Thank you, President Rich Trumka, for that kind introduction and for convening us today to reflect on 50 years of collective bargaining rights for federal employees. I also want to thank President Juneman and President Gage for your steady leadership in difficult times for working people in this country. And John Berry for your commitment to protecting the rights of our federal workers. Finally, I want to acknowledge all of our friends from organized labor who've gathered here today to celebrate an important part of our history.
The AFL-CIO does such a great job as the unofficial historian for working people in America. On Sunday, I was privileged to join Arlene Holt Baker in Detroit to celebrate Dr. King's legacy to organized labor. The theme of the conference was that the defenders of civil rights and workers rights have historically fought for the same things: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, affordable health care, education for our children, a secure retirement, and respect in the community.
That was Dr. King's list. And it's a timeless one. As we all know, he gave his life marching with the AFSCME sanitation workers of Memphis. Dr. King had a special appreciation for the hardest -- most thankless -- public sector jobs.
One of my favorite Dr. King quotes is about the dignity of those jobs. He said, "All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that the host of heaven and earth pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'"
Dr. King sure knew how to make a point. His words still ring true in 2012. Government workers are some of the most talented and passionate people I know. We live in a time of unprecedented attacks on the state and federal government, a time of low confidence in our public institutions, a time when too many politicians feed that cynicism by attacking the institutions they've been elected to lead, a time when some leaders are trying to balance their budgets on the backs of the street sweepers -- the public workers.
But Director Berry and I have the privilege of leading executive agencies. We see how the rhetoric doesn't meet the reality when it comes to government employees. The professionalism, teamwork and devotion I see at the Department of Labor each and every day are a constant source of inspiration for me.
My department employs people charged with keeping Americans safe from injury and exploitation. They inspect our factories and our fields to make sure workers don't lose their fingers, or lives, in heavy machinery. They make sure coal mines don't collapse and kill miners -- and if tragedy does strike, they counsel grieving families and help bring wrongdoers to justice. They provide job training for our young people searching for career skills and direction. They help our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans get the good-paying civilian jobs they've earned after risking their lives for their country.
But the federal government also employs cafeteria workers, secretaries and janitors. They keep our staff nourished, supported and focused on the important job at hand. We're truly a team. And I can't imagine a structure that didn't give our workers a voice.
When front-line government employees and their managers both have a seat at the table to deliver better services and manage problems, it's the American people who really win. because they get a better government.
Tomorrow, I'm joining members of the JFK library in New York to celebrate President's Kennedy's legacy. His signing of Executive Order 10988 is an important part of that legacy. President Kennedy led this nation at a time when Republicans and Democrats understood that labor and management do better as teammates, not adversaries. We won't always agree on everything, but it's crucial that we talk together and negotiate together on the tough issues.
President Kennedy said that "labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor."
Whether we're talking about the shop floor or a government building, bargaining helps us deliver better services and better products. Because all Americans are shareholders in the business of government.
So today, as your Secretary of Labor. it's my honor celebrate our federal workers. To celebrate the history of bipartisanship -- from Kennedy to Nixon to Ford to Carter -- that gave them a voice on the job.
We believe that no budget shortfall, no fiscal woes and no political election can be a legitimate excuse to betray our values. And in America, perhaps our most basic value is a belief that hard work should be respected. I'm so proud to thousands of dedicated federal employees who serve their country with excellence and distinction.
So Happy 50th birthday, Executive Order 10988. You've served this nation well for half a century. And today, we commit ourselves to 50 more. Muchismas gracias. Thank you