August 2013

Remarks to the 2013 United Food and Commercial Workers National Convevtion

Remarks to the United Food and Commercial Workers
August 12, 2013

(Chicago, IL) Thank you so much, President Hansen, for that wonderful introduction.  I am honored that you invited me here today, and I am eager to talk with you about how we can work together to improve the lives of working men and women and strengthen America.  

I want to start by saying how important it is to have a leader like Joe Hansen and a union like UFCW in these struggles.  Over the years, we have fought important battles together.  Many of those fights have centered on health care – and President Hansen and your union are consistent and persistent champions of quality, affordable care –for UFCW members and for all Americans.

When I served in the Illinois legislature and since I came to Congress in 1999, we have fought together against a race to the bottom – companies that sought to cut back health benefits and shift costs to working families.  Mega-corporations like Walmart that refuse to provide comprehensive health benefits at a price workers can afford – especially on Walmart salaries.  Today, we are working hard to make sure that UFCW workers get the best possible treatment in Obamacare.  My leader – Nancy Pelosi – and I are working with the White House to accomplish that goal -- in the face of Republican refusal to let us make any legislative improvements to the law.

Instead, they have forced 40 House votes to repeal Obamacare.  Let me tell you, my brothers and sisters, we will not go back.  We will not take away the rights that we have won –no more pre-existing condition exclusions that affect 129 million adults and children in America.  No more gender discrimination.  No more limits on lifetime and annual benefits.  We can and must build upon Obamacare – as we did with Social Security and Medicare.  Repeal, however, won’t solve the problem of companies that don’t provide benefits or that pay too little and or cost-shift to working families to try and get a competitive edge.

Health care is just one example of the choices we have to make.  We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history.

We are faced with levels of income inequality that we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age.  
We see attacks on union that have brought private sector union membership down to 6.6% -- and the guns are now aimed not just at you but at public sector unions as well.  And we know that the two trends are tied together at the hip.  Inequality goes up when union membership goes down.

Organized labor brought us the middle-class.  That’s just a fact.  You pioneered paid leave and vacation, pensions and health benefits. You ensured that workers got their fair share of productivity gains.  

Too many working people do not enjoy those rights today -- and we are at risk of not getting them back unless we act aggressively, immediately, and collectively.  

We see the numbers:

Between 1948 and 1973, the productivity of U.S. workers rose 96.8% and wages rose 93.7%.

Between 1973 and 2011, that productivity rose 80.1% but wages rose 4.2%.  

Median household income today – adjusted for inflation – is at 1989 levels.  

28 million workers earn less than $9.89 an hour – $20,570 a year – if they work full-time.  I don’t know if you’ve seen the McDonald’s “budget” for their employees – it was clearly drawn up by people who have no clue that you cannot buy health insurance at $20 a month and that housing often costs more than $600 a month.  Their budget also assumes you must have a second job.  

I have been on the street with fast food workers who are forced to turn to government programs like Medicaid and food stamps.  The Republicans demonize those workers as “takers.”  But it’s low wage employers who depend on taxpayers to subsidize their employees because they refuse to pay a decent wage.  It’s those rich CEO’s that are the real “takers.”

We see people who are working hard but not reaching the middle-class – and who worry that as bad as it is, it may be worse for their children.

My brothers and sisters, I’m here today to tell you we can change those trends – we can rebuild the American dream for everyone.  We can restore economic and electoral democracy and make sure that we leave our children better off.  I am more optimistic today than ever – not just because I know that you are here to lead the fight but because I see workers and their allies around the country coming together like never before.  People who believe in the American promise – that if you work hard you can obtain the American Dream – and are willing to do everything possible to restore opportunity and fairness.  

So let me share with you some of my ideas for action.

First, we need to create good jobs.  Over the last 40 months, we’ve created 7.2 million new jobs – but that is not nearly enough.  The labor participation rate – the percentage of working-age Americans with a job – is only 63.4%.  4.4 million Americans who want full-time jobs are working part-time.  Many of the jobs that are being created are low-wage jobs.  And the gains that we have made through investments are being threatened by budget cuts, the sequester and a refusal by House Congressional leadership to let us make the investments we need.

We’re not talking about make-work jobs here – we are talking about putting people back to work to rebuild our infrastructure – a world-class transportation system, a smart electric grid, schools that aren’t falling down.  We can develop domestic, clean energy.  We can foster our new manufacturing industry and help small businesses. Union jobs that guarantee families have money to spend on food and consumer goods, going out to eat once and a while and maybe even taking a vacation.  Jobs that are good for families – and good for our country.  

Second, we need to stop worker exploitation.  As long as unemployment is high, most of the cards are held by employers.  Many employers look out for their workers, but many do not.  And they know that in today’s market, their workers have few places to go if they leave their job, but that the line will be out the door for people looking to take their place – even with low pay and bad working conditions.

I heard about these problems last March, at a hearing here in Chicago organized by the Retail Justice Alliance.  About workers given only part-time hours, having their schedules switched at the last minute (making it pretty hard for working parents), working men and women working 2 or 3 jobs and still not getting benefits.  That is why, working closely with your legislative staff, I introduced H.R. 675, the Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights.  This bill is designed to eliminate the incentives in current law for companies to hire part-time workers because protections are now reserved only for full-time employees.  Protections like Obamacare, the Family Medical Leave Act, and pensions under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act, ERISA.  

For decades, employers have worked hard to keep workers below the hours that would trigger health, pension and paid leave benefits.  That trend is increasing.  Over the last decade, the number of part-time workers in our labor force increased by nearly 3 million.  

I believe those practices are just plain wrong, and my bill would put an end to them.  All workers should have access to the critical benefits that allow them to provide for their families and earn financial security.  And no employer should be better off because he can avoid his responsibility by cutting workers’ hours.  My bill would ensure that all workers get Obamacare, FMLA, and ERISA protections by requiring coverage for part-time workers…that no company is advantaged because they hire part-time instead of full-time workers.

And as we move more workers to full-time hours, we need to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and fight for liveable wages

Ending exploitation means giving OSHA the tools it needs to provide safe workplaces, banning toxic substances in the workplace and increasing penalties on companies whose practices cause worker injuries and deaths.  

Part of ending worker discrimination is the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform – reform that allows 11 million immigrants to share in the American dream – the reason that they came to this country in the first place.  The ability to work hard without fear of deportation, to join a union and receive fair wages, and to ensure that their children get can get quality education and succeed.  

But more than anything, ending worker exploitation means protecting the right to organize and collectively bargain.  I’ve met with workers who would love to join union.  They want the union advantage.  They know that union workers make 27% more on average and are nearly 5 times more likely to have a pension.  But they know more – they know that a union gives them a voice and gets them respect.  

That is why so many companies are fighting so hard to prevent union organizing.  My colleagues and I just this week sent a letter to Walmart CEO Mike Duke calling on him to stop retaliatory action against those who traveled to Arkansas and are standing up for their rates and to open up a real dialogue with those workers.

I know that we have powerful opponents in these fights.  Opponents who say we cannot afford to make federal investments --- and are unwilling to raise a single dime by increasing tax rates on millionaires and billionaires.  

Opponents who are fomenting generational warfare – arguing that seniors are “stealing” from their children and grandchildren -- the same people who are pushing for deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare while at the same time cutting SNAP benefits and elementary school education for children – taking from seniors and children in order to keep tax cuts in place for the wealthy.

Opponents who are trying to block a pathway to American citizenship for hard-working immigrants but want to keep open the overseas routes that allow corporations to ship profits and jobs overseas.  

Their views are not the views of the majority of Americans – and they will not prevail.
My brothers and sisters, I remain optimistic.  I sense a new feeling in this country that we are not going to accept a new normal that denies opportunity, that turns our economy and our democracy over to a favored few, and denies our children and their children their chance at the American dream.  

I am optimistic because I believe in the power of organizing, in the power of people, and in the power of the union.

The GOP's Politics of Subtraction

The saying goes that politics is the art of addition.  Even first time candidates for any elective office quickly realize that their circle of friends and family is not enough, that they need the support people unlike themselves if they are to have any hope of winning. It's elemental.

That's what makes the Republican game plan (assuming there is one) so baffling to me.  As each day goes by, they seem to alienate another sector of our society, and most of the time it seems absolutely intentional.

While they are home for the August recess, I just wonder who’s left for them to subtract from their ever shrinking universe of supporters.

The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans made themselves safe districts, ones made up of homogeneous conservative constituents who appreciate their uncompromising and dismissive attitude toward those who disagree.  I have to wonder about that.