United Auto Workers Speech
Thank you very much. Everyone here at this conference is focused on organizing the unorganized and on empowerment - the empowerment of people. Let me start off by giving you my vision back in 1990 of empowerment. After our victory in 1990, when we were outspent seven to one and no one gave us a chance, Sheila and I would go around Minnesota and people would come up and they would say "This is great! If you can win anyone could!" I wasn't sure how to take that, but I've always hoped that it was empowerment. The other thing I wanted to say about the key to that victory is that people think that you maybe need to be a lawyer as a precursor to coming to Congress, but I think teaching is a good background. The reason is that what I did was I called all the students that I had given A's to over the course of my teaching, and I said "It's time now!" No, not really.
Let me thank you all. I am honored to be here at the 54th annual UAW Region 2 summer schools. I was a teacher for twenty years and the best thing I ever said to my students was you will be more powerful - not in a corrupting way but in a good way - if you are credible to yourself. And if you are credible to yourself, you are credible to other people. And you will be more credible to yourself if you do not separate the lives that you live from the words that you speak. I'd like to thank you, UAW members, for your commitment to working families, for being here at this summer school to improve the union, which means improve Ohio, which means improve our political system, which means improve our country. Going back to December 1937 then 1938 sit downs, you are a part of a powerful justice tradition and as a United states senator, I honor you for that. I also thank you for another reason and it has to do with my state, Minnesota.
I am so lucky to be a United States senator, and very proud. And I want you to know that in this last election of 1996, I owe so much to working families and so much to union people, for their support and I want you to know that it really was poison. So much money from all around the country came in to Minnesota. Willie Horton-type of attack ads, really disgusting. But there were three things that we did that went well. One of them was we treated people with intelligence, we didn't do this kind of slash and burn politics ads. The second thing is I did not weave or bob on the important issues - I made it clear to people in Minnesota that I was opposed to privatizing Social Security, that I was strongly for Medicare and universal healthcare coverage, that I was for living wage jobs, that I was for investment in children and education, and that I was a reformer.
I did not weave or bob on any of those issues. And as the attack became more ferocious, I just said to people in Minnesota: some of this attack is true. Living wage jobs I'm for, health care I'm for, I'm opposed to Wall Street privatizing Social Security - I'm for fair trade but I'm not for trade policies that grinds working families to pieces in our country. And you know what, Minnesotans? Some of what these big oil companies say is true - they don't like me, nor do the big pharmaceutical companies, nor the Wall Street investment banks - but they already have great representation in Washington. It's the rest of the people that need it! I'm a senator for children, education, working families!
Then, as the money poured in, and the ads became even more poisonous, we were ready with our secret weapon. We built a pyramid - I wish Sheila was here tonight, she would love being here tonight - and Sheila and I went to close to 800 house gatherings over two years. And we were ready. When they poured in the ads, we had our presence on television, but you know what else? In the last week of that race in Minnesota, every hour of that day - I do no damage to the truth - we made 10,000 get-out-the-vote calls every hour of the day from nine in the morning until ten at night for seven straight days. We didn't have a 50 percent turnout, we had a 65 percent turnout. We got the people out and we won by nine points. We've got to do that well if we're going to win elections based on what we believe in in our country.
Let me also start out with one other story, because I think that part of what we are going to focus on here is history in the past and history in the making. This gathering comes at an important time. Labor is at a cross roads. I want to talk a little about solidarity and union strength. And I start out with a Minnesota story and then with an even older story.
I was organizing in the farm areas in the mid 1980s, I was teaching and organizing. Farmers were being dragged under, they were losing their farms, not only where they worked but where they lived. They had no empowering explanation as to why they were losing their farms or what they could do and that became fertile ground (no pun intended) for politics of hatred: Posse Comatatas and some of the precursors to the armed militia, anti-Semitics, racists and all the rest. So my friends took me aside, I'm the son of a Jewish immigrant who was born in the Ukraine, and they said maybe you should just stop speaking - and organizing because you know there's a lot of anti-Semitism out there. But you know when you are 5 foot 5 you never listen to that advice (and some of you know what I mean). So I went out to the town of Alexandria, Minnesota and I spoke at a farm gathering and I finished up speaking and this big guy (lots of guys look big to me) came up and he said, "What nationality are you?"
And I said, "I'm American."
He said, "Where were you born?"
I said, "Washington D.C." "Where are your parents from?" I told him my dad was born in the Ukraine then his family moved to Russia and he fled persecution, came to our country and my mother's family came from the Ukraine, she grew up on the lower east side of New York City.
He said, "Then you are a Jew?"
Now, I wrestled at the University of North Carolina and I want you all to know that I was ready to fight. So I tensed up and I said, "Yes I am."
And he stuck out a big hand and said, "Well buddy, I am a Finn and us minorities have got to struggle together!"
That's one of my favorite Minnesota stories.
And my other story: History in the past. You've heard this story: An old man summoned his sons to his death bed to give them his last advice, he ordered his servant to bring him a bundle of sticks and he said to his eldest son, "Break it."
The son strained and strained with all his might but he couldn't break the bundle.
He then said to his other sons, "YOU try." None of them succeeded.
"Untie the string," said the father, "and each of you take a stick."
When they had done so, he told them to break the sticks and each easily broke. "You see my meaning?" said the father. "Union gives strength."
Aaesop told that story five centuries before Jesus was born, but that moral still rings true today.
In Madagascar there is a teaching, "Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won't eat you."
The old song says, "The boss don't listen when one guy squawks, but he has got to listen when the union talks."
And the Persian poet Sedee writes: "Ants, when they stick together, will vanquish the lion, or maybe the elephant."
This is our history. We knew it when we organized the child labor laws, we knew it when we organized and won the eight-hour workday, we knew it when organized and won the 40-hour week, we knew it when we organized and won Social Security, we knew it when we won minimum wage, we knew it when we won civil rights, we knew it when we won a safe work place, we knew it in Flint Michigan when the workers said "You've got to start investing in us and America and stop exporting those jobs to Mexico, Thailand and Indonesia." And we knew it in California when they took on the so-called "Paycheck Protection Act." It was a great effort, you would have been proud of your brothers and sisters, I want to tell you the only thing good about that proposition was that it really forced union people to say, "These people are coming after us and before we go out and organize anyone else, we need to do a lot of person to person organizing within our own unions!"
I just want to tell you I think we are at a crossroads and I am convinced that the vast majority of people in the country are focused on earning a decent living and being able to give their children the care they know they need and deserve. The vast majority of parents want to be able to do well by their kids because if they can do well by their kids, they'll do well in Ohio and well in our nation. And that's all about the right to organize and bargain collectively. So you can have a good job with decent wage, with decent benefits under civilized working conditions, and that is why three days ago -- and I promise you, UAW members, I will not stop speaking out about this and not stop fighting until we get it done - I introduced legislation, labor law reform. No more captive audience speeches without labor organizers getting a chance to speak to the workers. No more illegal firing of workers. And no more refusing to sign a contract with workers! Give us a level playing field and we'll win! We'll win!
UAW president Walter Ruther once said "There is a direct relation between the bread box and the ballot box- and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls." These days, legislative halls are filled with those who take away from labor's bread box. If it is the wish of this Congress to, as a special favor to the insurance companies, block legislation to give patients sensible protection. If, as a special favor to the bottom dwellers of Congress who don't want to raise the minimum wage, Congress blocks minimum wage, and if this Congress or the next Congress, as a special favor to Wall Street interest, want to privatize social security and take away benefits from those who have retired, then as a special favor to the American people we need to block these Republicans from coming back to the Congress and win the House of Representatives this November of this year!
But there is more at stake than that. It's not just the attack on unions, it's not just the attack on you or your families, these folks Gingrich and others, they don't believe in community. They think it's a sin when you have solutions to community problems. They call themselves individualistic; I call them the new isolationists. Aloneness to them is a virtue, its "Buddy, you're on your own." They think that if you work hard and you're talented as an individual, you can rise to the top. And some people do! And I'm glad when they get a chance to!
But UAW members, whatever happened to the idea "There but the grace of God go I"? What happens if you're an elderly person with Parkinson's disease? What happens if you have a disability and its only if you have a personal assistant to help you out of bed? Can you then go to work and live a life of dignity, or are you left alone? What happens if you are poor and you cannot feed your children - are they to come to school hungry? Are you left alone? What happens if you are victim of discrimination and you are left behind. Are you left alone? This is the pattern and let's understand what's at stake. It started 17 years ago this August. Ronald Reagan fired the PATCO workers and he decertified the union, and ever since then we have been getting all these kinds of legislation with these Orwellian titles that do the exact opposite of what the title says they're going to do. We've got something called the Team Act which brings back company unions...we got something called the Safe Act, which leads to gutting OSHA in an unsafe work place. We got something called the Family-Friendly Work Place Act which overturns the 40-hour week. We've got something called the Paycheck Protection Act which gags members and makes sure union members don't have a voice - oh, they love to talk about big labor and union bosses, but they don't say anything about big corporation political contributions on a scale unseen in the history of our country.
Did you know that in 1996, corporations out spent unions eleven to one? And these new isolationists, they pushed through NAFTA, they destroy heath care reform, they are opposed and to advance in the minimum wage... Let me just make it clear: What is at stake, it that many of us and many of our parents and many of our grandparents gave our sweat, our blood and our tears to make this a better country. This agenda, going back to Ronald Ragan to right now, going all the way from all this legislation which under cuts unions and depresses wages to trade agreements like NAFTA which also grind working families part, is nothing less then an effort to overturn 50 years of people's history. And make no bones about it: they'll take more away and they'll take more away unless we're out there organizing, speaking out, asserting our opinions, making sure that they know that this is our country and we intend to reassert democratic control! That is the challenge before us; we have to meet that challenge.
And sadly enough there are few in the Democratic Party that talk like these new isolationists too. Abraham Lincoln once said "If a man tells you he loves America yet hates labor, he's a liar." I am going to quote him again, "If a man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he's a liar." I say to you today that if a man or a woman says he or she is a Democrat, yet votes against labor, than he or she is a fraud.
Now these new isolationists - to them solving problems together on a national level, is a sin. But you know something? People don't believe that. About a year ago I started out on some travel, it was some of the best travel I did outside of Minnesota. I went to Delta, Mississippi a year ago. I went there because I had read in a book by Nick Cotts who was working with the Des Moines Registrar; he won a Pulitzer Prize for a book called Let them Eat Promises: The Politics of Hunger in America. And I read about this visit when Bobby Kennedy was trying to play with a little two-year-old African American boy and he kept trying to engage the little boy, you know like we do as parents, but the little boy didn't respond. And he tried again and again but the little boy didn't respond. Because the little boy was so malnourished and so hungry. And then Bobby Kennedy just broke down crying.
I started out in Tunica Mississippi, and by the way I went there just this last June, because a year ago, Mr. Robert Young, a teacher at the high school - the high school is all African American and the private school is all White - Mr. Young stood up at a town meeting and said, "Senator, we're lucky if 50% of the students graduate. And there's not a lot of hope. Would you come and speak at the graduation next year?" And it turns out I couldn't, so I called him and asked him if I could come the day before so I would get a chance to speak with the seniors. No way in the world, you men and women of the Midwest, no way in the world did I want to back away from that commitment. And I went down there and Mr. Young picked me up in Memphis, and he said "Before you go to the high school, you will be addressing the second and third graders."
And I said, "Uh-huh. A policy address to the second and third graders."
He said, "Well, yes!"
And I said, "Well tell me something, is this the last day of school?"
He said "Well, yes!"
I said, "Well good luck to me!"
And we went there to the elementary school in front of two or three hundred kids, big stage with a podium, and I was going to give a policy address. Last day of school, you getting the picture? Principle gave me a nice introduction and I said to the principle, "Can I just go down where the kids are?"
He said sure, and I went down and I asked the students, "Well what have you liked about school?" And this one little girl - she made the day for me - she raised her hand and said, "Well, I like school cause if I do well in school I can do well in my life." And I said, "Well, what do you want to be?"
Forty hands go up, everything from psychiatrists to professional wrestlers to Michael Jordan, and everything in between. But still with hope! You can take that spark of learning in any small child and you can ignite it - I know this is a teacher - and you can take that child from any background to a lifetime of creativity and accomplishment. Or, you can pour cold water on the spark of learning. We pour cold water on the spark of learning for too many children in America.
And then I went to East LA and Watts and then I went to Philips neighborhood in south Minneapolis and then I went to rural areas - by the way, these issues that we organize around these bread and butter economic issues, these are every bit as important in rural Ohio as they are in urban Ohio, sometimes the problems are more hidden, but they are just as real. And then I went to inner-city Baltimore, and then I wound up where my wife's family is from - Letcher County and Harlen County Kentucky. And everywhere I went, everywhere - I'll just summarize because I could spend ten hours on the heroes and heroines I met - but in every place I went, people were saying at least two things: "Senator, whatever happened to our national value of equal opportunities for every child in the country?" It's not here. And the second thing is, "Where are the jobs?" That's what people wanted to know! Where are the jobs? Or in some communities, where are there no jobs? Or where are the jobs that pay a decent wage so we can support ourselves and our families? That's what people were talking about.
The new isolationists believe that we don't have a community in this country, that everyone is on their own. But that's not what most families believe - these are the stories I hear: "Senator, my daughter is a 24 year old diabetic she's off our health insurance plan, I read about the Kennedy/Kassabon bill that the insurance companies can't discriminate but that they charge $10,000 for a premium. She can't afford it and no small businesses can afford to hire her because then their rates go up."
Or, "Senator, I have two parents, they never made much money, they both have Parkinson's disease, isn't there a way for them to have more support so they can stay at home and live at home in as near as normal circumstances as possible, with dignity?"
Or, "Senator, I want you to come on over and say hello to my husband Joe. You met Joe last yeah and I told you he is 45 and has cancer and the doctor gave him three months to live. I told you last year he only had 3 months to live. But my Joe is a fighter, he's still alive...Joe was now in a wheelchair." And his wife takes me aside and says, "Every day and every night I am on the phone fighting with these insurance companies about what they will cover and what they won't cover. Senator, it's not fair." No family in the United States of America, with a loved one who is ill and struggling with a disease...Should have to go through this and it is time once again to fight for universal, affordable, dignified, humane health care for every man, woman and child in America. I don't know why my party is so timid on that issue.
Or, "Senator, we both work - our combined income is 35,000 dollars a year - I'm 30, my wife is 28...We have two small children who are two and three, and it costs us $12,000 a year and we can't afford it. Can anything be done to help us?"
Or "Senator, I'm a student and I sell plasma at the beginning of the semester in order to buy text books. And I'm in my sixth year because I've been working 35 hours a week, 2 minimum wage jobs, in order to pay for my education."
Or, "Senator, I'm a single parent, I'm one of those welfare mothers that you hear about. I'm in the community college. Please, in the name of reform, don't let them force me out of school, because if I can complete my education I have a much better chance of getting a decent job."
Or, "Senator, my dad is a Vietnam vet, he was fine and then last month he came out of the shower one morning, and he doesn't talk to anybody. The doctors say he's struggling with PTSD (Post Traumatic Syndrome). Is there some way that there can be compensation for our family?"
These are the issues people care about, these are the bread and butter issues, and these are the injustice issues! These are the economic justice issues, these are the kitchen table issues, these are the UAW issues, these are the union issues, these are the family issues, and this is what my party, the Democratic party, has to speak to, because a whole lot of people don't see a politics that speak to them, and they don't see a politics that includes them. And a whole lot of people think that both parties are dominated by the same investors and are not really on their side, you know that from talking to your friends.
I finish by posing a question for you - this is the fire that's burning inside of me. I do not understand how it can be that in the United States of America, which is a country I fiercely love. Boy, when you are the son of an immigrant it is true (as some of you may know): it makes you so patriotic. I love this country. I give no ground on that. But how can it be that in the United States of America today - the richest country in the world, at the peak of our economic performance - we're still being told that we can't provide a good education for every child? How can it be that we're still being told we can't provide good health care for every citizen? That we're still being told that we can't at least realize the goal that every kid comes to kindergarten ready to learn - that she knows the alphabet, he knows how to spell his name, she knows colors and shapes and sizes, they've been read to widely and they are ready to learn! We're still being told that people can't expect to find a job at a decent wage. It is unacceptable.
And we can do much better as a nation as you look to the challenges going into the next century. You want to have real welfare reform? Focus on a good education, a good job and a good health care. You want to reduce poverty, urban or rural? Focus on a good education, good health care and a good job. You want our country to do well going into a new millennium? Focus on a good education, good health care, and a good job. You want to have a functioning democracy, in which woman and men can think on their own two feet and understand the country and the world and the community they live in and how to make it a better world, a better country and a better community? You better focus on good education, good job, good health care. The cycle of violence: I don't feel sorry when three sixteen year olds beat up a 66 year old woman and leave her for dead. You hold people accountable. But let me also spell out an essential truth - the law community will also tell you this as well - you can build a million new prisons and you will fill them all up. We will never stop the cycle of violence unless we as a nation invest in the health, the skills, intellect, and character of our children. Focus on a good education, good health care, and a good job!
That's why I said earlier that I came here to represent the democratic wing of the Democratic community. That's what our party ought to stand for! That's what our party ought to stand for!
I finish with a core value. If you were to say to me, "What is the core value that informs you?" This would be it, and I believe this is the core value that unites and ties and binds all of us together as union people and, I believe, as a country. There is a lot of goodness in people in our country. When our first grandchild, Kari, was born, I couldn't believe it. I held her in my hands and I thought to myself: I know what I believe in. I believe that every infant I hold in my hand - either boy or girl, rich or poor, color of skin, religion, rural or urban - every child that I hold in my hands, every child you hold in your hand, is one of God's children, and each and everyone of them should have the same chance in our country to reach his full potential, to reach her full potential.
That is the goodness of America. That is the essence of the American dream. That is what unions stand for. That is economic justice in America and we need to fight for that value in America.
Wendell Philips was an abolitionist - he was speaking in the 1840's, gave a speech abolishing slavery. Wendell wouldn't equivocate, gave a fiery speech, and said that slavery was unconscionable, it was an outrage and it should be abolished. He finished speaking and a friend came up to him and said "Wendell, why are you so on fire?" He turned to his friend and said "Brother May, I'm on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt." We have mountains of ice before us to melt. Thank you.