Thank you, Rich Trumka, for that kind introduction and for your great leadership. Thanks to all of the general presidents, whose dedication makes such a difference in the lives of your members and their families.
And thank you, John Sweeney. When John took the job as president of the AFL-CIO, he said that it was his job to speak for the "rest of us" – the people who didn’t have lawyers or lobbyists. And nobody has spoken with a clearer and more powerful voice than John Sweeney. Thank you, John. I want to acknowledge my fellow Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, who has been so strong and steadfast in his leadership. You know, Harry used to be an amateur boxer. He’s showing that fighting skill over in the Senate to make sure that we have judges who defend our Constitution, who won’t roll back our progress on workers’ rights, and who protect the integrity of the ballot.
It is a pleasure to be on a speaking program with one of the brightest new lights in the Democratic Party, Senator Barack Obama.
As we gather here today, let us all salute our men and women in uniform serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are serving heroically. We are grateful for their patriotism, their courage, and the sacrifice they are willing to make. We honor their patriotism. More than that, we owe them a future worthy of their sacrifice.
And that is why I salute our brothers and sisters in labor, who are our heroes, too. We will have a better future because you have fought so effectively for: economic justice, for social justice, for workplace safety, and for retirement security.
So many of the gains we have made today came through the struggles of the labor movement. It was here in Chicago in 1886 that the fight for fair treatment of workers spilled out into the streets of Haymarket, calling America’s attention to the need for an eight-hour workday, a battle that would ultimately be won with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
On this day in 1904, textile workers in Fall River, Massachusetts, began picketing to protest conditions in the mills. They forced America to see the plight of the 250,000 children who were working in America’s mills, factories, and mines. That strike helped create the National Child Labor Committee, and America’s first laws against the exploitation of children.
Fifty years ago, American labor confronted a new challenge. The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act had been passed. Republicans held, for the first time in a generation, the House, the Senate, and the White House. And right-wing Republicans were arguing that unions should be knocked out of the political process. Sound familiar?
So what did the AFL, and the CIO, and the 16 million people they represented, do? They came together. They put aside longstanding rivalries and disagreements, and united for the good of labor and the future of the nation. And by coming together, they helped make America the most prosperous, most productive nation in the world. Labor worked to put America in the lead.
The unions of the AFL-CIO organized professional associations such as police, pilots, teachers, and nurses. They won great gains for women, workers of color, and farm workers. And they instituted new rules to secure pensions, and new laws to govern workplace safety and health.
They ushered in a new era in which public employees gained the right to organize, and then joined unions in record numbers. It is an achievement I know well, because my father, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., was the first Baltimore Mayor to institute collective bargaining for city employees, and the first mayor to appoint a city commissioner of labor.
These victories didn’t just benefit union workers, they benefited all workers. Labor worked to put America in the lead.
It was at the first convention of the merged AFL and CIO that Walter Reuther stood up and warned – "as we meet today, our enemies have plans under way to mobilize their forces. These are the forces of selfishness and greed and reaction. They are the same forces who fought against the 8-hour day, against the Child Labor Law, against Social Security, against free public education. They shall again be rising up and challenging the right of organized labor to come together."
Again, does that sound familiar?
Today, so many of our victories, from the right to associate freely, to be treated with dignity, and to bargain collectively, are under threat from extremists in Washington. Labor and Democrats fought the fight then, and we will fight the fight now.
Look at the Republican record of opposition to a fair minimum wage, overtime pay, project-labor agreements, workplace safety, and their shameful promotion of outsourcing. In fact, the AFL-CIO’s "Bush Watch" demonstrates clearly how a Republican President, Senate, and House of Representatives have pursued a relentless attack on working Americans.
As you meet here today to work out the future of the AFL-CIO, Republicans in Washington are carrying out an assault on your right to organize, on fair trade, on Social Security and safe pensions. That is why it is so vital that whatever decisions are made this week, labor must emerge from this convention stronger, and ready to confront any challenge.
Millions of working men and women face that challenge every day, whether they work at Wal-Mart or at thousands of other anti-union workplaces across this country. Those workers share a commitment to our most basic labor principle: the right to join a labor union.
In fact, 57 million American workers say they would join a union if they had the chance. But, too often, they ¬face harassment, intimidation, and coercion when they try to exercise that right. That is why Democrats are fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, introduced by George Miller in the House and Ted Kennedy in the Senate. This bill is a promise – it says that when a majority of workers say they want a union, they will get a union.
Democrats have a message for the law firms and businesses that make millions of dollars preventing workers from getting organized: The Employee Free Choice Act puts professional union busters out of business. And just as we’re fighting for the right to unionize here at home, we demand trade agreements that guarantee that same right for workers around the world.
That’s why I want to be clear about the Central American Free Trade Act: CAFTA is a bad deal. CAFTA is a bad deal for workers in the United States. CAFTA is a bad deal for workers in Central America. I oppose it, and let me assure you: House Democrats will vote overwhelmingly against it.
This country has lost 2.8 million manufacturing jobs since President Bush took office. CAFTA doesn’t solve the problem, it makes it worse.
Democrats won’t stand for trade bills that set workers’ rights back, erasing years of hard work. CAFTA only served to export jobs, make conditions worse for workers, and degrade the environment. Democrats stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends in the labor movement to defeat trade agreements that don’t protect the rights of workers, the environment, or American jobs.
Just as we are standing together to keep good jobs here at home, Democrats are also working to make sure that a lifetime of work earns you a retirement of dignity. That’s why we’re standing together in saying "no" to the privatization of Social Security.
Already, we’re seeing the success of our solidarity. Because of you and your grassroots mobilization, Democrats have held more than 900 town hall meetings across this country. And we’ve seen the impact. Because of your energy and your effectiveness, 70 percent of seniors disapprove of his privatization plan, which imposes the largest Social Security benefit cut in history.
We will not let the President turn a guaranteed benefit into a guaranteed gamble. We will not allow this proud entrepreneurial achievement of the New Deal to be turned into a raw deal for the American people.
And we recognize that Social Security is just one part of a secure retirement. We need secure pensions, too. Last month, United Airlines manipulated our bankruptcy laws to break their promise of secure pensions to their workers. And they’re not alone. In the last three years, more than two-dozen other companies have defaulted on pension obligations.
We will not allow airline and other employees to be abandoned while the corporate executives float to a comfortable retirement in a golden parachute. We will not tolerate a President or his Republican Congress turning a blind eye as people have lost their life savings – savings they were promised by their employers – while executives of those very same companies get huge payouts.
America’s retirees deserve better than broken promises, and that’s why Democrats want to make it easier for workers to save…easier to build a nest egg…and we want to make this commitment: the pension benefits you were promised are the pension benefits you will get.
In order to do all of these things, we must do one thing more – Democrats must win the Congress. Together, we’re going to win control of the Senate, and make Harry Reid the next Majority Leader. Together, we’re going to win control of the House of Representatives, elect the first woman speaker of the House, and we’ll usher in a new era of victories for working people.
I began today by quoting Walter Reuther’s remarks at the first convention of the merged AFL-CIO. At the end of his speech, he turned to George Meany and said to him the words I want to leave you with today: "We shall stand together; we shall fight together; we shall march together; we shall build together…and we shall win together that better tomorrow for the American people."
Let that be our clarion call.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.
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