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Public Statements

The Congressional Black Caucus--African American and the Labor Movement

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. PAYNE. Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the gentleman from New York for that kind introduction and for his consistent leadership on the CBC's Special Order hours. Tonight's topic is ``African Americans and the Labor Movement.'' It is an American story.

Historically, union members have played a critical role in the civil rights struggles of the past, and the involvement continues today. When Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed for civil disobedience, it was unions and union members who came to the legal and financial aid of Dr. King. African American workers have played a pivotal role in strengthening our unions and our economy. The path to the middle class for African Americans has always been through union jobs. What we see is an erosion of that dream. People's ways of life--what they're used to, the levels at which they're used to living--are eroding. It is because there is an attack on organized labor in this country, for there are forces within this Nation that are eroding the quality of life for hundreds and thousands of Americans throughout this Nation.

So I am really here to say and to point out to this august body that labor has been the pathway for many Americans--not just for African Americans, but for people of all walks of life--to live the American Dream. To own a home, to feed their children, to send them to school, to take care of their parents, to have health care, job security has all been through labor. We stand here today and count the countless number of times that the labor movement has been there for us in America. This is a kinship that you can expect from a fellow union member.

I have been in two unions in my lifetime. Yes, I'm a Member of Congress today, but there have been times in my life during which I've worked hourly jobs, and it was because of the unions I was able to get a living wage and have the resources to raise my family. So I don't come to you, preaching to you, not knowing how it is to have to get up every morning and punch a clock and look for overtime and hope that you can get it in order to increase the wages that you bring home. The reasons to support unions are clear. Union workers are more likely to have health insurance and are more likely to have pension plans. Receiving this preventative care now helps lower health care costs later.

Let me also say something about the Affordable Care Act at this point in time. It is a great piece of legislation. It will go down in history just as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have changed this country, because I can see the goal line. It's going to take some time to get there, and, yes, it will have to be tweaked and looked at and changed in some areas; but it is a monumental piece of legislation that is going to change health care in this Nation for millions of people who have never had health care. To my fellow Americans, that lowers the costs for all of you, because you pay for people who do not have health care.

So now you will have millions of Americans paying into their own system which lowers the cost for you.

Today, labor unions are still at the forefront of improving equality in the workplace. Right now in New Jersey, we're fighting to raise the minimum wage. Despite overwhelming support by the people of New Jersey, the Governor of New Jersey vetoed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.25. But our workers will not be deterred. This November, New Jerseyans will have the chance to right that ship at the ballot box and raise the minimum wage for millions of workers.

In Jersey City, the second largest city in the State, in my district, it is expected the city will require paid sick leave to all workers. This is important to our workers and to our economy because it has been proven that paid sick leave reduces turnover, increases productivity, and lowers health care costs for all.

I spoke about my experience in labor. I worked for a manufacturing firm as a young man of 20 or so. It was a business that manufactured computer forms. It was the only African American company of its kind in the United States of America at that time, and I was proud to work there because my vocation was printing in school. So I was very glad to go there and work in that atmosphere.

But as a 20-year-old does sometimes when you're young and you make mistakes, I was fired by that company. The owner of the company that fired me was my uncle. My father was the hearing officer against me, and my grandfather was a witness against me.

Let me say that no one knows how important it is to be represented, because the union got my job back. In spite of everything that I was up against, the union got my job back. I stand here to let you know I understand what it is to be represented firsthand.

Mr. Speaker, the people of this country and this great State of New Jersey deserve a wage that they can live on.

Several months ago, colleagues of mine in the Congressional Black Caucus took the SNAP challenge and we lived on what a person would have to live on for a day and try to make ends meet and eat. It was an eye-opening experience. I had two bottles of water, a microwave macaroni and cheese, and a half a can of tuna fish is what I had for a day. So if we think people are living well on $4.17 a day, then you have another thought coming.

People need to have a living wage. We know what it costs to live in this Nation. We will continue as the CBC, as a group, to voice our opinion and be heard on these issues that impact our districts, our States, and our Nation.

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