U.S. Must Create, Maintain Good Jobs

Administration, Labor Officials Say Recovery Impossible Without Rebuilding Middle Class


April 2010

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Focusing not only on the importance of good jobs but also on how to create and maintain them in America, representatives from the Obama administration, the AFL-CIO and the International Association of Machinists (IAM) recently told the Maritime Trades Department executive board that economic recovery depends on rebuilding the middle class.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and IAM Representative Frank Larkin were among the guest speakers who addressed the board Feb. 25-26 in Orlando, Fla.

Harris recalled that he got his start in the labor movement 26 years ago, working as a field representative for the Seafarers in Houston. Coincidentally, SIU and MTD President Michael Sacco (then a union vice president) was based at the same hall.

“Mike and I spent a lot of hours talking about the hard lives of workers in this industry,” Harris remembered. “He told me about the stories he had heard about what it was like in this industry before there were unions, what it took to build a strong union and what it meant to stand up for working families.

“That union hall is where I earned my ‘graduate degree’ in trade unionism and fighting for working families,” Harris continued. “Mike and Joe (the late SIU Executive Vice President Joey Sacco) and the other Seafarers officials were my professors; our members were my tutors, and they gave me an education that changed my life.”

Harris pointed out that the economic climate in those days was comparable to what Americans face in 2010. “I have no illusions about what’s happening to working families right now,” he stated. “Working families are suffering through the worst economic times in seven decades. But our political system seems paralyzed to help – unable to resolve this painful crisis. The unemployment rate stands at 9.7 percent. Some 6.3 million Americans have been out of work for six months or longer. In some industries and in some communities, it’s much higher.”

Harris acknowledged his frustration concerning health care, pension issues, stagnant wages and EFCA. He blamed much of the political gridlock in Washington on a climate in which productive debate aimed at achieving results to benefit citizens instead has been replaced by perpetual focus on “who wins and loses arguments.”

“But there’s another way to do business,” Harris said. “There is a way to make progress without insisting that one side must be losers in order for the other side to be winners. The people in this room know what I’m talking about because it’s the way that the maritime industry has been doing business since before my days in Houston with Mike and Joe…. I know that maritime labor and maritime management don’t always love each other. You have different interests and perspectives and goals. But maritime labor and management have found a way to work together so that both parties’ interests are served. You have friends on both sides of the partisan aisle, because it’s not about ideology. It’s not about party. It’s about everyone’s interests being served. You don’t agree on everything, but that’s what negotiations are for. You know as well as I do that if both sides sit down and bargain honestly for their interests, there’s almost always room to [reach] a deal. That’s the governance model we should insist on: a focus on shared interests and honest negotiations that involves some give and take. This industry can be a model for my friends and colleagues back in Washington. It can show them how business can be conducted – business that serves everyone’s interests and moves our country forward.”

Finally, Harris said that creating and maintaining good jobs “will be this administration’s number one focus in 2010, and that’s why President Obama has called for a new and comprehensive jobs bill on his desk this year. But rescuing the economy is only the first step. It will not be good enough for America’s working families to just get by. Our country needs them to thrive.”

Similarly, Shuler said that jobs are the labor federation’s top priority. Illustrating today’s tough times, she pointed to Evansville, Indiana, where more than 1,000 workers are losing their jobs because Whirlpool is relocating a refrigerator production plant to Mexico.

“That may pad Whirlpool’s profits, but it’s a disaster for the whole community of Evansville,” Shuler said. That is true for “not only the workers who’ve lost their jobs at the plant, but the grocery stores where they shop and the schools that depend on their taxes, and on down the line. Multiply Evansville by 10,000 and that explains a lot of the jobs crisis in this country.”

Shuler said the Economic Recovery Act has helped but is just a start. She described the federation’s five-point program for job creation. Those steps include extending unemployment benefits; putting people to work repairing the nation’s infrastructure and in green jobs; boosting aid to state and local governments to continue vital services; increasing government work where appropriate, but not as a replacement for private-sector jobs; and taking leftover TARP funds and using them to support lending to small businesses.

“But we can’t stop there,” Shuler said. “When we create jobs, we have to rebuild our economic foundation and make sure that those jobs are good jobs. And that means one thing above everything else, and that is ensuring the freedom of every worker to join a union and bargain collectively…. Without the Employee Free Choice Act, if we create millions of jobs but the jobs have low pay, lousy benefits and no future, that means we win the battle but lose the war.”

She concluded by saying that the labor movement “must lead the way.”

Larkin described the massive grassroots campaign the IAM is waging to educate Americans about the importance of good jobs and to offer hope and solutions by building community networks.

“We’re continuing to make the point that a jobless recovery is no recovery,” he said. “Our issue is that until there are jobs being created, it is not a real recovery. We say there should be a comprehensive strategy. It’s not simply enough to resuscitate the finance industry or the insurance industry or the banking industry. We’re talking about the manufacturing and shipbuilding industry, construction sectors…. We’re encouraging skills training so that when the economy does begin coming back these high-skill jobs don’t end up having to be pushed overseas.”

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U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler

Machinists Representative Frank Larkin

Machinists Representative Frank Larkin