Richard Nixon photo

Remarks at the National Conference of Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO

April 16, 1973

Mr. Secretary, Mr. Chairman, gentlemen:

As I look at this head table, and having met them all before, and having spoken in this room many times, I must say I have never been up here with so many presidents. I, therefore, will not pay my respects to each of them individually, except to say that over the past 4 years I have been honored many times to meet them in the Cabinet Room; they have my greatest respect, as you have. And I appreciate the fact that so many are here today at a time that I greet you on behalf of the whole Nation, and I say on behalf of the Nation, because one of the great privileges of a President is that he can speak to any group in this country, whatever their views may be, and try to represent what he thinks are the national views, what the country owes to a group.

As I begin, I want to tell you several of the reasons why I am honored to be here before this group. One is because from this group came Secretary Brennan.

Now, I have noted, as you have, that there are some in the labor movement who have criticized Secretary Brennan recently for "selling out" on certain issues. Let me say one thing: Pete Brennan never sells out on anything. He fights for what he believes all the way down the line. And Pete Brennan is also a teamplayer.

You, as representatives of organized labor, know that you don't win them all. You, as representatives of organized labor, know, however, you have got to fight down the line for your point of view. You win some; you lose some; you compromise some. That is the rule of life. And then once you have made the settlement, you are a teamplayer. And that is Pete Brennan.

Let me give you some examples. I know, for example, on the youth differential matter, which is one that is of great interest in the Congress at the present time, that Pete Brennan was criticized because that did not represent the views, many said, of most of those in organized labor.

On the other hand, that position was presented by Pete Brennan to the Congress because a decision was made in the Cabinet, after considering all the problems and after consulting with the legislative leaders, that that was the proper decision to make.

Now, let me put one on the other side. We also had a very tough decision with regard to unemployment insurance. And I hope you noted that in the package, and I hope Pete speaks about it in his speech this afternoon, because there was a problem of extending unemployment insurance to agricultural workers and others not covered, and there was also the problem of the Fair Labor Standards Act of having national standards in which one-half of whatever the individual's pay would be is required in every State under the State unemployment insurance programs.

That has always been a controversial issue. We decided to bite the bullet on that issue and on the extension to farmworkers.

Now, in this area, as Pete Brennan could tell you, the Secretary of Commerce argued vigorously on the other side because he was representing the views of a lot of business. The Secretary of Agriculture had some different views. Pete Brennan fought, and he won.

Now, a third area: We had the problem of putting a price ceiling on beef, lamb, and pork. The Secretary of Agriculture, representing, as he has to and as I tell him to, the views of farmers, vigorously opposed it in the Cabinet. Pete Brennan vigorously supported it, and in this instance, the Secretary of Agriculture lost.

Now, what I am trying to say to you here, I am trying to say to you gentlemen that in a Cabinet, in a labor union, in any kind of a system, you win some, and you lose some. But the important thing is to fight it out and have an articulate, effective spokesman for your point of view, and also, the important thing is, where the Presidency is concerned, that the door of the Oval Office is always open to that point of view. And I think every man here at this head table will say, and I am proud of this over the past 4 years, that the views of organized labor have always been heard in that Oval Office and they will continue to be heard.

Because the genius of our system, as we all must understand, is that we can have labor and management fighting their battles, but in the end, working together to build a greater America. I am talking here to the group who are the builders of America. I am not just saying that to butter you up, because it happens to be true.

The American construction industry is the best in the world. I have been all over the world. I have seen the great cities of the world. I have seen construction in other countries, and in some areas they claim to be better than we are. We have got the best. You keep it the best, because we always want America to be number one in building.

Now, let me give you a little history that you may have forgotten. All these international presidents remember the meeting, however. This is when George Shultz was Secretary of Labor. It was in 1969, and he came into my office with a number of the international presidents to talk about the sick industry. You know what it was. It was the construction industry, they said.

You may remember what the problem was. In late 1969 and 1970 in this industry, it was plagued in many instances by strikes and labor stoppages. It was plagued also in many instances at local levels by exorbitant settlements--exorbitant settlements which had two effects: One, they were inflationary, but also, insofar as the industry was concerned, it had the effect of driving the jobs away from organized labor into nonunion labor, and that is why your top international presidents, who are always in there fighting for that last buck right down the line, said, we have got to do a better job.

Now what did we do about that? We set up a commission,1 but not just to study it, a commission to do something. It was made up of the leaders of the construction industry and the leaders of labor. It met over a period of time. When we set up this committee, I remember there were some of the wise boys in the economic field that said it was never going to work. They said the construction industry is just out of hand, and there is no way you are going to get it in shape and reduce the work stoppages, and also get some kind of amelioration insofar as wage settlements which were out of line, which most of the international presidents, all of them as a matter of fact, agreed in some areas were, with the results that I have indicated.

But it did work. And what has happened is that over the past 4 years, not because of what we had in Phase I or Phase II, primarily, but because of a cooperation and working together between management and labor, this industry is no longer a sick industry. Work stoppages are the lowest that they have been in 25 years in this industry, and you get the credit. Also, we find that as far as wage rates are concerned, while they continue to go up, that this industry has been responsible, and you get the credit.

What I am simply saying to you is this: That is the way our system works, and as I stand before you today, let me tell you I know the various things in which you are interested in the economic area. I could just simply come up before you and say I am for everything that you are, but you want it straight from the shoulder, and you want it in terms that you know I will be able to carry out.

I don't tell you that, but I do say this: I do say, I believe in this industry. It is essential to the prosperity of America. Let me tell you, when construction goes down, the economy goes down. I want this economy to go up, and I want construction to go up. And I can also say to you, we are going to see to it that not only do you get a hearing, through your Secretary of Labor and other representatives here, who will be in to see me from time to time in the future as they have in the past, but also you will get decisions that are made that, I think, you will say are helpful toward building not only a better construction industry but also strengthening an essential element of the American construction industry, and that is the free labor movement.

Let me turn now, if I could, to another point that I think will be of considerable interest to you. You have been reading about the Federal budget. You have been reading about priorities, and I know many of you probably come from areas where you wonder why it is that we have to limit a budget to $268 billion.

I will tell you why. It is no pleasure for the President of the United States to veto a spending bill, and after all, it isn't my money. It is yours.

So, when the Congress overspends, why don't I sign it all? You know, dish out that dough all over the country because then the people have it for this project and that project, and so forth down the line.

I know why I don't. I am going to lay it right on the line. The reason I don't is this: I have a responsibility as President of the United States to see that Federal spending is kept at a level that does not raise your taxes and that does not raise your prices or does not have the effect of contributing to what could be a very, very sharp inflation.

Now, if this budget goes over the $268 billion, which is a very, very high budget, it will inevitably mean that either your taxes are going to go up, or you are going to have your prices up, or, third, it is going to risk your jobs. Because the history of all inflationary budgets when they go above certain amounts, beyond what the tax system would produce at full employment, is that they inevitably lead to recession and loss of jobs.

So, I just want to say to all of you, it is not with great pleasure that I veto a bill which may deal with--as I did last week--with water and sewer in rural areas, but I do it because I think I owe it to the American people to take action that will not raise their taxes, that will not contribute to raise their prices, and one that will not endanger their prosperity. That is what I think we ought to do.

Now comes the second point. Many people say: "But Mr. President, since we have had all of these great areas of progress in the field of world affairs over the past ),ear, why can't we just take it out of the defense budget?"

Let me lay it on the line there, as I have tried to all along here. First, virtually every man at this table that I have met has stood for a strong national defense. I thank you for that. I want to tell you why it is necessary.

Yes, I have made a trip to Peking. I made a trip to Moscow where we negotiated an historic arms limitation, the first stage of that. And we have a peace agreement in Vietnam. Our POW's have returned home and the rest of our men. This is the first time in 12 years that no American ground forces, armed forces, military forces, are stationed in Vietnam.

But now, in view of all that progress, they said, "Why not cut the Federal budget?"

Let's look at how we got where we are, the reason we got where we are. In dealing with the People's Republic of China, the leaders of one-fourth of all the people in this world, who will be a super power 20 years from now--maybe even 10 years from now, if they want to be--and in dealing with the Soviet Union, who are roughly equal with the United States in military power today, it is essential, if you are going to make any kind of deal with them, that in order to get something from them, you have got to have something to give.

And that is why, when the Congress during the past 4 years, from time to time, and particularly before I went to the summit in Moscow with the leaders in the Kremlin--when they said let's don't build the ABM, or let's cut back on this area of defense and the rest; let's wait to see what happens at the summit--that would have been simply cutting the legs off of the President before he ever got there.

Because, I can assure you, I have sat down across the table from these leaders; they are strong and also very realistic, and as far as they are concerned, unless you have got something that they want, they are not going to give something that you want.

Now, let's look at the next year. We are now in the process of more meetings with the Soviet Union, not simply for a temporary-which we presently have--limitation on offensive nuclear weapons, which, incidentally, will eventually reduce the cost of our defenses, we hope, but also the danger of nuclear war, we would hope. We are having negotiations with the Soviets in that area.

But in the fall we are going to have some negotiations with what are called commonly the Warsaw Pact countries, the Communist countries, for a mutual reduction of forces in Europe.

Some very well-intentioned Congressmen and Senators, who say they are for disarmament and say they are for peace, say, "Well, before we have these meetings, let's cut our defense budget by $10 billion; let's not build the Trident; let's reduce our forces in Europe by 100,000, because we don't need them any more."

Let me tell you this: A strong United States is not a threat to the peace of the world. What we must realize, also, is that if before we have a meeting with the men in the Kremlin, and if before we have negotiations, as we will have this fall with the Communist countries for mutual reduction of forces, we, on our side, reduce our forces, there will be no deal. And you wouldn't make a deal if you were in their position, either.

What I am simply saying is this: Those who would slash the defense .budget today and put us in a secondary position with regard to those with whom we will be dealing--those who would do that will have to take upon their hands the responsibility for sabotaging the peace initiatives that presently seem so promising and for destroying any chance for getting further arms limitation.

Let me just lay it right on the line. I have been in this office for 4 years, and I will be here for the balance of this 4 years. But after me there will be other Presidents. Some will be Democrats, some will be Republicans. But the most important thing for us to remember is this: The United States is the great guardian of peace and freedom in the world. There is no other country that is going to do it if we aren't. But a strong United States, and one that is respected, is the one that can be the guardian. And I say to you, I have always felt that organized labor understood this and that the American workmen and others understood it across this country better than anybody else.

But I want you to know, don't ever send the President, whoever he is, to the conference table with another nation as the head of the second strongest nation in the world. Let's be sure of that.

I mentioned respect. All of us, I think, have been moved and inspired as our prisoners of war have returned. When you think of what these men have gone through--years in confinement, several of them over 4 years in solitary without ever seeing an American, seeing only their captors in that period--and then see them to come down off those planes, thin, yes, but standing so strong and tall, saluting the American flag, I have just never been as proud to be an American as when those men came back.

One of them told me just the other day, he said, "Mr. President, we wouldn't have been standing like that if you had made the kind of deal that some had suggested, which was give us our prisoners and in return we will get out, because our slogan in that prison camp in Hanoi was 'Home With Honor.'" And I want you to know that those men couldn't have come back-and I say this as a statement of fact--unless we had had support from many in this room and those you represent across this country.

I remember in 1970 when I had to order the destruction of Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia. I remember then it seemed that I was virtually alone, and one day a very exciting thing happened-the hard hats marched in New York City. And for the first time the press began to realize that while a majority of them thought that this was not in the interest and that the country didn't support it, they realized that maybe the people knew better and the people supported doing what is right, and that is what you did by that march, and I express my appreciation to you.

There were other tough decisions-when I had to order the bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong, May 8, 1972. Oh, you remember reading what the papers said, and you heard about it on television--what they said. I understand it, I understand legitimate criticism. I respect it.

But they said, "This is going to torpedo the summit, and this is going to risk the possibility of broadening the war," and that sort of thing.

Believe me, I thought about all those things before I made the decision, and it was one of the tough ones. But let me say then again, May 8, 1972, I didn't have to call you. Your leaders, some of the men right around this table, called me and said, "Mr. President, we back what you are doing."

And then December 18, the toughest decision I made as President, when the North Vietnamese reneged on the agreement that they had made with us, the peace agreement, earlier in October and November, and when I had to order the renewal of the bombing of North Vietnam and the use of B-52's.

I thought I was really alone then, but again, I heard from you. What I am simply saying is this: Had it not been for those hard decisions, had it not been for what we did in Cambodia, had it not been for what we did on May 8, had it not been for what we did on December 18, our prisoners of war would still be in Hanoi. And thanks to you and the support of the American people, they are home, and we are building a peace in this world. Gentlemen, I am simply saying to you, as I conclude, that I will tell whoever succeeds me in this office, that when it comes to national security, when it comes to maintaining the strength and the respect of America all over the world, that he will find that he has no greater support than among those who are proud members of the building trades in America.

And I say to you, too, that looking down the road, history will look back at this period, and it will record that these men-and let me make this point--most of whom are not members of the party of which I am a member, politically, most of whom in 1968 did not support me, but these men, when the chips were down and when the question was respect for the United States, when the question was strength of the United States, that these men, to a man, stood for not party, but what was best for America.

Thank you very much.

1 On March 29, 1971, the President signed Executive Order 11588, establishing the Construction Industry Stabilization Committee.

Note: The President spoke at 11:20 a.m. in the International Ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel.

In his opening words, the President referred to Secretary of Labor Peter J. Brennan and Robert A. Georgine, secretary-treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, who was chairman of the conference.

Richard Nixon, Remarks at the National Conference of Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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