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Remarks by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney at Labor Day Reporter Roundtable
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Remarks by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney at Labor Day Reporter Roundtable
August 28, 2003

As we come to Labor Day 2003, working America is facing a crisis. It's a jobs crisis and it's the number 1 issue facing Americans. Despite our so-called recovery, far too many people are out of work and many have been out of work for a long time. White collar as well as blue-collar employees are losing jobs, and many of these jobs aren't coming back. And executives are slashing health care and retirement benefits.

President Bush has pulled the rug out from under America's working people and rolled out a red carpet for the wealthy and giant corporations.

There has been more net job loss under Bush than under any President since Herbert Hoover. One Nobel prize winning economist recently called the Bush economic policies the worst in 200 years, adding that the Bush tax cuts that predominantly benefited a wealthy few will mean a 10-year budget deficit of nearly 6 trillion dollars.

For the same money that Bush spent on millionaire tax breaks, he COULD have stimulated the economy and created jobs by building roads and schools, helped provide much-needed health care, sent urgently-needed aid to the states, and given tax breaks to the low and middle income earners who need it and will spend it to get the economy moving.

Labor Day was established to get respect for workers and curb abuse by setting the eight-hour day. Workers have struggled to put protections for workers into place for 150 years, and the result has been a solid middle class and more time for families. But now the Bush Administration is trying to take away protections against excessive hours by excluding as many as 8 million workers from overtime pay.

There's a disturbing pattern here. Employers are hiring fewer workers here in the U.S. and working them longer and now the Bush administration is trying to make it cheaper for them to work employees even longer with its proposed changes to overtime rules. A vote on an amendment to block the Bush regulations is expected to take place in the Senate next week, and we are working very hard to build support for that amendment.

In fact, Bush has attacked worker protections every chance he's gotten. He has slashed health and safety protections, denied Homeland Security department and federal screeners the basic freedom to form unions, and is trying to privatize Medicare and Social Security.

In the face of the most anti-worker Administration in decades, America's workers are struggling to get a leg up in this economy - - and many are trying to form unions. Half a million workers formed a union last year with one of our 64 union affiliates, and over 3 million workers have formed unions since 1995. Although the pace of new organizing is still not where we want it to be, it is far greater than many people realize and greater than it has been in decades.

This year, we expect to see major organizing efforts among health care workers, roofers in Arizona, California farm workers, auto workers, and state workers in New Mexico, Illinois and New Jersey. The Cintas laundry workers are fighting for a union with UNITE and the Teamsters - - Cintas is the nation's largest industrial laundry, and the workers are organizing in dozens of cities across the U.S.

Workers are organizing because, with a union, working people win basic rights, such as a say in their jobs, safety and security. An Economic Policy Institute paper released earlier this week showed that unions raise compensation, including wages and benefits, by 28 percent. And it showed that unions raise wages for workers without a union as well. A high school graduate without a union will see a bigger paycheck just because he or she is working in an industry that's more than a quarter unionized.

What's important to know is that more than 40 million Americans say they would form a union tomorrow - - but too few will ever have that chance. Cornell research shows that 95 percent of private-sector employers fight their workers' efforts to organize a union -- often breaking the law. Three-quarters of employers force workers to sit through closed-door meetings against the union. Half illegally threaten to shut down if their workers choose a union, and a quarter illegally fire union supporters.

What employers do is shameful and wrong - - and our communities suffer. When fewer workers have unions, the standard of living falls for everyone and the gap between the rich and poor grows.

That's why this Labor Day, we're launching a major campaign to build nationwide support for workers' freedom to choose a union. In city after city, community and elected leaders are joining with unions to stand with workers who are trying to form unions, and calling on employers to honor this basic American right. Local union leaders are organizing roundtables for workers who are struggling to organize to sit down with elected officials and in fact, all the Democratic candidates for President will meet with workers who are forming unions. Most of those worker roundtables have already taken place.

The AFL-CIO is also joining in the Immigrant Workers' Freedom Ride to support immigrant rights, including their freedom to organize unions. More than 60 buses, filled with workers and immigrant rights advocates, will converge here in DC and then in New York City in early October.

And after watching the disastrous policies of the Bush Administration, union members are ready to take on the challenge of electing a working people's president. We're planning the largest and earliest education and mobilization effort ever for the 2004 elections. In 2002, 93 percent of union members say they received election information from union sources, including from fellow union members at the workplace. We will meet that, and top it, in 2004.

The AFL-CIO just held our Presidential forum in early August and, as you know, some unions have already endorsed Dick Gephardt. Many unions are still going through a membership education and polling process to find out which Democratic candidate -- if any -- they want to support.

We also asked President Bush to speak to our AFL-CIO Executive Council in August or at any time of his choosing this summer, and he declined. While we tend to work more closely with Democratic presidents who share a progressive working families agenda, the AFL-CIO has always had a relationship with Republican administrations too --- until this one. George Bush is the first president with whom the president of the AFL-CIO has never met since our founding and I personally think that is a travesty.

Next week in Detroit, I plan to announce the formation of a new union -- Working America - - which will be directly affiliated with the AFL-CIO. There are millions of working people who would like to be part of the AFL-CIO's efforts for social justice and who want a voice to speak out and work to change the direction of this country. Working America will give them that chance. We will recruit for Working America in communities nationwide, including knocking on doors to build support for an even bigger push for legislation and policies which help working families. It will focus on national, as well as state and local legislation.

Finally, let me just say that I travel this country constantly. People are very dissatisfied with the way this country is going. They want jobs and the ability to make a bread and butter living. They want affordable health care, and they want their basic freedoms honored on the job. This Labor Day, the union movement is determined to continue to lead the fight for a better America.

Contact Lane Windham 202-637-5018

 Copyright 2003 AFL-CIO
 American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations