Richard Nixon photo

Remarks to the AFL-CIO Ninth Constitutional Convention in Bal Harbour, Florida.

November 19, 1971

President Meany, all the other presidents on the platform, and the vice presidents in the audience:

I am very honored for the first time as President of the United States to speak before the AFL-CIO Convention. In speaking on this occasion, I have brought with me a prepared text. I have given that text out to the press. I am not going to read that text to you today.

I want to say to all the press, though, who have already written their stories, that they can print it, and I stand behind it. The text contains the usual laundry list that a President of the United States is supposed to go over when he appears before the AFL-CIO or any other labor convention. I am very proud of this list. Secretary Hodgson will be covering some of these items in his address.

The record of this Administration, in terms of safety, in terms of unemployment insurance, in other areas that don't receive the great publicity, is well-known to the leaders on this platform and to the leaders in this audience. We are proud of the record in those areas, areas where we agree. But rather than reading that text, I am going to do something that I believe President Meany will appreciate, and all of the others here that I have met so often in the Cabinet Room over the past 3 years. You like it straight from the shoulder. I am going to talk to you about our differences, and I am also going to talk to you about some areas where we agree, and there are several of both, as you know.

In talking about those differences and where we agree, I would like to address myself first to a question that I noticed has been speculated on in the press, and it was one, as a matter of fact, that was raised by some of my own advisers in the White House.

Putting it quite bluntly, one of them said, "Why are you going?" They said, "You know a majority of those that are going to be at this great convention are against you politically, a majority of those who are going to be there at this convention are against your party. Why do you go?"

I will tell you why I came here: Because while some of you may be against me politically, and some of you may be against my party, I know from the experience over the past 3 years that when the chips are down organized labor is for America, and that is why I am here before this convention today.

I could give you a number of examples where that has been true. President Meany, the other presidents up here, who have been there at meetings where I have asked for their support, can give them to you also. I have known that whenever we had an issue of the defense of America, when some would be for unilateral disarmament, organized labor stood firm behind the Commander in Chief and for strong national defense. The President can always count on labor for a strong national defense.

I know, for example, that when the question arises as to hard decisions to protect America's fighting men, the President of the United States, whoever he is, whatever his party, can count on the support of organized labor, and I have had that support over the past 3 years.

I know, too, that when hard decisions have to be made to bring to an end, on an honorable basis that will discourage aggression in the future, a very difficult war, that the President of the United States can always count on organized labor. I appreciate that support, and in appreciating that support, I would like to give you one example, a very dramatic example which was brought home to all of the American people.

I am sure most of you remember just a little over a year ago, in May, when I made a very difficult decision, some believe the most difficult decision I have made since I have been President. It was a decision to go into Cambodian bases from which American men were being killed, and to destroy those sanctuaries.

When that decision was announced, a great majority of the members of the press and TV, a majority of America's businessmen, a majority of America's intellectual leaders, a majority of America's editorial writers, opposed that decision, and some of them opposed it very violently. I respect them for their opposition; that was their honest opinion. It fact, after that decision was made, tens of thousands of those who were protesting that action by the President of the United States to defend the lives of American men marched on the White House to indicate their opposition.

Some wrote in those days that the President stood alone. But I was not alone. One hundred and fifty thousand American workers walked down Wall Street supporting the Armed Forces abroad and supporting the Commander in Chief at home, and I appreciated that support. That showed where American labor stood when the key issue of defending American lives was involved.

I want all of you to know that in that critical decision you have been proved to be right. I said at the time that I ordered those strikes that it would reduce American casualties. Before we went into Cambodia, the number of Americans being killed each week in Vietnam sometimes reached 300, was averaging 200. This week, the figures announced just yesterday: five. And over the past 5 to 6 weeks, less than 10. So we did what was right. You supported it, and I am most grateful for that support.

Now, having spoken of the support that you have given in times of war, I am here today to ask for your support for another cause. It is the cause of building a lasting peace, and it is the cause of a new prosperity.

Now, when I mention new prosperity, I can imagine that many say, "What was wrong with the old prosperity?" I will tell you what was wrong with it. Two things: war and inflation.

You have to go clear back to 1955 and '56 when President Eisenhower was President to find full employment without war and full employment without inflation. What was wrong with 1968 and 1967? We had full employment, but at what cost? Three hundred American dead every week. That is too high. I don't think that any American worker, that any American, wants to have his job be based on the sacrifices of Americans abroad if we can avoid those sacrifices, and that is what we are trying to do.

So with regard to our efforts in this field, to win a lasting peace, let me say that we are moving in the area of Vietnam. Oh, not the easy way--just get out and let the Communists take over the country--that would only plant the seeds for another war and more aggression, because it would encourage it in the future; but the right way, the honorable way in which the people of South Vietnam have a chance to determine what shall be the future, at some time in the future, without having that imposed upon them by the Communists from the North.

Now, as a result of the success of our programs in Vietnam, we have had some aggravation of the problem of unemployment. Let me talk very directly about that, because there is no one in this room who feels more strongly about that problem than I do, and I know how strongly you feel. I grew up in the depression. I worked in a little grocery store. I will never forget the looks on the faces of men who came into that store and could not pay the bills, but even more, I could not forget the looks of their kids, who realized that their fathers were out of work and they did not have the money to pay their bills.

So we want full employment. We want good jobs. We want high wages. We want it in times of peace. Let's see what our success in Vietnam has done to that objective.

Did you realize that there were 539,000 Americans in Vietnam when I took office? By January of next year, we will have brought home 400,000; but even more, as a result of winding down the war in Vietnam, 2,200, 000 Americans will have been let out of defense plants and out of the armed services over the past 3 years. Now, if the war in Vietnam were going on at the same level as it was going on when I came into office, with 300 Americans dying every week, we would have unemployment at less than 4 percent today. But we can do better than that. We can build a new prosperity. We can build it without


That is why I so strongly favor the tax measures that I have recommended to the Congress. I know there is some disagreement on that here in this audience, and I respect your views there. But the repeal of the automobile excise tax, the job development credit which will allow American workers to have the new plant and the new equipment that will enable them to compete more effectively with workers abroad and thereby increase the number of jobs here, and, of course, the relief for consumers which will get more purchasing power into the hands of Americans and thereby increase the demand and increase the number of jobs, all of these things are directed toward building that new prosperity that all Americans want.

But having said that, in building that new prosperity without war, there is another side to it. Ending the war in Vietnam is being accomplished. We shall succeed, and we shall succeed with honor. But America has ended wars before.

I noted, President Meany, that 2 days ago you celebrated the founding of this organization by Samuel Gompers. Samuel Gompers--I read a little about him before coming down--was a pacifist. But in World War I, as you pointed out to me one time in the Cabinet Room, Samuel Gompers joined in supporting the war effort in World War I and supported President Wilson's efforts right to the hilt. Samuel Gompers, a pacifist, and Woodrow Wilson, who in his heart was also a pacifist, thought that World War I was the war to end wars. Their dreams proved to be wrong. We have had World War II, we have had Korea, and we have had Vietnam, since ending World War I.

So our goal today is not simply a war to end wars. We are ending the war in Vietnam. Our goal today is not simply that. Our goal is to win a peace that will end wars and that goes beyond the immediate objective of ending the war that we are in.

Now I come to another area where we have a little disagreement. I know that some of you have read about my trips to Peking and to Moscow, and there have been some rather striking statements made about those trips from this platform. I respect a difference of opinion. I know that it has been suggested that I am taking those trips halfway around the world really as political junkets in an election year.

Let me be very blunt on that point. These trips are not about the next election. They are about the next generation, and we all have an obligation to that next generation. No one in this room knows better than I do the great differences between the Communist societies and ours. No one in this room would go to such a conference with his eyes more open than mine will be open. They know me. I know them. Those differences are not going to be solved by these trips.

Then why do we go? I will tell you why: It is a practical consideration. There are 250 million people in the Soviet Union. Their nuclear power, as far as land-based missiles is concerned, is presently about equal to ours, and possibly even a bit ahead. There are 750 million people in China. Within 15 years, if they want to do it, their nuclear power will be a very, very significant threat to the peace of the world if they want to be a threat to the peace of the world.

So we then come to this question: What do we do about it? Do we wait 10, 15, 20 years from now and continue to stand in confrontation with those that we do disagree with; or, in other words, putting it more directly, do we talk about our differences or do we fight about our differences?

My friends, with the advent of nuclear warfare, a President of the United States, with an obligation to future generations, has no choice but to talk about those differences, talk about them with this goal in mind: not of giving in on our system, not of making concessions at the expense of our friends, but talking about them with the great goal of seeing that the peoples of this world can have different systems but will not be engaged in nuclear destruction. That is why I am going. We are going to try. We may not succeed, but I think future generations would hold us responsible if we failed to try.

I mentioned the differences. I want to tell you now an area where we agree, and I am most grateful for that agreement. That is in the field that I mentioned tangentially a moment ago: national defense. President Meany knows, because many times, both at the executive council building in Washington and in the Cabinet Room in the White House, I have asked him and his associates to support us on strong national defense on close votes where a margin of one in the United States Senate determined whether the United States would have a defensive weapons system that the Soviet Union already had. We won it; we would not have won it without the support of organized labor. And I am grateful for that.

I want to tell you why that support was given--two reasons. I know that many others who will appear before you may indicate, maybe not before this audience, but they have certainly indicated in the United States Senate, that we ought to cut our defense spending. They say we ought to cut our defense spending so that we can spend more for welfare and more for housing and more for education and more for the environment.

My friends, I'm for better housing and better welfare and better environment, and all of you are, but if we don't spend enough to defend America we are not going to have any environment to enjoy in this country, and that is what we have to do.

So, under these circumstances, I appreciate the fact that I have had, from organized labor, strong support for an adequate national defense.

Now, the other line is very amusing, amusing to a group of people who know what hard bargaining is and how important it is to be strong at the bargaining table. That line is that what we ought to do is, unilaterally on our part as an exercise of our good faith and the demonstration of it, cut our defense spending in the hopes that that will lead our opponents in the world to cut theirs.

My friends, just let me say one thing. You know from collective bargaining never go to that bargaining table, if you can, in a position of weakness. I say to you: Never let the President of the United States, whoever he is, go to a negotiating table representing the second strongest power in the world. That is what we need. It is that position that organized labor well understands, and on that issue I am most grateful for your support. Because a strong America, negotiating from strength, may be able to negotiate--this era of negotiation rather than confrontation, this era in which we will talk about our differences rather than fight about our differences. But a weak America, negotiating from weakness, will lead the world either to surrender or to war, or both. You understand that. I am grateful that on this area we agree.

Now, let me turn to the other side of the coin. I said that we needed a period of prosperity without war. We are working toward that. I said also that we needed prosperity without inflation. We are working toward that.

We have just completed the 90-day freeze. Now, I understand there has been some disagreement about whether that freeze worked. Well, let's look at the numbers. It was a remarkable success. Because the figures are in. In 2 months the Wholesale Price Index went down rather than up, and that is the first 2 months in 5 years that that has happened.

Look at your morning papers. The Consumer Price Index: a rise of one-tenth of 1 percent. That rise was the lowest in 4 years. And so it was worth doing. And if you don't think so, go home and ask your wives who go to the grocery. Go home and ask others.

You will find that as far as prices are concerned, what they want, rather than less action on the inflation front, is more, and that is what we are going to provide.

On that score, let me say, having succeeded in Phase 1, we are now moving to Phase 2. I have noted that President Meany has had some things to say about Phase 2. As a matter of fact, it is a little hard not to note what he has had to say. Just to be sure that I didn't misquote him, I cut it out of the Washington Post. Vice President Agnew doesn't back this up, but nevertheless, this is what it said:

Yesterday, in speaking before your convention, he, as he should do, criticized Phase 2, criticized the makeup of the Pay Board and the Price Commission and criticized the Committee on Interest Rates, and so forth. He has a right to his point of view. Then he went on to lay down certain conditions. Then he said, "If the President of the United States doesn't want our membership on the Pay Board on our terms, he knows what he can do."

Well, you know, President Meany is correct. I know exactly what I can do-and I am going to do it. I think it is time that we all understand just where we stand on this, where we agree and where we disagree.

I want a program that is fair to all elements of this society, fair to organized labor particularly, as I have emphasized, for the reasons that I have mentioned before. But as President of all the American people, it is my duty to do what I think is best for all the American people. Now my friends, whatever some of you may think, a great majority of the American people, and a majority of union members, want to stop the rise in the cost of living-and that's what we are going to do.

In order to stop the rise in the cost of living, we want the participation of business, we want the participation of labor, we want the participation of consumers, and all the other areas of the society. We hope we get it. But whether we get that participation or not, it is my obligation as President of the United States to make this program of stopping the rise in the cost of living succeed, and, to the extent that my powers allow it, I shall do exactly that.

Now my friends, having said that, let me now point at an area of agreement. It is a myth that organized labor has no interest and no stake in stopping the rise in the cost of living. Look at the numbers. I have read the figures with regard to the rise in wage increases, the increases from 1965 to 1969. They were significant. Incidentally, they were needed.

But do you know that from 1965 to 1969, when American labor was getting some of its most substantial wage increases, for most American workers in that period price increases completely ate up the wage increases?

So, it is in your interest, as well as the interest of the consumer, to do what we can to see that when you get a wage increase it is a real increase. That is what I am trying to do. That is what we are working for.

Let me say to you: This is not like an ordinary collective bargaining dispute when labor wins and management loses. If we fail in this venture, America will lose, and all of us will lose.

I say to you, we cannot let that happen. It means that we must work together. It means we must speak candidly, as President Meany has, and I appreciate his candor and his honesty. But it also means that what we must try to do is to find a way that working together within the system, fighting it out, we find a way to temper the rise in the cost of living so that all Americans will benefit. And we can win this fight which is in the interest of all Americans.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I want to address myself briefly to another reason I am really honored to be here. I would like to illustrate it with a story.

Several months ago at one of those great White House receptions, where hundreds of people came through the line, a boy and his father came through the line. The boy was a graduate of one of our better Eastern colleges, obviously very well educated. The father was a working man, a hard-working man. I could tell when I shook his hand. I could tell as he spoke briefly with me in the line that he had not had the benefit of a college education, or even of a high school education. But he spoke from his heart, if his grammar may not have been the most perfect.

As I spoke to him, I saw the boy standing there, embarrassed, ill at ease. Then it came over me. The boy was ashamed of his father.

I will tell you how I felt. I was ashamed of the son. My father grew up in a very poor family. He quit school in the sixth grade because his mother died 3 years earlier. He worked, when we were growing up, as a carpenter, as an oil field worker, as a streetcar motorman, as a grocer, and as a service station operator.

He raised five boys, and every one of them got a better education than he did, because of how he worked. He was very proud -when I was elected Congressman, Senator, and Vice President, and I was proud of him to the day he died.

I know these days, having read recently about the reaction of some people on welfare in one of our major cities, that people who, some of those on welfare, don't want to take jobs if they are considered to be menial jobs. Let me give you my response to that. I guess every job my father had was a menial job; but any job that puts food on the table and buys shelter and clothing and education for a man's family is not a menial job.

Let's recognize that in America once and for all. Let us recognize that the only thing demeaning in America is for one man to refuse to work and to let another man who does work pay taxes to keep him on welfare. Any work is preferable to welfare. That is what I believe, and that is what the members of this organization believe.

Hard work is what built America, and it is time in this country we demonstrate a new appreciation of the dignity of work and what it means. You all know that America is the number one nation in the world economically. Why is that important? Because by being number one economically, we are able to be first in the world in terms of military power and are able to work for peace in the world; because our economic strength enables us to do things for the poor, the disadvantaged that could not otherwise be done. And remember, the poor in America would be rich in 90 percent of the world today, and we hope it will always be that way as far as our people are concerned, and our concern for them.

So as we look at America's economic strength, we realize that we have to keep it, and how are we going to keep it? Let me tell you how we are going to keep it.

We can pass laws, we can have all the fancy ideas of the political scientists and the sociologists and the economics professors and those that have plans for what America will be, but without the hard work and the patriotism and the character of 80 million American wage earners, we cannot continue to be a great nation.

So we need the devotion, the character, the patriotism of the people you represent. We need it because America has a mission in the world. It is bigger than ourselves. It is as big as the whole world itself. It was not so at the beginning. Whether America failed or succeeded wouldn't have determined whether or not the world would have war or peace.

But today there is no other free nation in the world that can provide the leadership, if that leadership can be provided, that can keep the peace and to stop aggression around the world.

So I say to you, my friends, the future of America is in the hands of 80 million American wage earners. Putting it another way: The future of America is in your hands. I believe it is in good hands. I believe it is in good hands because, despite the differences that I mentioned here, I have found over and over again in talking to the leaders of organized labor that when the chips are down, that the people in organized labor will take those positions that are best for this country.

I will conclude as I began: Yes, we do have differences, but regardless of what those differences are, because I know you are for America, you can be sure every one of you will always have a friend in the White House.

Note: The President spoke at 10:30 a.m. in the Americana Hotel.

Richard Nixon, Remarks to the AFL-CIO Ninth Constitutional Convention in Bal Harbour, Florida. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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