June 18, 2010
Thank you, President Roller [City Club Board President Jan Roller].
Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here with you in the great city of Cleveland. I want to talk to you about the grave economic challenges we face today – and the labor movement’s vision for where we need to go.
There is no better place to have a discussion about our economic challenges than Cleveland—where business and labor built the American middle class. Cleveland embodies both the consequences of our failed economic policies of the last three decades – and our hope for a different future.
The economic crisis has hit hard here—116,000 lost jobs in the last decade in Cuyahoga County. Eighty-six thousand home foreclosures last year alone. A self-defeating attempt to address budget shortfalls by attacking school budgets and teachers.
But we can also see a glimpse of a better future in the Lake Erie wind turbine project—with turbines built here in Ohio, in the OneCommunity Project fiber optic network, and in Cleveland’s role as a global center of fuel cell development.
We’re at a turning point today. The economic course our nation started on in 1980—the effort to have a low-wage, high-consumption society that imports more and more of what it consumes—has hit the wall. We cannot afford to stay this course– of letting the private sector and the financial markets run amok, of outsourcing everything that’s not nailed to the floor, and of pushing down workers every chance we get. And last night’s vote by Republicans in the United States Senate to block a simple extension of unemployment benefits for the most hard-pressed people without jobs is just the latest shame. At some point, there is nobody left to buy the junk that we import from everywhere but here.
We now face a future of prolonged high unemployment and stagnant or falling wages—unless we do something different.
Today I am going to talk about doing something different.
We need a new national economic strategy for a global economy.
At the heart of our strategy must be a workforce with world class skills and world class rights and trade policies that serve the interests of the American people. But today I also want to talk to you about what may seem like a strange subject–immigration–because it is patently clear that we cannot talk about our national workforce strategy unless we face head-on our own contradictions, hypocrisy and history on immigration.
The truth is that in a dynamic global economy in the 21st century, we simply cannot afford to have millions of hard-working people without legal protections, without meaningful access to higher education, shut off from the high-wage, high-productivity economy. It is just too costly to waste all that talent and strength and drive.
But immigration reform is not just an economic issue. The way we as a nation treat the immigrants among us is about more than economic strategy—it is about who we are as a nation.
I grew up in a small town in Southwestern Pennsylvania, not that far from here. The immigrant path led from the coalmines to Pittsburgh to Cleveland.
And if you look around Cleveland at the ethnic clubs and the churches, you see a city that immigrants built–Hungarians and Poles, Irish and Italians, Serbs and Croats and Jews, as well as African Americans. Cleveland is a city where the traditions of the places we came from are the very foundation of our community.
It was not easy when my family came to this country. My parents fled poverty and war from different corners of Europe. When I was a kid, there was an ugly name for every one of us in all twelve languages spoken in Nemacolin, PA—wop and hunkie and polack and kike. We were the last hired and first fired, the people who did the hardest and most dangerous work, the people whose pay got shorted because we didn’t know the language and were afraid to complain.
We got to the mines and the mills, and the people already there said we were taking their jobs, ruining their country. Yet in the end the immigrants of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation prevailed, and built America. This is the history of my family, and this is the story of Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Detroit and Chicago and Baltimore and a thousand cities and towns across America.
And yet today I hear from working people who should know better, some in my own family – that those immigrants are taking our jobs, ruining our country. Haven’t we been here before?
When I hear that kind of talk, I want to say, did an immigrant move your plant overseas? Did an immigrant take away your pension? Or cut your health care? Did an immigrant destroy American workers’ right to organize? Or crash the financial system? Did immigrant workers write the trade laws that have done so much harm to Ohio?
My friends, we are most of us the children of immigrants.
But there was no labor movement in America until workers learned to look at each other and see not immigrants and native born, not white and black, not different last names, but our common fate as workers.
The labor movement believes that our goal as a nation should be a future of shared prosperity – not stubborn unemployment and a lost generation. That our economic strategy must bring us together instead of driving us apart. Our strategy must help us be the kind of country we want our children to thrive in—the country our history tells us we can be. The home of the American Dream.
So exactly what is the American Dream? Some will tell you the American Dream is the idea that in America anyone can become rich. And the fact that the upper reaches of our society are relatively open is a good thing about our country—but it is not the American Dream.
The American Dream is not that a few of us will get to be rich, but that all of us will have a fair portion of the good things in life. Time to be with our families. The chance for our children to get an education and the opportunity to make their own way in the world. Laws that protect us, not oppress us.
The American labor movement is all about the pursuit and the defense of this idea of America. And we have learned through our history that it is only when working people stand together—in the workplace and at the polling place—that the American Dream is secure.
Recently, the American Dream brought a man my age named Elvino and his son Ramon to America from Mexico. They are experienced bricklayers and were hired to work on a large mixed-use housing development—a public project. They and thirty others worked for five weeks, and the contractor just never paid them.
For too many immigrants seeking the American Dream, this is the American reality. Hard work rewarded with ripoffs. And then no way to seek justice. That’s why I am so proud to be able to say that Elvino, Ramon and their co-workers are taking this injustice to the U.S. Department of Labor, thanks to the efforts of Bricklayers Union Local 18 in Cincinnati and the Interfaith Worker Rights Center—whose members understand that truly an injury to one is an injury to all.
Immigration to the United States is part of a larger picture—the picture of how we are getting globalization wrong. There is no better way to understand that than to look at what has happened between the United States and Mexico since NAFTA was implemented in 1994.
NAFTA was sold to the American public on the idea that increasing trade with Mexico would create good jobs in both countries and slow the flow of undocumented workers coming to the U.S. from Mexico.
Instead, inequality has grown and workers’ rights have eroded in both the U.S. and Mexico since NAFTA’s passage. And illegal immigration flows have tripled.
Today we treat our relationship with Mexico as if it were a national security problem—solvable with military aid and a militarized border. And that is a dangerous mistake. The failures of our relationship with Mexico represent a failed economic strategy. They cannot be solved with guns and soldiers and fences. They must be addressed through an economic strategy for shared prosperity based on rising wages in both countries.
Instead, at the heart of the failure of our immigration policy is an unpleasant fact, one that you almost never hear talked about openly: Too many U.S. employers actually like the current state of the immigration system—a system where immigrants are both plentiful and undocumented—afraid and available. Too many employers like a system where our borders are closed and open at the same time—closed enough to turn immigrants into second-class citizens, open enough to ensure an endless supply of socially and legally powerless cheap labor.
Our immigration system makes a mockery of the American dream. The people doing the hardest work for the least money have no legal protections, no ability to send their children to college, no real right to form a union, no economic or legal security—no way to turn their contributions—their years of hard work—into the most fundamental right of all, the right to vote. That is intolerable for a democracy.
Recently, I met a young woman named Fabiola, who came to the United States when she was two years old. Her parents have worked in the United States for twenty-two years. Fifteen years ago, her father became a U.S. citizen, so all her younger siblings who were born here also are citizens. But Fabiola fell through the legal cracks and is now too old to become a citizen under current immigration law.
But that has not stopped her from working hard to live the American Dream. Recently, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in international development. But she cannot find a job in her field because she is undocumented.
How does Fabiola’s story make any sense in economic or human terms? Her talents and her education are being squandered because our immigration system is simply not working
That is why the AFL-CIO is fighting to fix this broken immigration system as a crucial element of our broader economic strategy. Because we stand for the American Dream for all who work in our country. Because we are for ending our two-tiered workforce and our two-tiered society. And because an underclass of disenfranchised workers ends up hurting all workers.
But we are not for any kind of immigration reform. We will not support the return to outdated guest worker programs that give immigrants no security, no future here in the United States, no rights and no hope of being part of the American Dream.
Immigration reform must begin with the principle that workers in the United States deserve to enjoy a fair share of the wealth we create—that wages should move up with productivity. The labor movement and a broad coalition of faith-based and immigrants’ rights groups have worked with former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall to put together such a program for comprehensive immigration reform.
The AFL-CIO is for a fair path toward legalization for all undocumented workers who are working to realize the American Dream. We are for the DREAM Act, that gives young people like Fabiola a future in the only country they know.
We need an independent commission to determine our society’s genuine need for more immigrants, and then we need to build a pathway that allows immigrants to be securely part of our country from day one—able to assert their legal rights, including the right to organize, without fear of retaliation.
And together with this commission, going forward we are for establishing real penalties for employers who break the law. We must focus enforcement not on those who come here seeking the American Dream, but on those who would exploit them.
This is the reform the labor movement is fighting for.
But instead, we see today a dangerous drift toward a politics of hate. Last month, I went to Arizona to stand with working people who were the target of a hate campaign—a campaign for racial profiling waged by the state legislature and signed into law by the governor. A campaign to make anyone who might look like an immigrant live in fear of the police. All of us should fear such a system: In the end, don’t all of us who aren’t Native Americans look like the immigrants and children of immigrants that we are?
As President of the AFL-CIO, my message to working people is that we all are bound together by our lives as workers, our dreams for our families, and our hopes for this country’s future. The labor movement stands for giving all workers in America the right to dream the American Dream.
Unfortunately, the American Dream is slipping away.
Today, as in any economic crisis, there are people who offer hatred and divisiveness as the solution to the crisis. If our political leaders do not lead, if they do not offer help in the present and a clear strategy for prosperity in the future—starting with good jobs—those voices of hate will grow, they will become more powerful, and they will feed on the public’s anger and pain and desperation.
President Obama has laid out in broad terms the approach we need to take. He has spoken out for creating good jobs, rebuilding manufacturing, taking on the challenge of climate change and energy independence, growing exports and investing in our infrastructure, including our education infrastructure.
If we are truly going to build a world class workforce, we need to restore workers’ fundamental human right to organize and bargain with their employers. And we need to make sure every worker in America – documented or undocumented – is protected by our labor laws. That is why it is so urgent that we reform our immigration system.
The President’s strategy also requires that we invest in rebuilding our country. Consider this fact—as a result of the economic recovery act, we are now in the process of planning approximately 500 miles of high-speed rail, including lines here in Ohio. Sounds good, until you realize that China, a country about the same size as the United States, is in the process of constructing 5,000 miles of high-speed rail.
Restoring workers’ rights and building workers’ skills. Creating the infrastructure of the 21st century. Thinking strategically when it comes to trade policy. These are the strategies for making the American Dream as real for our children as it was for my parents.
But that will not be enough. We as a nation must be true to our better selves—employers must not make a buck on the backs of workers who live in fear of deportation, and workers must stand together in the workplace for good jobs, safe jobs, health care for all, and retirement security we can count on. And so when we talk about making the American Dream real, the labor movement stands for making it real for all of us who do the work of our country. All of us—no matter what we look like, who we choose to love, or where we come from. Surely there we can find common ground.