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For Immediate Release
Contact: Lane Windham
(202) 637-5018

Comments by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
Labor Day Week Briefing

August 30, 2005

THIS LABOR DAY, THE UNION movement is 100% focused on helping working people fight back against the worst attack on rights and living standards in 80 years.

If you ask working people what their biggest concern is, it's not likely to be the recent defections in the labor movement. It's health care. It's a secure retirement. It's finding a good job and keeping it. It's keeping up with the cost of living. So today I'd like to bring the discussion back to working people, what they need and want and what the union movement is doing to help them get it.

Many commentators talk up the fact that our economy is finally adding jobs -- and seem mystified that Americans say the country is on the wrong track. But the more important fact is that working families are in a deep and growing economic crisis - and they know it, even if the Washington and Wall Street crowd doesn't.

We asked working people about their concerns in a recent survey conducted by Hart Research - and the response is devastating. A bigger share of workers than during the 2001 recession says their incomes are falling behind the cost of living. Working people say the country is on the wrong track when it comes to health care. The wrong track when it comes to retirement security. The wrong track when it comes to jobs.

And they're right. Wages are flat or falling. Health care costs for families with employer coverage shot up 79 percent from 1996 to 2003 - imagine the hit on families struggling to make it without job-based coverage. Companies like Boeing are trying to take back health care. Companies like United are rolling back workers' pensions -- even while awarding CEOs golden parachutes.

And working people don't see anybody in charge looking out for their economic interests. Not corporations. Not the President. Not Republicans in Congress. Not even Democrats in Congress.

Never has it been more important for leaders to listen to working people and establish a new set of economic values - one that rewards work and respects workers.

A strong labor movement is crucial to achieving that, because the single best good jobs program in this country is a union card. It's fact: Over 90 percent of union workers in the private sector have medical insurance through their jobs. Three quarters of union workers in the private sector have a defined benefit retirement plan through their jobs versus only 16% of non-union workers. Union workers earn over a quarter more. These are government statistics.

At our July convention, one of the biggest changes we adopted to build new strength for workers was a plan to bring workers together in key industries to take on global employers through bargaining and organizing for greater power, and we expect to have at least three of those new industry groups launched by early October.

We also moved to increase our support for organizing, and we will be working very closely with every single union to develop solid plans and help them increase their investment in helping workers organize. And we're going to bring the entire AFL-CIO together behind every campaign and every worker who's organizing for a voice on the job and a way to stay afloat despite today's economic undertow.

A record 53 percent of nonunion workers say they'd join a union tomorrow if given the chance - that's the highest percentage in 20 years. It is our job to reach out to them, and we are escalating our campaign to help workers overcome the employer intimidation that routinely meets their attempts to organize.

Not only are we upping our campaign to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would change our nation's laws to allow working people the freedom to choose a union, but we will be increasing our effort to get entire communities to join us in spotlighting employers that are ignoring workers' rights.

Tomorrow, I will be going to New York to participate in an action at NYU to support teaching assistants' rights. It's a sign of how bad things are when an institution like NYU becomes an embarrassment to New York City by deciding workers' rights are expendible.

To see what a level playing field can mean to workers, look at the campaign by the Communications Workers at Cingular Wireless -- a company that agreed to honor its workers' freedom to form a union. In the last two months since a new unit of Cingular workers won the right to choose a union, more than 2100 workers in this high-tech industry -- many in the deep South -- have joined CWA. Yesterday Larry Cohen was elected president of CWA. Together with Morty Bahr, he has been the architect of major campaigns to expand the rights of workers in the telecom industry, and we'll be seeing even more of these landmark initiatives.

Coming out of our convention, we are also implementing historic measures to strengthen our movement by putting real teeth into our commitment to diversity in the leadership of the labor movement.

And we are moving to engage working people in year-round mobilization around the issues most important in their lives. If we are going to rewrite the economic rules of this country, unions have to lead a broad social movement again -- one that insists that America listen to the people who make it work.

We challenge the U.S. Congress to work with us. We will be going into states and even local government to demand change as well. We reject the suggestion from some quarters that working for pro-worker public policy has nothing to do with improving workers' lives.

We will organize for laws to require big, profitable companies like Wal-Mart to provide health care to their employees instead of passing the cost along to everybody else.

We will work to remove the perverse policy incentives for companies to move jobs overseas. And we will mount an even bigger effort to ensure that labor is given the same consideration in global trade agreements as capital is afforded - agreements like CAFTA hurt workers around the world and we should never pass another one.

We will work to protect and strengthen employees' pensions. We won a solid round against the savaging of Social Security through grassroots education and our capital stewardship campaign to stop Wall Street from bankrolling privatization. And we're going to step it up.

And let's start by raising the pitiful minimum wage. You can see the impact of this and other unconscionable policy decisions in the poverty numbers announced by the government this morning. Members of Congress have given themselves seven pay increases since minimum wage workers last got a raise. That's a scandal, and Americans won't stand for it. We challenge every member of Congress to demand a vote -- and vote yes -- to raise the minimum wage before raising their own salaries one more time on January 1st.

We're going to be waging these fights on many fronts.

And we have some great new firepower for these fights in our new community affiliate, Working America. This is an organization all workers can join if they want a voice in the issues that matter to them. Working America just reached its millionth member this week -- after only two years -- making it the fastest growing workers' organization in this country, by far.

Finally, let me add a word about the split caused by the disaffiliations by several major unions from the AFL-CIO. It is a real tragedy for working people, and you can be sure it has led to the popping of champagne corks at the White House, at Wal-Mart corporate headquarters and on Wall Street. For decades, one of the tactics that management has used against workers is "divide and conquer." They know that when workers unite, they're stronger. The same goes for unions.

You only have to look at the strike at Northwest Airlines, where the machinists are represented by a business outfit called AMFA, to see the perils of going-it-alone. For years, AMFA has capitalized on hard times, attacked other unions and rejected the principles of unionism -- of supporting others. Now the workers are out there by themselves - no strike benefits, health care coverage about to run out. It's a terrible situation.

As those of you who were at our convention know, the unions of the AFL-CIO are more focused and energized and committed to each other than ever. We will stand together and fight together as never before. We need to change and grow to meet the challenges facing working people, and we're doing that -- without sacrificing our democratic principles.

On a final note, our Executive Council has approved the issuance of new Solidarity Charters to bring unions back together at the state and local level to fight on behalf of working families. And I will never stop working to bring our unions together nationally as well. Whatever it takes, we are committed to building the strength workers need.

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