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Public Statements

AFL-CIO State of the Union Conference


Location: Plymouth, MA

hank you, Secretary Goldstein, for that warm introduction and for being a part of our team. One of the best decisions I made for organized labor has been the appointment of Joanne Goldstein as secretary of labor and workforce development.

Thanks everyone for having me today. Thank you for being strong and standing up for the rights of working people. And thank you for your support in the last election.

These are sobering times. Because the national debate right now is about more than collective bargaining. It's about the place of working people in determining their own destiny. It's about what kind of country we want to live in -- what values we will defend and what we will hand on to future generations.

We have, all of us, been tested by this global economic collapse. Every single person and business I know has been touched. It has upended people's income, savings, home values, retirement plans. For many, it has shaken their confidence in the future.

That environment has become precarious for the labor movement in America. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker, over the unprecedented protest of his own legislature, has brought the fight against working people to new heights. Republican counterparts in Ohio and Indiana are playing the same game.

The assault on your rights has been carried out in the name of emergency budget cutting. But you know that's a sham. Every reasonable proposal by labor to share in the sacrifice to help solve the budget crisis has been rejected out of hand, and the rights of those couple of unions who endorsed Governor Walker have been spared. This is no exercise in fiscal restraint. This is the pursuit of a radical agenda to limit the power of working people to determine their own destiny.

Collective bargaining is not an obstacle to reform. We've shown right here in Massachusetts that you don't need to attack public sector workers or their unions to make change and deliver lasting and meaningful reforms.

We worked together to give schools and teachers new tools and new ways to reach the kids stuck in the achievement gap.

We worked together to streamline a sprawling transportation bureaucracy, to save the state millions and improve customer service.

We worked together to end the worst excesses in our public pension system.

We worked together to close our budget gap.

We don't always agree on everything. Sometimes our differences are sharp. But working people have had a place at our table and a stake in our accomplishments.

That's no sign of weakness. That's how reform and respect work side by side. And that's how we get results.

Results for your kids, whose schools and teachers have received more support than ever before in Commonwealth history, even when the bottom was falling out of much of the state budget, and whose performance exceeds every other state in the country.

Results for your brothers and sisters, who have seen state construction accelerate to over $1 billion a year while private construction work was shriveling up, investments that are helping to add another 15,000 jobs last month and continuing to push the unemployment rate down.

Results for your neighbors and yourselves, who have seen health care made secure for over 98% of our residents -- far more than in any other state. And whose premiums are finally getting under control.

Because we have worked together, the collection of families, small businesses and working people we call our Commonwealth is strong and getting stronger.

I know you're anxious, even angry. I know you feel the weight of the full-scale assault that organized labor is under, and that you see the politics that are behind it. So, I want you to know that Tim Murray and I still stand with you.

We've been there for the first-in-the-nation Card Check bill, for the extensions in unemployment benefits, and fighting against the misclassification of workers in the underground economy.

We've been there for the right of personal care attendants and child care workers and everyone else to organize and to bargain in good faith.

And we are still there.

We have shown you that we do not and will not disregard your right to help determine your own destiny and share in our prosperity.

But I did not come here today just to express solidarity with organized labor, important as that is. I came here, as a friend, to challenge you.

Make no mistake about it. There are people here in Massachusetts -- just like in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio -- who see the recent economic climate as a perfect chance to hobble the labor movement. To them, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive both an economic and a political agenda. There are also people in the labor movement who do not see or will not acknowledge the deep resentment some in the public feel about some of the benefits union members enjoy at a time when everything in their own lives is up for grabs.

The public is hungry for change. Be careful not to let labor be cast as an obstacle to change. Because if they see your rights as an obstacle to change, the public will take those rights away.

The irony is that if labor is not an engine of reform, you not only play into your detractors' hands, but also betray your origins.

Organized labor has been the driving force for workplace equality and safety, and the expansion of the middle class in American history. In 1943, thanks to organized labor, Massachusetts became the first state in America to pass a law limiting child labor. Twenty years later public employees fought for and won their collective bargaining rights on Beacon Hill. The minimum wage, maternity leave, women's rights and civil rights -- labor was central to these reforms. Reform is your legacy. Your principles are not obstacles to the greater good. For working people, in or out of a union, they are the path to the greater good.

So in the spirit and tradition of labor as reformers, in the same spirit in which we have faced so many hard issues already together, I challenge you to work with us on the agenda for the second term.

Work with us to expand opportunity, to strengthen the schools, to lower health care costs, to end youth violence. But more than that, work with us especially on the hard issues that touch you and labor interests most directly, where everyone expects you to "just say no."

Work with us to establish "Innovation Schools" in struggling inner city communities, in the places where families rightly or wrongly believe that charter schools are their only hope. Show your inventiveness, and unlock your creativity, to form a new, more flexible educational environment. And work with principals, parents and other professionals to do whatever it takes to reach the kids we're leaving behind.

Continue to work with us to bring the cost of municipal health care down. There is nothing wrong or disrespectful in me or anyone else asking you to contribute differently to your health care costs, to save the jobs of your brothers and sisters, and no need for you to sacrifice either the quality of your health care or your seat at the table to do so.

Work with us to make the public pension system sustainable. We've worked together to end the worst of the excesses. Now let's make the changes necessary to assure that it survives for the next generation of workers and is fair for all taxpayers.

None of these issues are easy. Many of you have worked with us closely on these measures and shown great creativity and engagement. But you need to understand that the general public is ready to go even further. The chorus of those who want to end the pension system entirely, or give you no role in health care plan design, or worse, take the "public" out of the schools in favor of charters is loud. If you allow yourselves to be painted as obstacles to change, it will grow louder.

A lot of people are hurting in this country, in and out of unions. And for some that makes them want to say everyone is on their own. In the end, I just don't buy that notion. It has never worked for working people, especially the working poor, and it is not what a community is about. I want a community -- a healthy, safe, working, optimistic community, where people understand that we have a stake in each other. We started rebuilding that 4 years ago, and we kept right on building through the worst economic collapse in living memory. And our persistence has made this Commonwealth a national leader in job creation, student achievement, health care, clean and alternative energy and so much more.

We cannot succeed as a state or as a society if we cannot uphold the basic dignity of working people and extend our prosperity to the people who make it possible. I am willing to do my part. More jobs, better schools, more affordable health care and safer communities, working alongside you, not against you. I ask you to do your part, too, by working with us to achieve real and meaningful reform, in the spirit and best tradition of the labor movement itself.

This is the work for the second term and the path to a better, stronger Commonwealth. If we come to it together, I am confident that our best days are ahead.

Thank you.

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