Speech to USW Constitutional Convention - Aug. 17, 2011
It's a tremendous honor to have the opportunity to speak before the convention of this great and historic union. So i thank you very sincerely for that.
It's customary when you're giving a talk like this to start with a couple of jokes, to win the audience over, get them on your side. But there's nothing funny about what's going on in the united states today. And we're already on the same side - the side of working people.
So no jokes today. Just the truth.
And the truth is that the united states of america, a country that has given me a wonderful life, has lost its way.
One night, after i'd moderated a program on afghanistan at the kennedy library in boston, a world war ii veteran, a man in his eighties, came up to me. And speaking generally about the state of affairs in the u.s., he asked plaintively, "what happened to us?"
His tone and weathered face conveyed a sense of real loss.
He'd known a different america, having worked as an engineer and raised a family in the midwest in the post-war period when the united states, despite many severe problems, showed every sign that it was really getting its act together.
I know something about that era, having grown up in the 50s and 60s in a suburban town in new jersey. Jobs were plentiful. More and more young people were going to college and their education was affordable. Americans by the tens of millions were moving into the economic mainstream.
I look around now and i have to ask, like that veteran i met in boston, what the hell happened to us?
We've become a nation that pours trillions of dollars into wars that never end while at the same time demolishing school budgets, closing public libraries, throwing teachers, firefighters, police offficers and other essential public employees out of work, and generally letting the bottom fall out of our quality of life.
We ship our good jobs overseas, then look around and wonder why so many people are unemployed. What's the matter with us?
We make trade agreements with foreign countries that hobble american workers and hurt their families - and then we don't even require those foreign countries to abide by the rules of those agreements. We let them cheat and our workers take it on the chin.
What's the matter with us?
You know, there was a little controversy last week over whether michele bachmann looked crazy on the cover of newsweek magazine. I'll tell you the truth, i think all of our so-called political leaders look crazy nearly all the time.
We've got a gigantic employment crisis in this country, but are they dealing with it? No. All they know how to do is attack one another, like kids in a food fight at a frat party. If they were children, we'd give them a time-out.
This is not just shameful, it's tragic. We've got 25 million people who can't find fulltime work in the united states. And that's from the official statistics. We know the reality is much worse.
Six million manufacturing jobs, one-third of the entire sector - good jobs - disappeared from 2000 to 2010. Another two million construction jobs were destroyed when the housing market crashed and burned in the second half of decade.
I'm writing a book called wounded colossus, and i'll tell you right now, the most grievous of all of america's wounds is its chronic, insidious unemployment.
We haven't seen anything like this since the great depression. Consider our young people - they're staring at a very bleak future, a future in which they will be less well off than their elders, and that cold fact should send a shudder through all of us.
It goes to the heart and soul of the american dream.
Huge numbers of men and women in their 20s and 30s, including many with college degrees, are moving back home with mom and dad, postponing their entry into a job market that mocks the dreams of the young.
Our leaders in washington are behaving as if they are totally unaware of this awful state of affairs.
(actually, i have to say that president obama is worried about employment, but the job he's trying to save is his own.)
There are two main points that i would like to emphatically convey here. The first is that we do not have a debt crisis in this country - we have an employment crisis. We are not creating anything close to enough jobs for those americans who want and desperately need to work. And the human toll of this crisis is profound.
I'm including in my book the story of a man from columbus, ohio, rahn harper, who had been a branch manager earning $64,000 a year at a g-e subsidiary. "i felt my job was secure," he told me, "but g-e decided that this was a business it was no longer interested in having as part of its portfolio and it decided to downsize the operation in a way that would make it attractive to a buyer."
Mr. Harper, 32 years old, married and the father of a four-year-old, was fired. He tried desperately to find work, even at much lower pay, but could not.
"when i applied for lower-paid work," he said, "if i got any response at all, it was only to tell me that i was over-qualified."
The harpers' standard of living deteriorated drastically. Bills piled up. They didn't know from one day to the next if the lights in their house would still be on.
There were times when they didn't know where the next meal was coming from.
Absolute bottom was hit on those days when mr. Harper, without even enough cash to buy groceries, felt compelled to go to downtown columbus to give blood in return for the $50 that each donor was paid.
"normally you should eat before you do that," he said, "but i couldn't always. If you don't eat you can get dizzy, and there were times when i'd have to wait a little bit before i could leave to make sure i was okay to drive home."
We've lost our way. You shouldn't have to give blood to put food on the table for your family. Not in the united states of america.
When the g.p.s. Systems in our cars get disoriented, the voice sometimes says, "recalculating." That's what we need to do. We need to re-orient ourselves, because we have really lost our way.
Rahn harper is hardly alone. Seven million fewer people are employed now than at the beginning of the great recession in december 2007.
When you consider that the working-age population grew by four million during those years, you get a sense of the scope of the disaster. At least 11 million new jobs are needed right now just to get us back to where things were at the tail end of the george w. Bush administration, which was hardly employment nirvana.
At the current rate of job creation (assuming no setbacks), we won't get there until sometime in the 2020s.
The average length of unemployment now is close to a back-breaking six months. A third of the 14 million men and women officially classified as unemployed have been out of work for more than a year.
This is not just a crisis for the unemployed, it's a crisis for all of us. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the output of the american economy. Deprive too many of those consumers of gainful employment, which we've done, and you'll end up with a catastrophe on your hands, which is what we've got.
Workers have got to earn enough money to make the purchases that keep this consumer economy going. This was once widely understood. As f.d.r. Put it: "this nation cannot endure if it is half boom and half broke."
In other words, without jobs, we're dead. You cannot revive the economy without putting americans back to work.
And i've got a message for all those deficit hawks out there - i don't care how many vital services you cut, cut, cut - you can cut social security, you can cut medicare, you can cut the programs that keep our food safe and our water clean - you can cut until every last proverbial cow comes home, but you cannot bring the deficits under control if americans are not working and paying taxes.
The second point i want to emphasize is the answer to that world war ii veteran's question - what happened to us? I'll tell you what happened to us. The united states is in terrible trouble right now because we turned our backs on working people. We betrayed the people who really matter. It's not the bankers who try to bleed us for every red cent, who rip us off by charging 25 percent interest on our credit cards while paying us just one percent on our savings.
Those aren't the ones who matter.
It's not the ceo's who build up their bonuses by sending decent people to the unemployment line. Those are not the ones who matter.
The people who matter are the men and women of america who go to work each day and raise their families and try to pay their bills and send their children to college - and who don't spend all of their time trying to figure out how to take advantage of other people.
These are the folks who matter - people like the men and women who make up the membership of this great union, people whose work each day builds the bridges and the highways and the schoolhouses of america - people who teach and look after our children - people who take care of the sick and the infirm, and write the books we read, and come running when there is an emergency.
These are the people who matter in america. And these are the people we've betrayed by our policies that favor only the very wealthy, and by our craven political leadership that talks a good game about the middle class but dances always to the tune of their corporate masters.
We bailed out the banks and financial institutions that caused this terrible crisis, but we haven't done squat for the men and women who have lost their jobs, or for the families facing foreclosure, or the ones with homes that are underwater, with mortgage balances higher than the homes are worth.
We decided that the way to get the economy moving again was to turn our backs on the middle class and the poor and make the rich even richer. Well guess what - not only is that morally reprehensible, it didn't work.
My message to you today is that conditions in the united states do n0t have to be this way. We have the power to change them, but that will require a very heavy lift. In fact, a big fight.
I was once in the service and i have tremendous respect for our men and women in uniform. But you don't have to be in the armed forces to fight for america.
We need to fight for it, all of us, right here right now.
And we can start by raising our voices, by letting everyone within earshot know that what's happening in our country right now is not all right.
It's not all right to keep giving tax breaks to the richest among us, the milllionaires and billionaires, while working families are lining up at food pantries in ohio and pennsylvania and missouri and arizona and new jersey.
It's not all right to let our nation's critical infrastructure, its roads and bridges and ports and levees, and water and sewer systems, go to rot and to ruin while millions of manufacturing workers and construction workers and engineers and members of this great union are desperate for employment.
You look in one direction and you see an infrastructure that needs two to three trillion dollars worth of work. Then you look in another direction and see jobless men and women with the talent, the energy and the desire to pitch in and get that job done.
Does it take a genius to put those two enormous pieces of our economic puzzle together?
We can make that happen.
But to do that, we need to raise our voices, sound the alarm about the terrible plight of working people in this country, and point the way to solutions.
But even that's just a start. Just raising our voices is not enough. The entire history of the labor movement tells us that you have to fight, always fight, to secure fair treatment and decent wages for working men and women.
It never comes easy, and it won't now.
So in addition to speaking out, the people who care about the plight of working men and women need to organize more effectively. You need to rally even those workers who are not yet part of the labor movement, and especially the unemployed who are in such dire need and have so much at stake.
And then you need to take the fight to the streets. You need to march. You need to protest. You need to badger the media to pay more attention to the unemployed and the young people of america whose futures are being so cruelly curtailed.
We need to mount primary challenges against those politicians who claim to be supporters of working men and women, who campaign as friends of labor, and then as soon as they get into office turn their backs on working families and the unions that represent them.
This is not a fight for the faint of heart. There are real dyed in the wool enemies of working people out there and they need to be confronted and defeated.
Look back on the proud history of labor for inspiration.
John l. Lewis said organize the unorganized. That was never more important than right now.
Roger baldwin said, "rights are not handed down from above, they are forced by pressures from below."
And then of course there was frederick douglass's unforgettable insistence that "power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has," he said, "and it never will."
We're in difficult straits right now but it's not too late to turn things around. This is a great and wonderful country. We don't have to let it deteriorate.
We can stop the wars. We can rebuild the infrastructure. We can make college affordable again. We can put americans back to work.
We can do all these things, and more. But not by remaining passive. Not if we perceive ourselves as powerless.
It's no good if you just complain about how terrible matters have become. You can't just say the republicans are crazy or that barack obama is weak or there is too much money in politics and that you wish things were better.
If that's all you do, then you're empowering your enemies. You're collaborating in your own demise. You're defeated before you ever begin to fight.
It's no use imagining a better future if you're unwilling to take the steps to make it real.
So step up. Do more.
You've got a great union here. Participate more in its efforts on behalf of working people. Pick out an area of particular concern to you and offer your services as a volunteer.
Protest whenever there is an opportunity. Organize a fundraiser. Write letters, articles or speeches. Get your friends and relatives to do more.
These are things that you, personally, can do to make ours a better country. And i know you can think of a lot more.
We do not have to accept the dismal conditions facing working people in the united states today. We shouldn't accept them.
All we're asking for is simple fairness. Jobs for those who need them. Decent pay for a hard day's work.
An economy that offers prosperity that is widely shared, not outsized bonuses for the favored few.
We want the young people of america to have ready access to the finest education in the world. And we want our senior citizens to be able to enjoy a comfortable retirement with access to health care when it's needed.
This is not too much to ask - not in the united states of america. But we won't get it if we don't fight for it.
So do your part.
Robert kennedy said that each time some individual stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, that person sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
We've faced big challenges before. This is not as bad as the early days of the labor movement. Workers are not being gunned down in the streets or set upon by militias.
This is not the great depression. We don't yet have hoovervilles sprouting up all over the country.
Things are not as bad as they were in the early days of the civil rights movement. Protesters are not faced with fire hoses and snarling dogs.
But things are pretty bad and we need to make a stand before matters get worse, before further disasters come our way. Because we're headed in the wrong direction.
As imperfect as it is, this is still a democracy, which means that you hold the fate of the u.s. In your hands. Don't let the forces of greed and entrenched economic power make any more headway. Don't let them turn working people against one another - union members against those who are not yet organized, the middle class against the poor, blacks against whites.
Don't let them do it. Don't let them deter you from the most important fight of our time.
Take your cue from bobby kennedy and make your personal stand against injustice. Send out that tiny ripple of hope. Let it join with the ripples that i send forth, and those of your sisters and brothers in the union movement, and all those other fighters across this country who are committed to economic justice and fairness and the dignity of working people.
Let those ripples merge with the energy of the young people who have so much to contribute to our society, with your sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, and with all the other good men and and women of america. There are so many millions of them.
Pretty soon the collective power of those ripples will create the giant, unstoppable wave that will carry us into a better american future. I believe that.
The important thing is not to give up, not to lose faith, and never forget the tremendous power that is in your hands.
Thank you so much.