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Public Statements

Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor Jobs with Justice Convention

Location: Washington, DC

Good afternoon. Buenos tardes!

Thank you, Sarita, for that introduction. It's great to see you, hermana! Thanks to you and President Hansen for your leadership and your vision. And I also want to thank Larry Cohen of CWA for starting this magnificent organization almost a quarter century ago.

And to each and every one of you spending your Saturday here because you care so much, I just have to say: muchas gracias -- thank you for being here, Jobs With Justice!

We've got folks from all over the country here today. You're labor leaders, community leaders, students and faith leaders who ­every day are fighting for the rights of working people in 46 cities and 24 states across the nation. You're doing things every day that change the lives of working families and help our communities.

Every day, you're working to energize our grassroots, to inspire our young people, and to organize, organize, organize. Every day, you're mobilizing folks, you're in our streets and you're knocking on doors.

This is how we will grow our movement. This is how we will rebuild our economy and re-grow our middle class. This is how we will take the fight to them. Brothers and sisters, this is how we'll win! Are you fired up? Are you ready to go? All right! Me, too!

If anyone here today ever thinks for a moment that your activism doesn't change lives, think again. As your Secretary of Labor, I'm telling you it absolutely does.

The day after President Obama named me Labor Secretary, I said there's a new sheriff in town. And I meant it. Most American businesses play by the rules. But the few bad actors that don't... they need to understand we won't let them take advantage by breaking the law.

After being sworn in, I added 300 new wage and hour investigators to help ensure workers are paid properly for the work they've already done. We've collected hundreds of millions of dollars in back wages from employers who've cheated their workers out of money that they're legally owed. But even with the extra manpower -- even with our enforcement successes -- we all know the Department of Labor can't be in every worksite in every city.

That's why I've been proud to institute an open-door policy and hold regular listening sessions with organizations like Jobs with Justice. I share your deep commitment to help protect America's most vulnerable workers, such as those who come to this country under the H2B visa program. Groups like yours serve an important role, sounding the alarm when guest workers are abused, exploited, underpaid and threatened with deportation.

You all know about the case of Vanderbilt Landscaping in Nashville. You've been leading the fight to correct the injustices that these workers faced. And your tireless efforts are paying off.

Here were a group of 42 Latino H-2B guest workers who came to this country seeking a better life and a decent wage, but Vanderbilt Landscaping paid these workers less than the minimum wage. They violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. They willfully violated the rules governing the H2B program. They misrepresented themselves and their plans for these workers. They thought they could get away with flouting the law, but they didn't!

And why not? Because Jobs with Justice helped discover the violations and get the word out.

Well, just last month, we resolved our own case against Vanderbilt Landscaping. We collected back wages for these workers. We assessed fines and penalties against this company. But we didn't stop there. Because of its violations, Vanderbilt Landscaping won't be able to hire a single H2B worker -- or any guest workers at all -- for the next three years. Together with the Excluded Workers Congress, you have fought for these guest workers -- and justice has been served. Wage fraud is illegal and it's immoral, and brothers and sisters, we simply won't stand for it!

I'm excited to be here today for so many reasons. Your energy and enthusiasm is contagious, and your work here at Jobs with Justice is more important than ever.

Every day, I wake up thinking about ways to help more Americans find work.

The Obama administration wants to build roads and bridges right now to put Americans back to work. We want to make it easier for our innovators to invent things right now. We want to grow a new green economy -- and create new, high-tech industries that will produce high-skilled, high-paying jobs... right now. We want to invest in education and training for our young people right now. We want to export products -- NOT paychecks -- right now. And we want to make things right here in America -- right now.

Am I right?

That's why our President stood up, and took bold action to save the automobile industry. And it's why he has made investments in manufacturing a top priority in this country. The President knows that a strong manufacturing sector can boost local economies, sustain entire communities and create thousands of good jobs for working families. Jobs that provide fair wages, benefits, and a voice for workers to be able to demand dignity and respect!

Jobs with Justice, you do need a voice. But right now, in states across the country, some elected officials are using our financial crisis as an excuse to take this country backward by attacking collective bargaining rights, but you know that's the wrong way to go.

In places like Wisconsin and Ohio, you are fighting back and defending the labor unions that built America's middle class. You helped collect 1.3 million signatures in Ohio so citizens can veto what's happened there. And in Wisconsin, six officials who stood against public sector workers are now facing recall elections.

These politicians need to understand that American workers still want and need a seat at the table.

We know collective bargaining gives them that seat to demand safer working conditions, to make a living wage to provide for their family, and to give them dignity, respect and the chance to earn a better living. President Obama understands that labor unions are not the cause of America's problems. They have always been a part of the solution.

As soon as he took office, President Obama signed executive orders to outlaw government money being spent on union-busting activity. He has supported a strong National Mediation Board committed to ensuring that union elections are democratic. Under the old law, anyone who didn't vote in an election was counted as a vote against the union. That made no sense. Now, we're just counting the people who actually vote, like any other election.

At the Department of Labor, we're doing our part as well. We recently proposed a new rule requiring employers to report spending on consultants they hire to "persuade" workers not to form a union. We believe that workers have a right to know who's trying to influence them and how much of company earnings are being spent on anti-union efforts.

There was some good news recently for those who believe in collective bargaining. More than 40,000 TSA workers voted to form a union for the very first time. It was an important victory for the men and women who keep our airports safe.

I know what it means to have a union. I've been involved in the labor movement since I was a young girl. The rights I'm fighting for today are the rights my Dad fought for as a Teamsters shop steward. My father is of Mexican descent and my mother is Nicaraguan. I grew up in a home where both of my parents were union members. They taught me the value of a hard day's work.

My Dad will proudly tell you he was a laborer, a farm worker and a railroad worker. My mother worked at a toy factory and raised seven kids. We had to face challenges. Growing up in La Puente, California, the air was not always fit to breathe. In my zip code, we lived near a Superfund site, 17 gravel pits, and 5 polluted landfills -- including one in the backyard of an elementary school. Several miles away in area code 90210, there were zero landfills, zero gravel pits, and zero chemical plants. I grew up with a strong understanding that there were "haves" and "have-nots" in this world.

My father taught me about the difference unions can make in the lives of workers. Growing up, I remember sitting at the kitchen table and helping him translate the workers' grievances from Spanish to English. Their pay was meager. The work was dirty. The conditions were unsafe. It wasn't fair. My Dad taught me that injustices in the workplace exist and that workers need a voice on the job.
My mother helped teach me to honor and respect the caregivers who keep our families strong. One of her first jobs when she immigrated to this country was as a domestic worker. This was before I was born, but from what she's told me, the problems she faced back then are the same problems millions of women are facing today.

Domestic workers do some of the hardest work out there, and it does matter. It matters to the elderly man who needs help opening the medicine bottle, taking a bath or changing his clothes. For countless loved ones, domestic workers are sometimes the first face they see in the morning, and the last one they see before they got to sleep. Domestic workers give so much of themselves physically and emotionally. They are professionals we rely on, and they should be treated as such. Yet millions of home care workers struggle to get by, living near poverty level -- earning a median income of $17,000 a year. Through your Caring Across Generations campaign, you help give them a voice so they can demand dignity and respect, no matter who they are.

I've said before and I'll say it again: all workers have protections under the laws of this nation. We need to nurture the contributions of our immigrant workers, so we can win the global race to out-build, out-educate and out-innovate our global competition. That's why President Obama will not let up on our fight for a more sane and humane 21st century immigration system. For young people who were brought to this country as children by their parents, it's time to pass the DREAM Act! We must harness the talent and patriotism of these students who love this country and offer a path to citizenship to those who serve in our military or excel in the classroom. We don't have a person to lose, or any talent to spare -- especially in hard times.

I know people are struggling right now, and I know working people are taking the hardest hit.

It breaks my heart, not only as Labor Secretary -- but as Hilda, the daughter of proud working people.

Earlier this year, we honored the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, where 146 people -- mostly immigrant women and girls -- tragically lost their lives. The fire at Triangle left many lessons from which we can all learn. I've paid particular attention to three of them:

* We must our most vulnerable workers;
* We have to be vigilant on worker safety; and
* Workers must have the right to organize and bargain collectively.

To honor the legacy of the Triangle Fire, we invited a group of women organizers to the White House, and they told us why they have chosen to organize their workplaces. We heard from Deanna, a childcare worker in Ohio. We heard from Allison, a domestic worker in New York. We heard from Ernestine, who works at a Walmart. And from Liliana, who works at a T-Mobile Call Center.

These women made it very clear that a century after the triangle fire, workers still want and need a voice on the job. Collective bargaining still means a seat at the table to demand things like decent working conditions, healthcare and safe work places. And it means respect, dignity and a chance for all Americans to earn a better life.

Thanks to your efforts, Jobs with Justice. And thanks for continuing to stand up for working people. We're making progress, but we still have a long way to go. This is the fight of our lifetimes.

So for the women and men out work, for our children, and our grandchildren: Let us not despair. Let us take inspiration from our history and hope from our progress. Let us make a commitment together to get this country back on track. Let us all do the work that will get America working.

Thank you for having me here, Jobs with Justice.

Have a wonderful convention, y si se puede!

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