The Iowa AFL-CIO State Convention Wednesday, August 14, 2002
I was born into the House of Labor. My father was a Teamster who drove a truck for thirty-five years. He died with his first retirement check in his pocket, uncashed. He and my mother raised seven children, of which I was the oldest. We lived in twenty-one different places by the time I was 17. Having a job doesn’t solve all of a family’s problems. One of my first jobs was at the Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland. As a copyboy I joined the American Newspaper Guild. Years later, working at TV 8, I belonged to AFTRA. Today I am a member of the cameraman’s union, the IATSE of the AFL-CIO.
This is my membership card. I am of the House of Labor and still building. This is my card of membership in the House of Representatives. This card (House) is where my work is. And this card (IATSE) is where my heart is.
The hopes and dreams of the men and women who sent me to Congress are the stars by which I journey. Whenever there is an organizing campaign, a picket line to walk, jobs to save, working conditions to improve, laws to champion, I’m there. This is my purpose: to stand up and to speak out on behalf of those who have built this country and who want to rebuild this country. This is my passion: to raise up the rights of working people. Workers’ rights are the key to protecting our democracy.
Workers’ rights embody spiritual principles that sustain families, nourish the soul and create peace. Workers’ rights are human rights.
Today, let us begin anew to rededicate our efforts to bring economic justice to those who have created the wealth through their work. A re-energized labor movement will re-energize America’s politics and create a more just society. Your cause is the cause of our nation. Your dream is the American dream. The cause of union, of brotherhood and sisterhood, is felt in the workers’ anthem. Solidarity can be the song that echoes across this land. It can be the music that lifts up the hearts of all those who dignify work with their toil.
For decades labor has been telling the nation about the dangers of unchecked corporate power. Organizing campaigns have brought the lessons home. Employers are:
§ firing union supporters;
§ forcing workers to listen to anti-union propaganda from company supervisors;
§ bringing in outsiders to run well-funded anti-union campaigns;
§ threatening loss of jobs and even threatening to move out of town.
Often in these struggles labor stands alone. But we need to change this. We need a Democratic Party that will insure the right to organize by establishing an automatic union once half the workers sign up. You know, sisters and brothers, that when workers can choose a union, free of fear and intimidation, they choose to have the collective voice a union provides. As a member of the Cleveland Jobs With Justice workers’ rights board, I have seen the community help nearly 2,000 workers to join unions. We need a national labor law that provides for democracy in the workplace.
Labor has stood almost alone while corporations have cut wages and benefits, slashed working hours, tried to undermine wage and hour provisions, reneged on contracts, jettisoned retirements through bankruptcy strategies. The current clamor for corporate accountability calls for honesty in stating the numbers, and faithful custody of shareholders’ money.
Yet there needs to be equal concern for those who created the wealth through their labor, because the attacks on unions are a means of redistributing the wealth upwards. As union membership has declined, the disparity of wealth has increased. Since 1973 union membership has dropped from 24 percent to 14 percent. And the share of aggregate income of the poor, the middle class and the upper middle class has declined.
It’s an old saying that the rich get richer. But it’s a new convention in the American political economy that a class of working poor has emerged, including the working homeless. Congress will not pass an increase in the $5.15 minimum wage even though the inflation-adjusted minimum wage is 21 percent lower today than it was in 1979.
Since 1981 the share of income of the richest 5 percent of this country has increased more than 40 percent while that of the lowest fifth has decreased more than 20 percent. An even starker contrast arises. According to Business Week, the average CEO made forty-two times the average worker’s pay in 1980, eighty-five times in 1990 and 531 times in 2000. Forbes magazine points out that the number of billionaires increased from thirteen in 1982 to 149 in 1996.
In the past twenty years you sat at the negotiating table, you fought for fair wages and benefits, you were told you were just asking for too much, that your demands would make the company less competitive. And all the while the wealth kept getting accelerated upwards, with the help of NAFTA and other trade agreements that were designed to undermine workers’ rights and lower wages worldwide.
I’d like to read a quote to you. “Working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition…. the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” Pope Leo XIII said this 111 years ago in his encyclical On Capital and Labor.
I quote a great spiritual leader because standing behind the daily efforts to lift up the human condition through improving standards of work is a great moral cause. It is about the intrinsic worth of each and every human being. When both work and workers are valued, when all men and women are given a chance to earn their daily bread, when all are paid a living wage, when hands strong and weak can clasp in common enterprise to seek and to build a newer world, then every day will belong to workers. And every voice will praise the moment when human toil has lifted up the human condition. It is a high cause that brings us together, that causes us to put ourselves on the line.
We need to feel in every cell of our bodies the power that comes from union: the power that confirms our purpose, the power that, when focused and directed, will save our nation by saving the Democratic Party from the clutches of corporate interests. Enlightened self-interest requires labor to make the Democratic Party accountable. Labor must rally the Democrats to the workers’ banner. Labor must begin now to build the Democratic Party platform for 2004 to insure that solid principles of economic justice prevail and to inspire millions of Americans, who would otherwise stay home on Election Day, to vote to save our democracy.
Labor cannot afford to settle for half-hearted nominees or half-measures that keep in place a system that is destroying our democracy through trade agreements that transfer sovereign power to the World Trade Organization, undermine our economy and devastate workers’ ability to defend themselves. “All that harms labor is treason,” said President Lincoln. “If any man tells you that he loves America [but] he hates labor, he is a liar.” Supporters of the decaying system of injustice continue to advance propositions that are an offense to basic fairness and workers’ dignity. With the Team Act they attacked the right to organize. With the Rewarding Performance in Compensation Act, they wanted to strip workers of overtime. In the name of workplace flexibility, they wanted to repeal the Fair Labor Standards Act. With the Paycheck Protection Act they attacked union dues as compulsory and political. They wanted workplace safety rules set by corporate consensus and not by OSHA. They would take us back to the days when workers had no protections or rights. Back to the days of “Sixteen Tons.”
“You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”
No more sixteen tons in America! The soul of the worker is not for sale. It will not be sacrificed upon the corporate altar, nor annihilated by a hostile or indifferent government. The soul of the worker will be redeemed by the enshrinement in law of workers’ rights. If in 2004 labor goes up to the mountaintop of our nation’s Capitol, it must bring back engraved in stone these rights of working people:
“People have a right to a job.
A right to a safe workplace.
A right to decent wages and benefits.
A right to organize and be represented.
A right to grieve about working conditions.
A right to strike.
A right to fair compensation for injuries on the job.
A right to sue if injured by negligent employers.
A right to security of pension and retirement benefits.
A right to participate in the political process.”
These basic rights ought to be inviolate in a democratic society. There can be no true corporate accountability unless corporations are accountable to workers. There can be no accountability to workers unless workers’ rights are protected. And workers’ rights cannot be protected unless the Democratic Party makes them the centerpiece of its legislative program, and its drive for the White House in 2004. The Democratic Party must be challenged by labor to truly be the party of all the people.
When the Democratic Party rises it must be with the ranks, not from the ranks. “The future of labor is the future of America,” said John L. Lewis.
It is the restoration of the rights of workers that will put us at the dawn of a new political age. The rights of workers are core principles of an American Restoration. These aren’t mere political principles. These are timeless moral principles about fairness, about equality, about justice.
In the 1660s the English Restoration brought back the royal family to power. The American Restoration will be about restoring the American working family to economic power, to insure that all have jobs, that all have meaningful work and that all make a living wage. “The enthusiasm of falling welfare numbers,” said Cardinal Mahoney, “should be tempered by the reality of persistent poverty and wages too meager to provide for a family’s needs. Many may be leaving welfare, too few have left poverty.” Twenty-five percent of all workers in Iowa earn poverty-level hourly wages. Who can live at $5.15 an hour? The campaign for a living wage is fundamental to making certain that people have more than crumbs when they sit down to eat their daily bread.
The restoration of the rights of workers in America and throughout the North American continent will begin when we repeal NAFTA. NAFTA has spurred a $360 billion trade deficit, costing 363,000 high-paying jobs, most in manufacturing. This is called free trade. But where is freedom when jobs are lost? Where is freedom when industries threaten to move out of the country unless wages are cut? Where is freedom when the right to bargain collectively is crushed? Where is freedom when a union is broken? Where is freedom when you can’t make a mortgage payment? Where is freedom when you can’t send your children to college? An economic democracy is a precondition of a political democracy. Where is freedom?
NAFTA has attacked federal laws meant to protect worker rights, human rights and environmental quality principles. It is time to repeal NAFTA. It is time to reclaim state and local sovereignty, which NAFTA has usurped. No NAFTA, no fast track. No more backtrack on democracy. No more backtrack on workers’ rights. No more backtrack on human rights. No backtrack on the Bill of Rights.
“The working people know no country. They are citizens of the world,” said the founder of the AFL-CIO, Samuel Gompers, in 1887. It is time to return to bilateral trade agreements, nation to nation. It is time for humane trading partnerships where the living wages, benefits and retirement security of workers of each nation constitute a centerpiece of trade pacts.
The American Restoration will be about restoring the physical health of our people with universal healthcare. I worked with the SEIU and all of organized labor in Cleveland to save two urban hospitals from closure. A market-based system of healthcare has brought about closure of hundreds of community hospitals, limited access to healthcare, denied specialized care, driven up the cost and made healthcare a bargaining chip in negotiations, forcing trade-offs for wage increases. A universal healthcare system with prescription drug coverage will protect quality of life and reflect the improved health of our democracy. Our nation has the money to do this.
The questions are, Do we have the political freedom, do we have the will, do we have the courage to transform a system where for tens of millions every accident and every illness carries with it the fear of being unable to afford health?
We must restore the American dream of home ownership through lowering and regulating lending rates, ending predatory lending practices, increasing the percentage of the home mortgage deduction for middle-income people, and stopping home insurance redlining.
“The practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion rejected by the minds and hearts of men.” said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his inaugural address on March 4, 1933. Under FDR the government took responsibility for the economic vitality of consumers. Today, the government protects credit-card companies, banks and insurance companies.
Our nation will be restored with a new manufacturing policy, where the maintenance of our industrial base is understood to be vital to our national economic welfare. We can fuel domestic steel production and consumption by rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure with American-made steel, utilizing the productive capacity of our mills. We need to spend at least $500 billion to rebuild our schools, roads, bridges, ports, sewer systems, water systems, government buildings. A highly trained, highly skilled work force backed by Davis-Bacon guarantees will make it happen. A federal bank of infrastructure modernization can be created to fund this program with zero-interest loans to the states.
America needs a great new public works program to restore the dream of a full employment economy, to restore the physical health of our nation. When the American economy faltered, President Franklin Roosevelt created the WPA. Labor, inspired to rally the disaffected, the dispirited, the disfranchised, can provide new hope for our country through bringing forth new leadership responsive in word and deed to the task of rebuilding our nation.
A rebuilt infrastructure will help restore American commerce. America cannot come through the crisis of confidence in corporate America simply through improving accounting practices and imprisoning wayward executives. Our country must restore the American economy by restoring competition, by breaking up monopolies, by genuine antitrust enforcement, re-regulation, by the federal chartering of corporations and by the repeal of Taft-Hartley, which deprives the American workplace of a strong, co-equal relationship with labor. “The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit,” said FDR.
Antitrust enforcement is needed in all areas of the economy, especially in agriculture, where unfair practices from seed to retail are driving our family farmers out of business. We must free the family farmer from the market dominance of agribusiness and its predatory policies, which set prices so farmers can’t survive. Americans are learning hard lessons about the dangers of monopolies in energy. When Americans learn the difference between the price the producer gets and what the consumer pays for food, when Americans realize the risk of becoming dependent on imports or corporate mega-farms for our national food supply, we will be on the path of reform, which will protect independent farmers.
The largest roadblock toward the American Restoration is a corrupt campaign finance system that promotes plutocracy, allowing laws and regulations to be steathily auctioned to the highest bidder. Less than 1 percent of the US population contributes 80 percent of the money in federal elections. The top 1 percent in income also received more than half the tax cuts. Tax policy has become an engine for transferring wealth upward. Enron was poised to dominate energy markets worldwide because it controlled the White House, and it gave to seventy-one senators and 186 House members.
Private control of campaign financing leads to private control of the government itself, and schemes like the privatization of Social Security, which would put nearly $7 trillion in retirement funds of Main Street workers at the disposal of Wall Street speculators over the next twenty five years. Public control of the political process requires public financing. The restoration of our American Democracy depends upon public financing. The Supreme Court, equating money with free speech, will not restrict the power of corporate interests to own government. The establishment of our democracy began with the Constitution. Let us renew the Constitution by amending it, requiring public financing to redeem from the perishable fires of corporate control an imperishable government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Today, as we meet in Iowa, riveted upon uplifting the conditions of workers, on a day when IBM will cut another 15,000 jobs and Ames Department Stores will close, throwing 22,000 out of work, and American Airlines announces they will cut 7,000 jobs, some of our nation’s leaders are distracted by a desire to control oil markets and a lust for war. In his farewell address in 1961, President Eisenhower gave this warning: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence …by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” You know and I know that it will be the children of the poor and of working men and women who will become cannon fodder unless we demand that our leaders give up the arms buildup, end the war talk, stop the saber-rattling and work with our allies to take up the burden of global security.
We need a new vision of America, as a nation among nations, as a strong presence but not as king of a unipolar world dictating policy on behalf of global corporate interests. We need a vision that connects workers and all people in the highest causes of the human spirit: peace and justice. This will be the crowning achievement of an American Restoration, the liberation of people all over the world.
As we face the challenges ahead, let us recall the plea of the Prophet Isaiah. “To unlock the shackles of injustice? To break every cruel chain? Then shall your light shine in the darkness. Your people shall lay the foundations for ages to come. You shall be called repairer of the breach. Restorer of the streets to dwell in.”
You, the men and women of labor: It is your light that will shine in the darkness. It is you who will lay the foundation for ages to come. It is you who will repair the breach. It is you who will lead the American Restoration.