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Acting Labor Secretary: Unions Key to Middle-Class Resurgence

Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor, Seth Harris speaks at the 2013 MTD Executive Board Meeting.
Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor, Seth Harris speaks at the 2013 MTD Executive Board Meeting.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Seth Harris recently offered forceful comments reaffirming his belief in the critical importance of unions, and he also cited American maritime labor as a model for part of a national economic recovery.

“Any strategy that talks about American workers’ wages must begin with every worker’s right to organize and bargain collectively,” Harris said during his address to the Maritime Trades Department, AFL-CIO executive board Feb. 22 near Orlando, Fla. “It’s very simple: Unions raise wages. Unions assure workers have pensions. Unions win workers health insurance. Unions give workers a voice in their workplace. Unions guarantee fairness and fight discrimination. Unions win paid leave for workers when they’re sick or must care for their family members. Unions are a central pillar of the American middle class.”

The MTD is a constitutional department of the AFL-CIO. The MTD’s 23 affiliated unions and 21 port maritime councils represent 5 million workers; its board includes presidents and other high-ranking officials from those affiliates.

When introducing Harris to the 200-plus audience members, MTD President Michael Sacco jokingly said the acting secretary credits his success to the foundation he built many years ago working as a field representative for both the MTD and the Seafarers International Union (an MTD affiliate).

But Harris said there is a lot of truth in that sentiment. In fact, he said that during his time as a union representative, what stood out is that the other reps (including, at that time, Mike Sacco) and officials wanted to pave the way for a better life for working families. He admired “their savvy and their passion. They knew that livelihoods and jobs were hanging in the balance, and that families needed a strong labor movement.”

That experience, along with working directly with members, “inspired me to devote my career to the cause that we all believe in and the values we all share,” Harris told the board and guests, including several high-ranking executives from U.S. businesses. “And that is the simple idea that American families should be able to get good jobs; they should be paid a living wage; they should have a voice in their workplaces; they should arrive home safe and healthy after the job is done.”

He said the Obama administration shares those commitments and strongly believes the economy must be strengthened “from the middle out.”

Echoing an outline from the most recent State of the Union address, Harris said that we as a nation “have to attract more jobs to our shores, equip people with skills to do those jobs, and make sure that hard work leads to a decent, living wage. The unions and employers in this room have been models that we can rely on for answers.”

He said America can’t afford to offer corporate tax incentives to move jobs overseas. In fact, he said U.S. tax laws should reward companies that bring back jobs to America and expand hiring here at home.

We must also reinvest in rebuilding America’s infrastructure, Harris continued. Exports are up, “but American goods don’t ship themselves. We need a 21st century transportation infrastructure and a growing American-flag merchant fleet that will make the United States the most competitive place in the world to do business.”

When it comes to jobs training, President Obama has cited the importance of partnerships between the trainers and employers. Here, Harris said, the maritime industry, along with the building trades and metal trades, “offer a model for other industries. From the (SIU-affiliated) Paul Hall Center at Piney Point (Md.) to the apprenticeship programs that we find all across our country, we see labor and management and skills trainers and job-seekers coming together to build pathways into good middle-class jobs. The employers work with the trainers to define the competencies that workers will need. The unions and the employers agree how they’ll fund the training and find on-the-job training opportunities. The unions and the trainers test the curriculums, they build the programs, and they recruit the workers. And the workers devote themselves to learning the skills they’ll need to lead to new jobs.”

He has been visiting community colleges across the U.S. that are trying to build programs “that look very much like what you would find at Piney Point or any of the training facilities or apprentice programs run by the organizations in this room.”

Once a job is secured, Harris said, union representation can help ensure fairness for all concerned.

He then addressed the administration’s push to boost the minimum wage and to index it to the cost of living. Harris pointed out that contrary to conventional wisdom, the vast majority (80 percent) of minimum-wage earners are not teenagers. “They live life one setback away from disaster.”

In his travels, Harris said he has met a number of minimum-wage workers, and without exception they are hard workers just trying to do their best and make ends meet.

Finally, he discussed the seemingly impending sequestration and how it will affect every DOL program and, by extension, America’s working families. “If the sequester happens, it’s because the Republicans in Congress have made a policy choice,” Harris stated. “They will have decided to eviscerate job-creating investments that support the middle class to protect tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. It is just plain wrong, and it’s bad for our economy. The sequester threatens not just individual programs but the entire vision of what I believe we agree on – one where we grow the economy from the middle class out.

“So let’s urge Congress to solve the deficit challenge in a balanced and thoughtful way. And let’s get back to the work of creating good jobs, teaching workers the skills they need, ensuring they get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. That’s what makes America strong. That’s what makes the middle class strong. We can’t do it without your support and your energy. We can’t do it without the voices of our nation’s most effective advocates for working families: the people in this room. I hope we can count on you. I know the president appreciates everything you do every day.”

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