THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
Immediate Release January 8, 2001
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
AT REDEDICATION OF THE AFL-CIO BUILDING
1:20 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. What do you think, Mom? She did a good
job, didn't she? I thought she was great. (Laughter and applause.) When
Susan said they would collectively bargain for ice cream, I thought to
myself, it is only in large families that even John Sweeney would be
against unionizing. (Laughter.) No parents can stand against their united
children, if there are enough of them. (Laughter.)
Thank you, Susan; thank you, John; for your friendship, your support,
for bringing such incredible energy and direction to the labor movement.
To all the officers of the AFL-CIO; and, Maureen, thank you for your
friendship; Mrs. Kirkland, Monsignor.
I would like to thank all the members of the labor movement, and I'd
like to thank all the members of my administration who support labor. John
said there were too many to mention and he'd get in trouble, but I want to
also say a special thank you to Secretary Alexis Herman for being labor's
friend and partner. Thank you. (Applause.)
I think it would be interesting, you know, maybe it's just that we
don't have as much to do at the White House these days -- (laughter) -- but
we have the largest turn-out here of senior members of the administration
for any event outside the White House we have ever held. So I would like
to ask Mr. Podesta and Martin Baily and Kathy Shaw, from the CEA, and Bruce
Reed and Steve Ricchetti and Gene and Janice LaChance and Aida -- everybody
here who is part of the administration stand up -- Karen, stand up;
everybody stand up, Chuck. (Applause.) Thank you.
You know, John, Karen Tramontano is going with me and we're exploring
whether you can unionize a former President's office. (Laughter.) We're
ripe for organizing here.
I have so much to thank you for. I thank you for the work you did for
the Vice President, for your pivotal roles in the victories in Michigan,
Pennsylvania and so many other places -- and Florida, and the victory in
Florida, yes. (Laughter and applause.) You're taking my good joke away.
I also want to thank you, those of you from New York, for all you did
for Hillary. I am very grateful to you for that. (Applause.) When she
was sworn in last Wednesday, I can honestly say it was one of the happiest
days of my life. I don't know when I've been that happy since Chelsea was
born. And it wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for so many of you
who stuck with her and supported her and I am very, very grateful.
Senator Kennedy, I would like to thank you for your friendship and
your support. In ways that will probably never be a part of the public
record, you have been my true friend for a long time and I thank you.
This is a very emotional moment for me. We're thinking about the last
eight years, that's what you're thinking about. I'm thinking about the
last 26 years. In 1974, I ran for Congress in a district where, in 1972,
President Nixon had defeated Senator McGovern 74-26. I ran against a
member of Congress who had an 85 percent approval rating when I started,
and, obviously, a 99 percent name recognition. I was zero-zero.
I raised in this campaign about $160,000, which was a fortune in 1974.
And over $40,000 of it came from the labor movement, which was a fortune in
1974. And I was one of the top 10 recipients of all House candidates of
help from labor. I was 28 years old and nobody thought I had a chance. It
turned out, I didn't. (Laughter.) But the truth is, I nearly won the
race. We made it part of an overall referendum on the policies and
direction of the National Republican. It basically made the rest of my
career possible, and it could not have happened without the labor movement.
And I was sitting here thinking that people that really helped me
then, most of them aren't around anymore. A man named Dan Powell, that a
lot of you knew, who was then the head of the AFL-CIO region in Memphis.
The Arkansas president, Bill Becker; the guy that ran the labor movement in
West Arkansas, a guy named Dale Dee Porter. One of them is still here,
though -- Wayne Glenn. Thank you. (Applause.) He was there with me 26
And every day for 26 years, almost -- well, 27 years now, I started in
January of '74 -- I have been profoundly grateful to the working people of
my native state and this country for what you represent and what you stand
for and for the fact that you not only have tried to help your own members,
but you've also cared about the larger society.
When Susan was talking about her family and then she kind of morphed
her remarks into her union, I thought it was a beautiful thing -- because
we all really believe that our country and our unions and our work places
ought to work the way our families do when they work best.
All worthy endeavors, including politics, are team sports. And it
doesn't matter how good the quarterback is or the best player on the team
-- if you don't have a team, you can't win. And I will say again, I don't
even have the words to tell you how profoundly grateful I am for more than
a quarter century of being able to be your teammate.
John quoted from George Meany's speech, and there were a few moments
there when he started talking about court decisions, I wondered if it was
really John changing the words. (Laughter.) Then I realized that Mr.
Meany was defending a court decision, not attacking one.
The mission that was articulated by George Meany in 1955 has endured.
The AFL-CIO still leads the country in its efforts to improve the lives of
its members and all working Americans, as well. To bring economic, social
and political justice to the work place, but also to the nation and,
increasingly, to the world beyond our borders. Thanks to vigorous
leadership, rejuvenated organizing efforts and strong grass roots support,
you are on a roll.
This building is a symbol of today's labor movement. It's on the same
foundations you started, but you've modernized it for a new age. You've
adapted to the new challenges and new opportunities. You're looking to the
future. And I hope we can be part of that future together.
You know, I got tickled when Susan said she thought she was going to
introduce Hillary. I thought, for gosh sakes, I've only got 12 days until
I'm a has-been. (Laughter.) Just 12 days to being a has-been, let me
enjoy my 12 days. (Laughter and applause.)
The truth is that we're all going to do fine in this new century if we
stick with what we've done these last eight years. If we keep having open
and honest debates, what John called differences of the head; but we focus
on the basic mission -- empowering workers, strengthening families and
communities, embracing change, but in a way that is consistent with our
values. We've been working on this for some time now. It turns out it
worked pretty well.
In October, 1992, when I spoke to you as a candidate for President, I
said I wanted us to build an America where labor and management, business
and government and education worked together to create a high-wage,
high-growth society. That's the America we worked to build for eight years
now. And along the way, we disproved an idea that the other side had
relentlessly promoted for a dozen years, which is that when labor is at the
table, the economy is weakened; and the only way America would have a
healthy business environment is if government was regularly condemned and
labor was regularly weakened. It turned out not to be true.
Now, it's going to be interesting to see now that they have a certain
influence over the course of America's affairs whether they acknowledge
that in the last eight years, we proved that America is better off when
labor and business and government work together for the welfare of all
Today, we have a stronger labor movement and more partnership and if
we were trying to hurt the economy, we did a poor job of it. We have 22.5
million new jobs; we have the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years; the
lowest female unemployment rate in 40 years; the lowest Hispanic and
African American unemployment rate in history. And the difference in this
recovery and so many others is that everybody was doing better. Every
sector of our economy had about the same percentage increase in its income
over the last four years, with the bottom 20 percent having a slightly
higher percentage increase.
Since 1993, the yearly income of the typical family is up $6,300,
hourly wages up by more than 9 percent in real terms. So this rising tide
has truly lifted all boats.
We also have the lowest poverty rate in 20 years and last year, we had
the biggest drop in child poverty in 34 years. And it is no accident that
these things have happened at a time when the labor movement was a bigger
partner in the policymaking direction of the United States because you
cared about not only your own members but the working poor, as well, and
the family members of people who were in the American work place.
For example, in 1993, when the deficit was high and we had to turn it
around, you supported giving the tax cut that we could afford to the 15
million American families that were working 40 hours a week for the most
modest wages. Nearly none of them were union members, but you wanted them
to have the first tax cut because, most of all, they had children in the
home and you felt that nobody should work 40 hours a week and raise their
kids in poverty.
And because you did that, over 2 million people have been lifted out
of poverty, because of the earned income tax credit. And you should be
very, very proud of that.
We have provided now various tuition tax cuts. The HOPE scholarships
and others that 10 million Americans are using to go to colleges and
community colleges around this country. The direct loan program has saved
$8 billion for students and $5 billion for colleges of higher education
because you supported the right kind of tax relief, targeted toward
Family and Medical Leave, something that we were told would be just
terrible for the economy, has now given over 20 million Americans the
chance to take some time off from work when there's a sick parent or a
newborn baby, and the American economy is stronger than it's ever been.
And its been good for business, because you have more and more and more
people who feel comfortable at work, because they're not having their
insides torn up worrying about their children or their parents at home.
We passed Senator Kennedy's Kennedy-Kassebaum law to let millions of
Americans keep their health insurance when they change jobs. We
strengthened pension protection for tens of millions of Americans. We've
got 90 percent of our kids immunized against serious childhood diseases for
the first time. The life of the Medicare trust fund has been extended to
2025. We have the cleanest environment we have ever had. The air is
cleaner, the water is cleaner, the food is safer. We set aside more land
-- Secretary Babbitt says if it will get done, will surpass Teddy Roosevelt
and we'll have set aside more land than any administration in history. And
it hasn't been bad for the economy.
But I want to say something else, too. As in every new, progressive
era, we sparked a pretty severe reaction from the forces that didn't like
the changes we were trying to make. And when they won the Congress, they
tried, among other things, to weaken the labor movement. So we defeated
their attempts to repeal the prevailing wage, to bring back company union,
to weaken occupational safety laws. Instead, we cracked down on
sweatshops, protected pension funds, passed tough new worker's safety
rules, to prevent repetitive stress injuries, and at least once, we did
succeed in raising the minimum wage.
Now, we were told when we raised the minimum wage it was a terrible
thing for the economy, and particularly rough on small business. Well,
let's look at the record. Since the last time the minimum wage was
increased, America has created almost 12 million new jobs, the unemployment
rate has dropped from 5.2 to 4 percent, and in every single year, we have
set a record for the number of new small business in America.
So the next four years are going to be challenging for you, but at
least you'll have one solace -- you'll have all the evidence on your side.
(Applause.) I must say, there have been times in the last few years when
I've almost admired our opponents in the political arena, because they are
never fazed by evidence. (Laughter.) You know: don't bother me with the
facts; I know what I think and I know who's greasing these wheels and the
facts are absolutely irrelevant.
But at least you have it and you know most Americans care about them
so don't forget the evidence. You've built a record that proves that
America is better off when we are pro-business and pro-labor, when we all
work together and everybody has a seat at the table, when everybody's
concerns are heard and individuals are empowered. Don't forget it. Fall
back on the evidence and you will prevail.
What does that mean? Well, it means that you've got to keep winning
new members. As the work force has changed, your membership has gone down.
Now it's going back up. You have to be geared to the future of the
economy. John, and Rich Trumpka and our Linda Chavez-Thompson -- I have
all these jokes I want to tell and my staff told me I could not tell any of
them. (Laughter.) They say that I have to assume the appropriate role for
a former President and I cannot say any of the things that I want to say,
which would leave you howling in the aisle -- (laughter) -- and the only
thing that could get me a headline in my increasing irrelevancy from my
friends in the press. (Laughter and applause.) But just use your
I want to focus on the future now. And as a citizen, I want to help
you build that future. You've got to get the minimum wage increase this
year, number one. (Applause.) One of the reasons our economic team is
here is that we're releasing a report today from the National Economic
Council which highlights the challenges facing workers who are working full
time for the lowest wages. It shows -- listen to this -- more than 2.6
million Americans earn at or near the minimum wage. Another 6.9 million
Americans earn less than the $6.15 an hour that we would have raised the
minimum wage to. So that it would affect 10 million people, almost, and
all their family members.
Now, these are people who work every day to stock store shelves, who
wash dishes at restaurants, who care for our kids. They're in every town
and city and of every racial and ethnic group. They are not, as the
caricatures often would have it, mostly middle class teenagers working for
money to go out on the weekends. Nearly 70 percent of them are adults.
More than 60 percent are women. Almost half work full time. And many are
the sole breadwinners struggling to raise their kids on $10,300 a year.
They need and they deserve a raise and they have waited for it for far too
Senator Kennedy did everything he could to get it passed at the end of
the last session of Congress and I thought we were going to get it. But in
the end, our friends on the other side decided that they could get an even
bigger tax cut out of milking the minimum wage if they waited until the new
session of Congress.
Now, these families should not be punished for the failure of Congress
to act for the last two years, since I first called for an increase in the
minimum wage. We ought to make up for lost time and lost wages by raising
the minimum wage above what I originally proposed two years ago, because
they've lost more time. (Applause.)
And I want to thank Senator Kennedy, Congressman Bonior and the others
who are working with you on this. But I would like to say something else.
You've got to make it clear to the American people what you will and what
you won't trade for raising the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage
should never be conditioned on taking away overtime or other labor
protections that workers have. (Applause.) And, again, you have something
you didn't have eight years ago, no serious person can say that it is
necessary to take these things away to have a strong economy or to have a
vibrant small business economy. It's a dog that won't hunt anymore.
Use the facts as your shield and keep working.
Let me say that I hope that you will continue to swell the ranks of
your members, and I hope you will continue to be on the cutting edge of
change. There's a lot of other things that need to be done, and I think
you'll be surprised how many of them you can get done the next four years
if you're smart and careful.
I think it's clear that we have the money now to add a comprehensive
prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program, and I hope you'll do it.
(Applause.) It's clear that the Children's Health Insurance Program has
now added over 3.3 million people to the ranks of people with health
insurance, and we've got the number of people without health insurance
going down for the first time in a dozen years. It's time to add the
parents of those children to the ranks of those with health insurance.
It's clear that we can do more to balance work and family without
hurting the economy. I hope they'll be an expansion of Family and Medical
Leave. I hope there will be a strengthening of the equal pay for women
laws. (Applause.) I hope we'll pass the employment non-discrimination
act, and I hope we will increase our support for child care for working
families. There are many, many people, huge numbers, who are eligible by
law for federal assistance in paying their child care bills that we have
never come close to funding.
I hope that you will continue to work to empower poor people in poor
communities, whether in inner-cities, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta or
on Native American reservations. I hope you'll continue to work to make
America the safest big country in the world. I hope you'll continue -- let
me be more explicit here. In Michigan and Pennsylvania you had to fight
against a lot of your members who were NRA members who believed that Al
Gore was going to take your guns away. And you did a brilliant job saying,
no, he won't take your guns away but the other guys will take your union
away if they can. And you won a ground war. (Applause.)
Now, let me be serious here. The truth is, most of your people who
are NRA members are good, God-fearing Americans who wouldn't break the law
for anything on earth and they get spooked by these fear campaigns. Now,
we're in a -- I want to make a suggestion -- in a non-election year, when
there's not the kind of pressure that we saw last year. And let's don't
kid ourselves, the reason that our party didn't win the Congress, in my
judgment, more than anything else, is what they did in those rural
districts to us again, just like they did in 1994 on guns.
Now, it didn't work at all in New York. Why? New York even has a --
you have to get a license to carry a gun in New York. And there's lots of
sporting clubs. Nobody has missed a day in the woods in a hunting season,
nobody has missed a single sports shooting event. So all those fear
tactics didn't work in New York, because all the hunters and sportsmen
could see from their own personal experience that it was not true.
But I believe that you -- we've all got a big interest here in keeping
America going in the right direction on crime. We've all got a big
interest in keeping guns out of the hands of kids and criminals. And we
don't need to wait for an election where we're all torn up and upset and
you have to win a ground war against your own members just to have an
election come out all right over an issue that we shouldn't be debating in
the first place at election time.
So I regret that I have not been more persuasive, because I came out
of that culture. But I'm telling you, you need to use this next year, when
there's no election going on, to go out there and sit down and talk about
where we're going, because we've got to keep working to make America a
safer place and nobody wants to end the sporting and hunting culture that
has meant so much to so many of your members. And I implore you, you can
do this. Maybe nobody else in America can do this, and you can do it.
But you have to do it in a non-election year, in my opinion, where
people aren't fighting against you and you don't feel like you're pushing a
rock up a hill. And I'll help you if I can. This is a big deal for
We're still not near safe enough as a country. I'm glad the crime
rate has gone down for eight years. It's a gift you can give the children
of your members and the communities in which you live.
And, finally, let me say, I hope you will continue on some of the
things we disagreed with over the years. We've got to figure out how to
put a human face on the global economy. (Applause.) We are becoming more
interdependent. We are becoming more and more interdependent. There is
going to be more trade whether we like it or not. A trillion dollars a day
in pure -- just money transactions across national lines.
We have got to figure out how to be on the side of making sure that
the little folks in every country in the world are not trampled on by the
increasing power of financial transactions and international economic
transactions. Instead, we have to prove that we can lift up the fortunes
of all people. We have to have good labor rights. We have to have good
environmental standards. We have to have fair and open financial rules, so
that people don't get ripped off. We've got to do this together, and
you've got to be part of the debate. Whenever you're part of the debate,
America wins, and Americans win.
And I'll tell you, I've had a great time. I said yesterday in my
church, they may find somebody who can do this job better than me -- they
will never find anybody that had any more fun doing it than I had. I have
had a great time. (Applause.) But America is always about tomorrow. And
I will end where I began.
This building should be a metaphor for the future of the AFL and the
future of America. You built a new building with new technology for new
times on old foundations. You stayed with what was best about the past and
embraced what was necessary and attractive about the future.
So whenever you come in the front door of this building, think about
that as a road map for your future. And remember what Susan said about a
union being like a family and a work place being like a family and a nation
being like a family. And remember that great line from George Meany's
speech -- we should never forget our obligation to do unto others as we
would like to be treated ourselves. We should never forget that politics,
work and life are all team sports. It's been an honor to be on your team.
Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)
END 1:50 P.M. EST