Joe Biden

Remarks by the Vice President to the AFL-CIO Executive Council in Miami Beach, Florida

March 05, 2009

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. (Applause.) Hey, thanks for the welcome. You make it believable. (Laughter.) I tell you what, it's like visiting Jimmy Williams in Philadelphia. (Laughter.) Hey, it's good to be -- at least in my best comfort zone, man. The best place for me to be my whole career is surrounded by organized labor. And I know how to say "union." (Applause.)

And old joke, Mr. President, you know, you go home with them that brung you to the dance. Well, you all brought me to the dance a long time ago. And it's time we start dancing, man. It's time we start dancing. (Applause.)

Mr. President, you said -- it's a situation with no road map. I'm wondering whether there's any roads. (Laughter.)

Look, it's good to be back with all of you, and I appreciate you giving me a few moments here. And with your permission, I'd like to hang around a little bit. And I'd invite the press to hang around, too, when it gets time, when we get into some questions here, a few questions.

But, look, folks, I -- this came out, of course, in this campaign -- the fact of the matter is we couldn't have made it without all of you. You weren't with me just in spirit, which a lot of you -- some of you around this table are very old and dear friends, some of my closest friends in political life, and some of you became just my plain old close friends. And so if you excuse the familiarity, for some of you I don't know as well, it's because I've been hanging out with you all for so long. You've never let me down, and I hope I've never let you down.

And here's the deal. The deal is that we understand that -- and I understood that when this -- when I got picked on the ticket, how enthusiastically you all supported that effort, and it was genuinely appreciated. It was just -- on a personal basis, it was appreciated. I mean, all this gets down to personal relationship sometimes, and the personal support that you each gave -- as they say in southern Delaware, the testimony you gave for me -- was a big deal. You weren't just with me in spirit.

Many of you actually went out on the trail with me. Many of you actually traveled around. I had -- Randi Weingarten was with me in North Carolina -- I understand she can't be here today. Harold Schaitberger and Cecil Roberts -- you want to hear a guy give a speech -- oh, man. (Laughter.) I thought I was good at this thing. I was down there in western Virginia, in coal country. I thought this was kind of my forte. Oh, Cecil, I'll tell you what, man, I went to school on you. But thanks for the support, buddy. Thanks for the support.

And also, Rich Trumka was with me in Ohio, and Jimmy Williams in Florida -- kept telling me he had a better bus than I had, and then his bus broke down. (Laughter.)

But it wasn't just your leaders. In St. Clair, Michigan, I ran into member named Bill Alford. I don't know if Bill is here, but Bill was the President of the UAW out there. He talked about watching his local go from 5,000 to 1,000 people. And he talked to me about how his -- he worried about providing for his three daughters, his three beautiful daughters, all under the age of 10. And he worked at the American Axle, which is -- makes products that literally, literally support our economy. And now it seems to me it's time we have to understand we've got to support him and everyone else like him. (Applause.)

When I was in Green Bay, Wisconsin, I met a steelworker named Gregory Hinds. He told me about the paper conversion plant he worked in since the early '90s -- I think it was in '91 he said he started working there -- and which is scheduled to close. And he has two daughters. He started to worry about how he was going to take care of their health care, what am I going to do with them, how is his going to work?

And along the way, I met Patrick Hosey, who is an electrical contractor in Fort Myers, Florida; and Marie Williamson, a laid-off autoworker in St. Louis, Missouri; Captain Tony Dalesio, a firefighter in Parma -- you got a hell of a loyal constituency -- but in Parma, Ohio; or Juanita Sneed, a member of the UFCW from Pekin, Indiana. I mean, these are -- I met people all along the road, all along the road. Not just you guys and women being willing to come with me on the plane, but they came. They just didn't -- they just weren't there for the event, John, they wanted to -- they came, hey followed us to the next event. And it was enthusiasm; it was real.

Every time during our campaign when it started to seem pretty hard, or the days seemed pretty long, or things didn't go all that well that day, I met one of your people and it -- all kidding aside -- reminded me why I'm doing this, why the President is doing this. All you got to do is talk to them, just like you do. Everybody thinks we're kind of jaded. But I know you guys, I know you -- you care about your constituencies. You care about these people who elected you.

And there's nothing like getting out there and seeing it. You all see it every day. Well, I got a chance to see it in my work as a senator, but not like the work around the country, John. Everyplace we went, every time I thought, man, I'm not sure about this, the energy and the inspiration came from your union members, because they kept fighting.

None of the people I mentioned said, "Oh, man, woe is me, I can't do this, this is over." They said, "Man, this is tough; understand it, Senator, this is real tough stuff." They believed that if we won, if they believed in the united labor movement, they believed things could change.

Well, I'm here to tell you I believe it, too. I believe it, too. As tough as the road is, and as many problems the President has laid on his desk -- and I would argue that no President in modern history, including Franklin Roosevelt, was presented with as many complex foreign and domestic issues that if they're not attended to can only fester and get worse. It's not like you can leave the status quo, you just put that off to another day. There's nothing you can put off. You can't put off Afghanistan; you can't put off health care; you can't put off unemployment; you can't put off -- and the list goes on.

And I want to tell you -- you don't need to hear me say it, but it's worth saying -- I'm really proud of my President. I'm really proud of the way he's jumped in. (Applause.) I know you know it, but it bears -- this is a stand-up guy. This is a guy who could have grown up in our neighborhoods. This is a guy who gets your back. This is a guy who's tough.

And so I noticed, Mr. President, you recently published a list of "truths," basic truths that should guide the AFL-CIO in the work that's upcoming in 2009 here. And the list includes statements like this: We can't fix the economy by hurting workers. Rescuing the economy will require investments in jobs, infrastructure, health care. When you're in a deep hole, you need a long ladder. Rebuilding our broken economy gives us the opportunity to get it right and reward workers. Progressive, pro-family, pro-worker candidates won. So isn't it time that we have progressive, pro-worker, pro-family priorities that win, too? (Applause.)

I want to point out that economic injustice and inequity are bad for everyone. It's just not right, it's just not right, and everybody knows it -- it's just not right when the average CEO makes $10,000 more every day -- $10,000 more every day than what the average worker makes every year -- $10,000 per day. And by the way, before I said it, I did the math, I did the math, and it's literally true.

U.S. labor -- you wanted to say, John -- U.S. labor doesn't say that corporations and government must tolerate workers forming unions. It doesn't say that corporations and government must allow unions if after using every trick in the book they can't stop them. Here's what the U.S. government says in the bargain made back in the '30s: It said, the National Labor Relations Act explicitly says -- and that came later -- the National Labor Relations Act explicitly says, this nation's policy is to encourage -- encourage -- collective bargaining, encourage unions. (Applause.)

That's not Joe Biden; that's not John Sweeney; that's what the law says. That's what the basic contract has been. Now, it doesn't surprise any of you, it's not news to you that John Sweeney said all that. But what is news here is you now have an American President and Vice President, and the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader who agree with everything John Sweeney said. (Applause.)

Some of you guys were in there when the Middle Class Task Force was announced. I got a little ribbing when I stood up and said -- and it wasn't planned, I just looked at you and then it hit me -- I said, welcome back to the White House. Well, let me tell you something; I think, John, you've been back every week

-- I hope. You've been with me a lot. Other labor leaders, as well, have been with me. Harold and I spent some time together in my office. Harold kept saying, "I don't want to take any more of your time." I said, "Sit down, for god's sake, I need your time." He kept being polite. You ought to know by now, you don't have to be polite with me, Harold, or any of the rest of you. He sat there with me, and we talked about some real problems. We spent some time. We came up with a game plan.

And, Harold, and you know this, no one ever says cops without adding firefighters anymore, okay. I just want you to get that straight. I got the message, all right?

But all kidding aside, folks, look, I was told by President Sweeney that in the last administration the only time that he was invited to the White House was when his Holiness Pope Benedict requested he be invited. Well, I'm here to tell you in our White House, it will not take divine intervention to get you invited back. (Applause and laughter.)

But all kidding aside, look, folks, the fact of the matter is as President Obama said -- and he means it -- you can't have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement. And you heard what we said, what I said independently and what we said together: We will judge the success or failure of our administration at the end of our four years based on whether or not the standard of living of the middle class has increased, or not. That's the bottom line measure. And guess what. Neither one of us believe it can get better without you getting stronger. (Applause.)

You know, President Obama recognized that our economy isn't built on corporations selling complicated fiscal products. We've seen where that's gotten us. Our economy is built on hardworking Americans finding and filling good jobs. That's as basic as you can say it, in my view. The people who go to work every day without expecting a claim, without expecting labor, you know -- excuse me, without expecting lavish salaries, just show up. All they want, like my whole family before me, all they want -- I do a fair day's work, give me a fair wage. Let me in on a piece of the action. Let me in on the deal.

The people Teddy Roosevelt used to call the "doers of deeds," -- the people who teach our children, protect our neighborhoods, protect our homes. The people who staff our hospitals, who work on line -- on the lines that a few are working on these days. The people who are our nation's heart and soul, and I would add, our nation's spine. They are the spine of the nation. This is not just rhetoric. It is literal reality.

And, folks, for too many years we've fallen into the pattern of failing the basic test of this country. We've failed to have a White House that puts families front and center -- front and center of our economic policies. That doesn't mean at the expense of bankers or financiers, or a credit system that functions -- we all know they're important. They're necessary

-- they're necessary. But they are not the spine of the system.

Well, that day is over, folks. Even when our economy felt like it was on solid footing over the last -- you know, during the '80s and '90s and through the first part of 2000, even when we were on solid -- when the economy was growing, the middle class was slipping -- the middle class was slipping.

Remember there used to be a very -- and some of you who know me well have heard me say this for the last 10 years -- there used to be a basic bargain in this country, and sometimes I think we even forget it. You know, sometimes the way we talk about this is we talk about it like we're trying to gain some new advantage. We're trying to change the social contract in a way that somehow alters our position in the system. All we're trying to do is get it back to where we were, talking about what basic rights and responsibilities we have.

Because, look, folks, when productivity went up, the people who were responsible for that productivity were supposed to benefit. I mean, that was the deal. That's the idea here. We don't want chief executives and wealthy people not to get wealthy. That's okay by us. Every one of us hope our kids end up there some day. All the deal was, is, look, you come up with the idea -- it may be ideas we didn't have -- you're the entrepreneur, you're the management of a company, you come up with it, and we go out there and we help make it happen and we actually increase productivity, we do things faster and better and cheaper for you so the profit margin increases -- the deal was we get a piece of that. We get a piece of it -- a fair piece. That's the bargain. That was the bargain.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, productivity increased almost 20 percent from 2000 to 2007, just in those seven years. Now, who increased the productivity? You all increased the productivity. You're the reason why we produce more, and why it was produced for less -- same unit cost lowered. During that period, instead of middle-class incomes going up 20 percent, they actually -- during that seven-year period -- lost $2,000. That wasn't the bargain. It wasn't if productivity was up 20 percent, we get 80 percent; it was get our fair share. Instead, wages actually went down $2,000 over that period. For too long the middle class has been dealt out. I'm here to tell you in this administration it is dealt in. It is the first card on the table. (Applause.)

There's an old expression, there's an old Saxon expression -- my Irish mother lets me use it, though, once in a while -- says the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Well, just take a little bit of what President Obama did. And keep in mind, folks, we've only been in office about a month. I know it seems longer. (Laughter.) But just take a look. Look at what he did. The first bill to pass, Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Fair Pay Act. (Applause.)

What happened then? We named a Secretary of Labor -- who I guess came down and spoke to you all. We named a Secretary of Labor who is a daughter of union members, not the darling of union busters. A little change over the first executive orders, first version in the past eight years, and making it clear we want to see a project labor agreement on federal construction projects. (Applause.) Second order: making sure that taxpayer dollars go to something other than union-busting activities. (Applause.)

And where has been the focus on our recovery package, the one the President now calls me the sheriff of? (Laughter.) Man. (Laughter.) Well, I guess it's easier to watch and help spend out $788 billion than trying to raise it, you know? But, look, guys, and ladies, look at the focus -- what's been the focus? The focus of this administration the first month has been to rebuild American roads, bridges, waterways -- jobs for the building trades union. (Applause.) Investing and getting more people access to broadband -- communication workers. (Applause.) Creating clean energy economy -- jobs that require electrical workers to modernize the grid, steel workers to go out and build the wind turbines, laborers to install the solar panels. Making our communities safer, jobs that require getting cops on the beat and keeping firefighters in firehouses. That's what we're trying to do. (Applause.)

Talk about investing in our schools -- jobs and invest in teachers. And when it's all in, folks, God willing and the creek not rising, as my grandfather would say, we're going to create or save 3.5 million new jobs. (Applause.)

And, ladies and gentlemen, let's get something straight. For all those -- those three governors who talk about this being a bad idea -- there's not a serious economist who would argue anything other than if we did nothing we would add on top of the 3.5 million jobs lost since this recession started another 4 to 5 million lost jobs.

So, folks, I don't mind people disagreeing with our approach. That's legitimate. But what's the alternative? What's the alternative? The alternative would have been to do nothing and lose another 4 or 5 million jobs. And, folks, anybody who thinks it's easy for a new President, faced with a $1.2 trillion deficit, and as far as the eye can see, inheriting that, to go out and the first thing ask for $788 billion -- anybody who thinks that's easy, you haven't done politics before. It's not like we're looking to spend this money. We're looking to revive the economy.

But, ladies and gentlemen, the fact of the matter is one of my jobs assigned is to make sure that anyone who sees these funds as a personal windfall rather than a public obligation is identified and called on the carpet. Ladies and gentlemen, I'll be observing this Recovery Act, working to ensure that every single dollar is spent and used properly. I realize that's not possible to do -- every single dollar -- but that's my job. That's my job. That's why I put together a staff, including people who are IGs and people who have done this kind of thing before in other areas of our endeavor, both foreign and domestic.

Folks, we've got to make this work. Franklin Roosevelt said it's important -- and I quote -- "that a few do not gain from the sacrifices of many." Well, ladies and gentlemen, in the process we're going to lay the groundwork as we lay out this legislation, as we move it, to not only begin to plant the seeds to revive this economy, save and create new jobs, prevent those other jobs from having been lost, but in the process, if you take a look, we're looking for -- to lay the groundwork for a stronger and fairer economy in the 21st century.

Already we've expanded children's health care insurance to provide 4 million more children with health insurance -- (applause) -- expanding it to 11 million children. Already now our budget makes a serious down payment on health care reform -- $630 billion we've laid out there -- if you think that was easy, in the midst of all of this.

But we believe -- we believe without a new health care system we're never going to get out of this hole. It's the one way to save the American taxpayers money. And we're going to pay for it -- we're going to pay for that $630 billion, and we lay out how we're going to pay for it. We're going to pay for it by going line by line through this budget, cutting unnecessary spending, cracking down on fraud and the waste that exists in Medicare and Medicaid; by extending -- by ending the tax breaks for corporations and -- U.S. corporations that ship jobs overseas -- (applause) -- by getting rid of no-bid contracts; making the tax code more balanced; asking the wealthiest, those making more than $250,000, to do a little more.

This is not just about where we get the money; it's about equity. It's about balancing -- rebalancing things here a little bit.

Look, we can't fix our economy, we can't make businesses more competitive, or solve our long-term fiscal challenges, or make life better for working families if we don't fix health care. It's that basic. You can't get from here to there. Forget the moral obligation -- don't forget it, but lay that aside. Remember the basic -- we used to have 25 years ago -- "Is it a right, or is it a privilege"? We're way beyond that, man. Are we going to regain control of our economy and our budget? If we don't do health care I don't see how you get there. Just purely from a mathematical computation, I don't know how we get there. Nor does the President.

But we know how to get there. And that's why we've laid this out. That's why the President -- in addition to that, we have a system here where our work doesn't end with this effort of dealing with the Recovery Act and our budget, it only begins there. That's why the President has asked me to lead our administration's Middle Class Task Force. And that's why I've already asked some of you -- Leo was there in Philadelphia with me -- I've asked all of you to participate with me in that task force. Over the next year we're going to be holding these hearings all over the United States of America.

And we're doing it for a very simple reason. We're doing it because -- you know, my job is basically to bring together the Cabinet members. I don't know how often it happened, but I have the authority, and I've been asked to and I've gotten an enthusiastic response, for me to generate Cabinet meetings -- me generate the Cabinet meetings basically once a week, or with their people. Because we've got to figure out how we're going to get this money out the door wisely, how we're going to get it out usefully, and how we're going to get this economy moving again. That, coupled with the task force requirement, gives me a real opportunity to call on you and others, including the business community, to say, how are we going to do this?

We've got to make this work. My job, as I say, is to pull together those Cabinet Secretaries who have the greatest impact on the well-being of the middle class in our country. We're going to be looking at everything from access to college and good schools and training programs with the Secretary of Education. We're going to do business development with the Department of Commerce. We're going to look at those things that affect child care and health care with Health and Human Services; workers' rights and workers' safety with the Department of Labor; restoring retirement security with the Secretary of the Treasury; affordable housing, safe neighborhoods with Housing and Urban Development; adequate protection through DHS. We're going to also make sure that the Justice Department is engaged.

Not that our Cabinet members don't think this is important, but my job is to make sure that the issues I mentioned, among others, are front and center on their agenda -- because there's a thousand other things they got to do, too. But these are things that measure the success or failure of a middle-class family: what are the things that are going to affect their lives.

And then we have the opportunity as a consequence of the problem we're in -- every problem creates an opportunity -- through the Middle Class Task Force to jumpstart and target a lot of this.

So, ladies and gentlemen, the fact of the matter is that, again, our measure is do we improve the lives of middle-class people by raising their standard of living, or don't we? We're going to make sure that in every policy, every decision, we don't lose sight of the folks that brought us to the dance. And toward that end, we have to make sure that the jobs we're creating come with fair wages and decent benefits -- one of John's basic tenets he laid out for you all. Leo raised it at our meeting in Philadelphia. We can have great new green jobs.

But let me take you all back. In the last major alteration of our economy in terms of organized labor -- which didn't exist back then -- was the turn of the last century in the Industrial Revolution, in industrial jobs. There were jobs for sheet metal workers, there were jobs for steelworkers, there were jobs -- and the list goes on. But guess what. The fact that all those jobs existed while the world was growing didn't mean they'd be decent jobs, didn't automatically mean they'd be good-paying jobs. What guarantees that? Unions. Labor. (Applause.) Labor.

So, folks, there's no such job that's inherently a good job -- inherently a good job. They become good jobs when workers have an opportunity to insist that they get paid a fair wage, they get treated fairly, and they will benefit from the productivity that results from that industry. The union movement made them good jobs. (Applause.) Well, that's why, by the middle of the last century, you not only saw unions growing, you saw wages growing, benefits growing; you also saw cities and communities growing. In the post year -- the postwar years, productivity doubled after World War II. It doubled. And guess what happened. Middle-class income doubled when productivity doubled.

But then, in the early '70s, some parts of the business community decided that labor was the enemy. They supported politicians who felt the same way, and they began to fix the game, so that the refs -- the NLRB, to name one -- weren't calling things -- being square and fair. They started wearing black shirts instead of striped shirts. Well, you saw the result -- companies delaying elections, intimidating and firing organizers, stalling on the first contract.

Well, in this country today, legal industry -- excuse me -- the legal industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars exclusively in an effort to block workers from pursuing their legal rights, from unions being able to get collective bargaining agreements.

I mentioned the productivity increased by almost 20 percent from 2000 to 2007, but wages fell by $2,000. If our basic bargain had been intact, if paychecks rose with productivity growth, as they did from World War II to the early '70s, families would have gained $10,000 over that period, instead of losing $2,000. (Applause.)

So, folks, that's why there's no one thing we have to do. This is all going to be difficult, and one of the most difficult things will be to reinstitute that basic bargain. And I think the way to do that is the Employee Free Choice Act. (Applause.)

Folks, let's get it straight -- we're not asking -- we're not asking for anything we don't deserve. And we're not asking for anything that wasn't intended when the NLRB said we should be encouraging -- encouraging -- unions. We just want to level this playing field again.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think President Obama said it best when he said -- I'm quoting -- "I don't buy the argument that providing workers with collective bargaining rights somehow weakens the economy or worsens the business environment." If you've got workers who have a decent pay and benefits, they also are customers for your business. (Applause.)

So let me add to that and say that I have a simple, basic belief, one that we're going to work hard to put into action: If a union is what you want, a union you're entitled to have. (Applause.)

Look, I don't have to tell anyone in this room -- I don't have to tell anyone in this room that these are tough times for working Americans. Three million Americans lost their job last year; another 600,000 the first quarter this year; and I'm sad to say, I think tomorrow, when the numbers come out, it may match or exceed January.

And, folks, the thing that you all know, and too many people have forgotten -- and, Jimmy, you and I talked about this -- the loss of a job is more than the loss of an income; it's loss of pride, it's emotionally devastating. It's about having to take that longest of walks up a short flight of stairs to your child's bedroom and say, "Honey, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, you got to switch schools. Daddy or mommy lost their job; we can't stay, we can't stay here, honey. You know, the school you're in, I know you love it, but I can't afford to send you back next semester. The situation, the team you play on, I know -- I know how much it matters to you. But there will be another good team we can find."

That's the longest walk a man or a woman will ever make -- other than you have to tell someone they've got a serious health problem, a life-threatening problem. Why do you know about that walk? Some of you, maybe like me, had your fathers or mothers make that walk up to your bedroom. My dad made it up to my bedroom a long time ago. I remember when he said, "Honey, I know you love it here in Scranton, and we'll come back a lot, but Dad is going to leave and go to Wilmington. I'll be home every weekend. We're going to find a really good place down there. We're going to find a good place down there." It's not the end of the world, but let me tell you something, to many people it looks like the end of the road.

So, folks, look, it's how I came to understand, and maybe some of you in your personal lives, how you came to understand, that a job is more than about a paycheck. It's about dignity and about respect. It is the coin of the realm. And, ladies and gentlemen, every one of you, every American, wants to be able to look at their child and say, honey, it's going to be okay; whatever it is, it's going to be okay.

And when you don't have that job and you've lost your self-confidence and you're not sure where the next is going to come from, even with unemployment insurance -- you keep looking down that road, where is it coming? Every man and women in this country should be able to look at their child in the eye when they work hard and say, honey, it's going to be okay.

And our objective -- and I mean this sincerely -- is to put every American in the spot before we leave office to be able to look their kid in the eye and say, "Honey, it's going to be okay." For those men and women who want to work, which is the vast, vast, overwhelming majority of the American people, that's the least we should provide to them. And you all have been the best platform in the world to put them in a position to be able to say that.

So, folks, I want to end by saying to you that it ain't just because I'm Irish -- (laughter) -- it's not bad, though. At least if you're -- (applause) -- at least if you're smart enough to marry an Italian -- he's going "hey, hey" -- you know. (Laughter.) I married a Sicilian -- oh, boy. (Laughter.) But all kidding aside, folks, look, I am really optimistic. I'm genuinely optimistic. It's going to be a rough year. It's going to be rough until we climb out of this. But I think we've got a ladder long enough, and I think when we climb out of this hole, if we do this right, it's going to be -- we climb onto a platform that's clearer, sturdier, better, more competitive for America, and put us in a position where we're able to do in the 21st century what we did in the 20th century. I really, genuinely believe that.

Our job in the meantime is to get as many people on that ladder as we can. It's going to take a while -- I mean, a year or more -- it's going to take a while. If you get them on the ladder, I promise you, I promise you, I'm absolutely certain the pieces we've put in place not only will take us back to where people are employed gainfully, but we'll be right at the bargain again, where we're more competitive with green jobs, more competitive with an energy policy, we're more competitive worldwide in the position we put people in. We'll have a transit system that is relevant to the greatest nation in the world; where we have a education system that literally, as Barack says -- as the President says -- that we once again, by 2020, will have the highest percentage of college-educated people in all the world; where we actually start kids early in school and give them a real chance.

We got a shot here, folks. We got a shot like we haven't had for the last 30 years. And shame on us, shame on us if we squander it. I don't think we will. With your help, I'm absolutely convinced that over the next couple years we will make a better, brighter and stronger America. And you'll be the reason.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Joseph R. Biden, Remarks by the Vice President to the AFL-CIO Executive Council in Miami Beach, Florida Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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