The White House shined a spotlight on middle class workers June 23, holding the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families.
Headlined by speeches from President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, the event focused on developing a plan to create “real, lasting security for the middle class by strengthening our nation’s workplaces to better support working families,” according to its mission statement.
Aside from the high-profile addresses, the summit featured panel discussions, research presentations and hands-on workshops exploring possible solutions for the challenges facing working families. Those events included labor officials like AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, members of Congress, business leaders and media personalities.
In his remarks, Obama said it saddens him to continue to receive letters from middle class Americans who struggle just to make ends meet. The summit, he said, should help steer the national conversation toward solving these problems and helping Americans who struggle to get ahead, despite hard work and sacrifice.
“They are doing everything right – they are working hard, they are living responsibly, they are taking care of their children, they’re participating in their community – and these letters can be heartbreaking, because at the end of the day it doesn’t feel like they’re getting ahead. And all too often, it feels like they’re slipping behind,” Obama said. “Part of the purpose of this summit is to make clear you’re not alone. Because here’s the thing: These problems are not typically the result of poor planning or too little diligence on the parts of moms or dads, and they cannot just be fixed by working harder or being an even better parent. All too often, they are the results of outdated policies and old ways of thinking. Family leave, childcare, workplace flexibility, a decent wage – these are not frills, they are basic needs. They shouldn’t be bonuses.”
In his address at the summit, Biden also touched on the topic of workplace flexibility, adding that he has been proud to provide such time off for the female members of his staff. Biden has a long history of work with women’s issues and drafted the original Violence Against Women Act as a senator in the 1990s.
“They’re the reason I was able to write the domestic violence law in the first place,” Biden said, referring to his female staff members. “You cannot talk about opportunity for women without talking about violence against them, the domestic violence.”
As pointed out in a report released in June by the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR) and by Obama himself, unions and the labor movement have a significant impact in promoting policies like workplace flexibility, especially for women. As the CEPR report found, unionized women are 22 percent more likely to be able to take family leave time than women who do not have union representation.
“I don’t think it's an exaggeration to say that our middle class was built in part because unions were able to negotiate weekends and overtime and benefits, things that now non-union workers take for granted,” Obama said during a June speech in Pittsburgh. “America was built by workers who, over time, through a lot of struggle, got the right to bargain collectively.”
Obama also touched on workers’ rights in an op-ed released to coincide with the Working Families Summit. In the op-ed, Obama stressed the importance of opportunity, especially for the economy.
“The strength of our economy rests on whether we’re getting the most out of all of our nation’s talent – whether we’re making it possible for all our citizens to contribute to our growth and prosperity,” Obama wrote. “That’s the key to staying competitive in the global economy. Right now, we’re leaving too many people on the sidelines who have the desire and the capacity to work, but are held back by one obstacle or another. It’s our job to remove those obstacles. That’s what supporting working families is all about.”