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Public Statements

Kennedy on Restoring Economic Security

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


KENNEDY ON RESTORING ECONOMIC SECURITY

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Hearing

As Entered into the Record

We face a severe economic crisis, the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression. The causes of this crisis are not a mystery. Year after year, we accepted an economy that sent stock prices soaring, but left ordinary working families behind. Our productivity grew, but workers never saw the benefits. Their paychecks stopped rising, and, eventually, started falling. Their benefits began to disappear. And large numbers of families couldn't keep up with the rising cost of daily necessities.

These unsustainable patterns brought on this economic crisis. The housing market collapsed, the stock market plummeted, and things went from bad to worse, and then to much, much worse. Working families who were already living on the edge of financial disaster have been hit hard, and they have nothing left to fall back on. Their faith in the American Dream has been replaced by fear for their family and their future.

We've taken some much-needed actions to help get our country back on track. These near-term efforts to jumpstart the economy are essential, but they are only the first steps. We can't fully recover until we have restored real security for working families. Americans need to know that if they work hard, they can earn a fair wage to feed their families. They need to know that at the end of the day they'll get a paycheck, not a pink slip. And they need to know that a lifetime of effort will bring a secure retirement and a better future for their children.

It's time for a new economic agenda centered on security for working families and the vitality of the middle class. This new agenda begins with better treatment for American workers. The men and women who are the backbone of our economy are not highly overpaid CEOs with corporate jets and golden parachutes. They are the people who work in our factories, build our roads, teach our children, and care for the sick in our hospitals and nursing homes. They work hard every day to keep America strong, and they deserve a fair share of the benefits produced by their hard work.

The best way to ensure that these hardworking men and women receive the fair treatment they deserve is by protecting their right to join a union. Unions were fundamental in building America's middle class, and they have a vital role today in restoring the American dream.

First and foremost, unions help workers earn a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Union wages are 30 percent higher than non-union wages. 80 percent of union workers have health insurance, compared to only 49 percent of non-union workers, and are four times more likely to have a secure, guaranteed pension.

Equally important in these turbulent times, unions provide security and a promise of fair treatment. At a time when workers who lose their jobs can remain unemployed for a year or more, workers who are represented by a union have better job security, and the assurance of knowing they'll have a voice at the table when tough decisions are made.

But unions don't just benefit individual workers and families - they benefit our nation as a whole. History shows that strong unions mean a strong economy for everyone. At the height of the union movement, from the 1940s to the 1960s, Americans benefitted together as the economy grew. We lived in a nation of shared prosperity where the vast majority of Americans not only worked hard and expanded the economy, but reaped the benefits as well.

The fundamental difference between then and now was that workers had a voice. And they used that voice to make our country a better place.

But in recent years the voice of workers has too often been silenced. They still have a fundamental right to join a union, but the laws are so weak that this right is often meaningless. Too many workers who attempt to form a union are fired or intimidated. The few who get a union often never see the benefits of a union contract. Many employers break the law with impunity, because the penalties for violating workers' rights are laughably low.

To restore fairness and security to working families and rebuild the foundations of our economy, we have to restore the voice of the American worker. Our people understand how important this voice can be, especially in difficult times. That's why more than half of all workers—nearly 60 million people—say they would join a union today if they could.

Some companies share that view, and have allowed their workers to organize a union, without threats or dirty tricks. They have formed strong partnerships with their employees, and they have prospered. We will hear today from several of those employees whose lives were fundamentally changed as a result.

But these positive examples are all too rare - certainly not enough to level the playing field and guarantee workers a fair chance to join a union. Too many workers still face threats and intimidation when they try to do so. According to a recent study, workers are illegally fired in more than a quarter of all organizing campaigns.

We need to deal with this major problem. We need to stop the lawbreaking anti-union tactics that have become alarmingly common, and provide genuine protection for this fundamental right of our workers.

That's why we need the Employee Free Choice Act. This major legislation will ensure that American workers have real freedom to choose a union, without fear of threats or intimidation by employers. It will help them obtain the real, tangible benefits of union membership that will make a difference in their lives and the lives of their families.

This economic crisis has been devastating, but all is not lost. As President Obama recently said, "[w]e've experienced great trials before. And with every test, each generation has found the capacity to not only endure, but to prosper -- to discover great opportunity in the midst of great crisis."

We have one of those great opportunities today. By restoring fairness to the American workplace and strengthening the voice of workers, we can renew America as a land of opportunity - a land with good jobs and fair wages and other benefits that can support a family. We can revitalize the American middle class and restore the American dream.

I urge all of my colleagues to support this important legislation, and to put our country and its working families back on the path to prosperity.


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