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Remarks by Senator John Kerry: A Workers' Bill of Rights

Location: Bedford, NH

January 07, 2004

Bedford, NH -

I am here today to talk about how we can create an economy built on a foundation of people and products, not privileges and perks. As President, I'll cheer on and help America's entrepreneurs - whether they have a stand on the boardwalk or a seat in the boardroom. But we're going to hold all Americans to an equal standard of fairness and justice. And we're going to end the days when our government encourages big business to turn its back on America's workers. As President, I'll fight for a Workers Bill of Rights so that everyday Americans know their government is working for them.

You don't have to look far to find an example of what I'm talking about. Three weeks before Christmas, the 550 workers at the Jac Pac plant here in Manchester got an unwelcome gift in their mailbox: a pink slip. The plant was built in 1933 - at the depths of the Great Depression - and it was a symbol of opportunity for its workers as they struggled to build a better life for their families.

Some of the workers were immigrants - from Central Europe or Central Africa - and they worked alongside those whose families had been a part of the community for generations. They had a common goal: a paycheck their family could live on, a future they could depend on. But that hope died last month.

Tyson Foods bought the Jac Pac plant just a couple of years ago but now claims the plant is outdated - even while it has plans to strip the plant of its equipment and ship it off to other locations.

It sounds like the equipment will be given better care than the 550 employees being left behind. Tyson has no plans to give them any severance benefits or health care. They're getting left out in the cold. Tyson's slogan is: "It's what your family deserves." I'd like to ask them now: "Is this what your workers deserve? Is this what their families deserve?" Because I think that the working families of New Hampshire deserved better than to be left out in the cold three weeks before Christmas.

The company said it was just - quote - "one of those things." Maybe they should tell their former employees that not having health insurance anymore is just one of those things, or that telling your family you don't know how you'll support them next week is just one of those things. This isn't how we're supposed to do business in America. American corporations used to feel some sense of loyalty to their workers, their community, and their country. But too often that's gone today.

Then there's the example of Tyco. It used to be based in Exeter. Almost overnight, it was suddenly based in Bermuda. In a flash 400 million dollars a year in tax dollars disappeared into the Bermuda triangle. And Tyco also dropped 11,000 jobs. The Bush Administration responded by rewarding Tyco with $331 million in federal contracts.

Tyson. Tyco. It's wrong when companies turn their back on the country, their community, and their workers. If I'm elected President, we're going to scour the tax code and remove every single loophole that rewards Benedict Arnold corporations for moving profits and jobs overseas and turning their backs on their workers here at home.

I'm an entrepreneurial Democrat and I believe that creating jobs and growing business is good for America. Democrats can't love jobs and hate the people who create jobs. And the strength of our economy depends on accepted rules of the road and high standards that are shared by all. All over America, business leaders and the corporations live by these high standards. Later today, I'll be visiting one of those companies, Timberland right here in New Hampshire. This is a company that doesn't just see its surroundings as a place to do the work that builds profits, but a place to do the work that builds community. At Timberland, they call it "doing well and doing good": Paid time-off to do community service. Child care centers right here at work. Fair wages and decent benefits. Labor and environmental standards that are a model for the country. This is a company with deep loyalty to its workers and its communities. From constructing playgrounds to visiting the elderly, Timberland proves that big business can be good business for America.

That's why responsible corporate citizens like Timberland should not have their reputation dirtied by those business executives who double-deal and skim from the top. Business leaders who do what's right are hurt by the scandals of the last years. They have a stake in corporate fairness and honesty. Because they know - and we know - that its only if Americans can trust each other - enough to invest, enough to negotiate, enough to work hard - that our economy will be strong.

Its time we had an economy that's run not just by the values of our stocks but the values of our families; an economy where common courtesy and common sense counts for more than dollars and cents; an economy where we don't profit off trading bonds while trading away the bonds that hold our communities together.

I'm running for President because I believe its time we had an economy where every worker - from a small cubicle to the corner office - has the same rights. If I'm in the White House, no one - not matter how powerful and well-connected you are - will get government help to put private profit before the public good.

But that's exactly what's happening under George W. Bush. Today, big corporations and K Street lobbyists trip over themselves to fund the Bush-Cheney campaign. And it's no surprise. In the Bush Administration, you get what you pay for. And if you have the right connections and a fat bank account, you can afford the access to the inner circle and the Oval Office.

We need to end an Administration that lets companies like Halliburton ship their old boss to the White House and get special treatment while they ship American jobs overseas. We need to end an Administration that lets WorldCom bilks Iowa taxpayers out of their jobs and savings and then rewards them by letting them go without paying any taxes of their own. And we need to end an Administration where polluters who contribute to the Republican Party get invited to secret meetings in the White House where they're allowed to rewrite clean air and clean water laws.

It used to be that lobbyists and CEOs slipped in and out of the revolving door between government and corporate America. But in this Administration, they've kicked in the revolving door, torn down the wall between public service and private profit, and stampeded into positions of power. Today's cabinet members are yesterday's corporate board members, and former foreign lobbyists are put in charge of the very laws that export American companies and jobs.

Instead of equal rights for all, George Bush has given those with connections and campaign cash privileges and protections that are not available to anyone else - especially the hard-working middle class people in this country whose voices are being ignored.

If you're a corporation using loopholes to avoid paying taxes, if you're a big business sending jobs overseas, if you're a CEO giving yourself a bonus while your employees get the boot - with George Bush, you have a friend in the White House. But if I'm President, I'll have a simple message for the influence peddlers and polluters who call the Bush White House home: "Don't let the door hit you on your way out. We're coming in, and we're cleaning house."

I'm running for President to replace George Bush's Special Interest Bill of Privileges with a Workers' Bill of Rights that provides fairness and the opportunity to earn your way ahead to everyone willing to do their part.

When those who break the law or cut corners get special benefits while those who work hard and do what's right get the short end of the stick, it's not just our budget that is out of balance. It means our values are out of whack. And we need to send a clear message that we favor those who are doing the right thing over those who are doing wrong to their employees, their companies, or their country. So the Workers' Bill of Rights starts with a government that puts a fair break for workers and the community over a fast buck for corporations.

That means we need to protect everyday investors and the financial security of all Americans. From Enron to WorldCom to the mutual fund scandals that have shaken the trust and savings of Americans, a widespread creed of greed on Wall Street has been met by a look-the-other-way attitude in the Bush White House. President Bush's first SEC chairman was a Wall Street lobbyist who was forced to resign in a storm of public outrage over his lenient treatment of his former industry. And the Bush Administration has refused to fill more than half the securities enforcement positions charged with protecting investors. In effect, the message from the White House to the regulatory agencies, when it comes to protecting the small investor and consumers, is don't ask and don't tell.

Its time our government sent a different message. A clear warning to anyone who even attempts to line their own pockets by exploiting everyday investors. Today, mutual fund fraud lines the pockets of the few at the expense of the hard-earned savings of everyday American families. In a Kerry Administration, those days are over. We can't create jobs unless we restore investor confidence in the markets. And if I'm elected, everyday Americans and everyday investors will have a government that's on their side.

As President, I will create a new senior post in the White House - a Director of Family Economic Security - a Pocketbook Watchdog in the White House - as the focal point of tough action to guard working Americans' pensions and retirement, to protect their personal information from identify theft, to ensure fair lending and housing, and to help people to build wealth and savings over a lifetime. To fill this new position, I will appoint a powerful advocate whose job - morning, noon, and night - will be to look out for the everyday investors who are too often exploited to benefit a powerful few.

Workers should also have the right to share in the prosperity they've helped create. They may be celebrating their so-called recovery in the White House and on Wall Street, but it's not so rosy in places all over New Hampshire and across America. Yes, corporate profits are up 46 percent - a modern record. But at the same time, wage growth is up by three cents for every hour of work. Three cents. That's the slowest wage growth in 40 years. Yes, CEO pay at the top 100 companies pay was up by 14 percent in 2002 - but corporate American has eliminated 846,000 jobs since the recession supposedly ended. It seems unbelievable but our government gives corporations an unlimited tax allowance for CEO bonuses even if the executives have done nothing to deserve the money. When I'm President, we'll close that loophole too. We won't let privileged corporate execs make a bundle while they leave ordinary people holding the bag.

America has a problem when the workers who help build this economy are pocketing pennies while the few bragging about a recovery are bagging billions. America can do better than a Bush-league recovery; we can have a real recovery that reaches every American. And if I'm President, I pledge to you: I'll fight everyday, side by side with all of you.

Workers also have the right to an Administration that enforces our trade agreements. Too often our competitors don't play fair. I believe that with a level playing field, Americans can out compete foreign companies every day of the week and twice on Sunday. But as long as former foreign lobbyists are put in charge of the very laws that send American jobs overseas, America's jobs will be at risk. As President, I'll order an immediate review of our trade agreements to make sure our trading partners are living up to their obligations. I'll vigorously enforce our trade laws and fight for retraining programs to help displaced workers. I'll make sure all future agreements include strong and fully enforceable protections for labor and the environment. And I'll have a five year ban on lobbying so that government officials cannot cash in by peddling influence to foreign countries or companies.

Americans have the right to a tax system that favors working people instead of protecting wealthy contributors. As President, I will roll back George Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans so we can invest in education and health care. I will end corporate welfare as we know it and tax giveaways to special interests. But here's what I won't do. I won't raise taxes on the middle class or cut basic benefits for children and older Americans. Hard working Americans have already had to deal with George Bush - and they don't need more pain. The last time I looked the problem wasn't that the middle class had too much money. So, I will fight for a tax cut that puts real money into the pockets of the hard working middle class. I'll do that because it's true to our principles as Democrats - and right for the American economy.

And our Workers' Bill of Rights includes things you won't find in an economic report. It's about a country that values neighborhoods and not just the NASDAQ. It's about a country where parents can make a living and still spend time with their children. It's about a country where we don't poison the air our children breathe in the quest for a fast buck.

Everywhere I go, I hear mothers and fathers talk about how hard it is these days to be good parents and good workers at the same time. So we have to honor the Family and Medical Leave Act - and expand it. And at long last, we have to make affordable health care a right, and not a privilege, in the United States of America. The first major bill I send to Congress in my first 100 days as President will be health care reform to cut costs and stop skyrocketing premiums, and cover all our people. Under my plan, Americans will see real savings of up to $1,000 on their health care bill. No one in this race will fight harder than I will to cover the uninsured and get to universal coverage, but I also think it's time someone in government stood up for the Americans who have health insurance but are getting killed when they try to pay for it. And I'm going to fight for them. I can tell you that Senators and Congressmen get great health care - and you pay for it. As President, I'm going to fight for a basic principle: your family's health is just as important as any politician's in Washington.

And it's time to demand and win a fair deal in the workplace. I have never seen a workplace as fundamentally unfair as it is today. I will stand up for safe workplaces and the right to organize; I support card check and I'm going to appoint a Secretary of Labor from the House of Labor. We still don't have fair pay for women - and I am running for President to make sure that an equal days pay for an equal days work is a reality and not just a slogan.

And just yesterday we found out that George Bush's Labor Department has drawn up a "how to" guide for big business to avoid paying their low-income workers the overtime pay they've earned. I'm going to continue to stand up against those that want to eliminate the 40-hour work week and the overtime pay that have protected workers from exploitation - and rewarded hard work - since the New Deal. American workers don't need lower pay, longer hours, and less of a say on the job. They deserve a President who will respect and reward their hard work and honest labor.

With George Bush in the White House, we have a "get mine and get out" ethic that glorifies the creed of greed. Polluters are given a free pass. Powerful corporations enjoy sweetheart deals at the expense of everyday Americans. Lobbyists write laws favoring the companies that pay their lavish bills. Failed CEOs get golden parachutes while their employees get pink slips. For the first time in this nation's history, the most privileged among us get enormous tax breaks during a time of war. And corporate executives bilk the retirement savings of ordinary investors.

All of this is wrong - but we can change it.

I'm running in 2004 to fight for Americans who need a President on their side. Unlike George Bush, I believe America's strength doesn't just come from captains of industry or corporate leaders on the cover of Fortune. I believe it flows from the dedication and productivity of millions whose lifestyles aren't rich or famous but who work hard and do what's right. They get up each morning, go to work, raise their children and pay their taxes. They don't ask for special favors or special recognition. They simply want fairness.

A salary that pays the bills. A health care system where a check-up doesn't empty the family checkbook. A workplace that's fair. A chance for their children to have a better life than their parents. A Workers' Bill of Rights instead of a Special Interest Bill of Privileges. That's not too much to ask for. And the American people have waited too long for someone to deliver. The time for waiting is over. I'm ready to get it done. And I ask you to join me in this fight.

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