a challenging
time for labor and a challenging time for America. All across the
country, from nurses in Chicago to correctional officers in Atlanta
to sanitation workers in L.A., Americans have been looking to the
future with more anxiety than hope. As transformations in technology
and communication have ushered in a global economy with new rules
and new risks, they've watched their government do its best to try
and shift those risks onto the backs of the American worker. And
they wonder how they will ever keep up.
In coffee shops and town
meetings, in VFW halls and right here in this room, the questions
are all the same. 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 I want you to
know today they are by no means unique. Throughout our history,
they have been asked and then answered by Americans who have stood
in your shoes and shared your concerns.
In the middle of the last
century, on the restless streets of Memphis, it was a group of AFSCME
sanitation workers who took up this charge. For years they had served
their city without complaint, picking up other people's trash for
little pay and even less respect. Passers-by would call them "walking
buzzards," and in the segregated South, most were forced to
use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.
But as the civil rights
movement gained steam and they watched the marches and saw the boycotts
and heard about the passage of voting rights, the workers in Memphis
decided that they'd had enough, and in 1968, over 1,000 went on
Their demands were simple.
Recognition of their union. The right to bargain. A few cents more
But the opposition was
fierce. Their vigils were met with handcuffs. Their protests turned
back with mace. One march was interrupted by police gunfire and
tear gas, and when the smoke cleared, 280 had been arrested, 60
were wounded, and one 16-year old boy lay dead.
And still, the city would
not give in.
Now, the workers could
have gone home, or they could've gone back to work, or they could've
waited for someone else to help them, but they didn't. They kept
marching. They drew ministers and high school students and civil
rights activists to their cause, and at the beginning of the third
straight month, Dr. King himself came down to Memphis.
At this point, the story
of the sanitation workers merges with the larger saga of the Civil
Rights Movement. On April 3rd, we know that King gave his "I've
Been to the Mountaintop" sermon. On April 4th, he was shot
and killed by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine
hotel. And on April 8th, a day before he was buried, his wife Coretta
led the sanitation workers on one final march through the city of
Memphis - a march that would culminate in the union contract that
the workers had sought for so long.
This is the legacy you
inherit today. It's a legacy of courage, a legacy of action, a legacy
of achieving the greatest triumphs amidst the greatest odds. It's
a story as American as any - that at the edge of despair, in the
shadow of hopelessness, ordinary people make the extraordinary decision
that if we stand together, we rise together.
What those workers made
real in Memphis - and what we have to make real today - is the idea
that in this country, we value the labor of every American. That
we're willing to respect that labor and reward it with a few basic
guarantees - wages that can raise a family, health care if we get
sick, a retirement that's dignified, working conditions that are
The struggle to secure
these guarantees has always been at the heart of the labor movement
- and the opposition has always been powerful. But today, we're
facing a challenge like none we've seen before.
At the very moment that
globalization is changing the rules of the game on the American
worker - making it harder to compete with cheaper, highly-skilled
workers all over the world - the people running Washington are responding
with a philosophy that says government has no role in solving these
problems; that the services you all provide every day are better
left to the whims of the private sector.
They're telling us we're
better off if we dismantle government - if we divvy it up into individual
tax breaks, hand 'em out, and encourage everyone to go buy your
own health care, your own retirement security, your own child care,
their own schools, your own private security force, your own roads,
their own levees...
It's called the Ownership
Society in Washington. But in our past there has been another term
for it - Social Darwinism - every man or women for him or herself.
It allows us to say to
those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can
afford - life isn't fair. It allows us to say to the child who didn't
have the foresight to choose the right parents or be born in the
right suburb - pick yourself up by your bootstraps. It lets us say
to the guy who worked twenty or thirty years in the factory and
then watched his plant move out to Mexico or China - we're sorry,
but you're on your own.
It's a bracing idea. It's
a tempting idea. And it's the easiest thing in the world.
But there's just one problem.
It doesn'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. And it has been the ability
of working men and women to join together in unions that has allowed
our rising tide to lift every boat.
Yes, our greatness as a
nation has depended on individual initiative, on a belief in the
free market. But it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard
for each other, of mutual responsibility. 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.
Americans know this. We
know that government can't solve all our problems - and we don't
want it to.
But we also know that there
are some things we can't do on our own. We know that there are some
things we do better together.
We know that we've been
called in churches and mosques, synagogues and Sunday schools to
love our neighbors as ourselves; to be our brother's keeper; to
be our sister's keeper. That we have individual responsibility,
but we also have collective responsibility to each other.
That's what America is.
That's what those workers in Memphis fought for. And that's what
we fight for today.
Some of what we need to
do is clear. When you have a Republican Congress that says "no"
to organizing rights, "no" to overtime pay, "no"
to a higher minimum wage, "no" to Social Security, and
"no" to Medicaid, it's time to say "no" to that
Congress and put Democrats in charge come November.
But if we really want to
lead - if we really hope to convince the country that our vision
of government is better than theirs - we're gonna need more than
just "no." We're gonna need to tell the country what our
plan is for the 21st century worker - what we'll do to give every
American the chance to get ahead and raise their family.
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 there's a few places
we can start.
We can start by fixing
our schools to make sure every child in America has the education
and the skills they need to compete. We can start by making sure
that college is affordable for every American who wants to go. And
by giving unions a real role in creating a real system of lifelong
learning so that workers who lose a job really can retrain for other
In this new economy, we
can start giving our workers a chance by making sure 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 we can start
by demanding that when it comes to commitments made to working men
and women on health care and pensions, a promise made is a promise
And in a world where two-income
households are trying to juggle work and family, we can start giving
workers a chance with policies that give families a chance. When
a parent takes parental leave, we shouldn't act like caring for
a newborn baby is a three-month break - we should let them keep
their salary. When parents are working and their children need care,
we should make sure that care is affordable, and that our kids can
go to school earlier and longer so they have a safe place to learn
while their parents are at work. And when a mom or a dad has to
leave work to care for a sick child, we should make sure it doesn't
result in a pink slip.
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 extraordinary
Nearly forty years ago,
the strike in Memphis came to an end.
But today, the march goes
Every year, on April 4th,
the sanitation workers of Local 1733 gather again to march the route
that led them to justice so long ago. Sometimes they walk the whole
way, other years a bus comes to carry them the last few miles.
They march to remember,
but they also march because they know our journey isn't complete
- they know we have fights left to win; that we have dreams still
A few years back, one of
these workers, a man named Malcolm Pryor, told a reporter, "You
have to remind people: We are not free yet. As long as I march,
Dr. King's soul is still rejoicing that people are still trying."
And so today I ask you
to keep marching.
As long as there are those
who are jobless, I ask you to keep marching for jobs.
As long as there are those
who struggle to raise a family on low wages and few benefits, I
ask you to keep marching for opportunity.
As long as there are those
who can't organize or unionize or bargain for a better life, I ask
you to keep marching for solidarity.
And as long as there are
those who try to privatize our government and decimate our social
programs and peddle a philosophy of trickle-down and on-your-own,
I ask you to keep marching for a vision of America where we rise
or fall as one nation under God.
My friends, it's time again
to march for freedom. Time again to march for hope. Time again to
march towards the tomorrow that so many have reached for so many
times in our past. I know we can get there, and I can't wait to
try. Thank you, and good luck.