AFSCME National Convention, Remarks of Senator Barack Obama

Chicago, IL | August 07, 2006

We meet here at a challenging time for labor and a challenging time for America. All across the country, from nurses in Chicago to correctional officers in Atlanta to sanitation workers in L.A., Americans have been looking to the future with more anxiety than hope. As transformations in technology and communication have ushered in a global economy with new rules and new risks, they've watched their government do its best to try and shift those risks onto the backs of the American worker. And they wonder how they will ever keep up.

In coffee shops and town meetings, in VFW halls and right here in this room, the questions are all the same. Will I be able to leave my children a better world than I was given? Will I be able to save enough to send them to college or plan for a secure retirement? Will my job even be there tomorrow? Who will stand up for me in this new world?

In this time of change and uncertainty, these questions are expected - but I want you to know today they are by no means unique. Throughout our history, they have been asked and then answered by Americans who have stood in your shoes and shared your concerns.

In the middle of the last century, on the restless streets of Memphis, it was a group of AFSCME sanitation workers who took up this charge. For years they had served their city without complaint, picking up other people's trash for little pay and even less respect. Passers-by would call them "walking buzzards," and in the segregated South, most were forced to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.

But as the civil rights movement gained steam and they watched the marches and saw the boycotts and heard about the passage of voting rights, the workers in Memphis decided that they'd had enough, and in 1968, over 1,000 went on strike.

Their demands were simple. Recognition of their union. The right to bargain. A few cents more an hour.

But the opposition was fierce. Their vigils were met with handcuffs. Their protests turned back with mace. One march was interrupted by police gunfire and tear gas, and when the smoke cleared, 280 had been arrested, 60 were wounded, and one 16-year old boy lay dead.

And still, the city would not give in.

Now, the workers could have gone home, or they could've gone back to work, or they could've waited for someone else to help them, but they didn't. They kept marching. They drew ministers and high school students and civil rights activists to their cause, and at the beginning of the third straight month, Dr. King himself came down to Memphis.

At this point, the story of the sanitation workers merges with the larger saga of the Civil Rights Movement. On April 3rd, we know that King gave his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" sermon. On April 4th, he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine hotel. And on April 8th, a day before he was buried, his wife Coretta led the sanitation workers on one final march through the city of Memphis - a march that would culminate in the union contract that the workers had sought for so long.

This is the legacy you inherit today. It's a legacy of courage, a legacy of action, a legacy of achieving the greatest triumphs amidst the greatest odds. It's a story as American as any - that at the edge of despair, in the shadow of hopelessness, ordinary people make the extraordinary decision that if we stand together, we rise together.

What those workers made real in Memphis - and what we have to make real today - is the idea that in this country, we value the labor of every American. That we're willing to respect that labor and reward it with a few basic guarantees - wages that can raise a family, health care if we get sick, a retirement that's dignified, working conditions that are safe.

The struggle to secure these guarantees has always been at the heart of the labor movement - and the opposition has always been powerful. But today, we're facing a challenge like none we've seen before.

At the very moment that globalization is changing the rules of the game on the American worker - making it harder to compete with cheaper, highly-skilled workers all over the world - the people running Washington are responding with a philosophy that says government has no role in solving these problems; that the services you all provide every day are better left to the whims of the private sector.

They're telling us we're better off if we dismantle government - if we divvy it up into individual tax breaks, hand 'em out, and encourage everyone to go buy your own health care, your own retirement security, your own child care, their own schools, your own private security force, your own roads, their own levees...

It's called the Ownership Society in Washington. But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism - every man or women for him or herself.

It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - life isn't fair. It allows us to say to the child who didn't have the foresight to choose the right parents or be born in the right suburb - pick yourself up by your bootstraps. It lets us say to the guy who worked twenty or thirty years in the factory and then watched his plant move out to Mexico or China - we're sorry, but you're on your own.

It's a bracing idea. It's a tempting idea. And it's the easiest thing in the world.

But there's just one problem. It doesn't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it has been government research and investment that made the railways and the internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools - that has allowed all of us to prosper. And it has been the ability of working men and women to join together in unions that has allowed our rising tide to lift every boat.

Yes, our greatness as a nation has depended on individual initiative, on a belief in the free market. But it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, of mutual responsibility. The idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity.

Americans know this. We know that government can't solve all our problems - and we don't want it to.

But we also know that there are some things we can't do on our own. We know that there are some things we do better together.

We know that we've been called in churches and mosques, synagogues and Sunday schools to love our neighbors as ourselves; to be our brother's keeper; to be our sister's keeper. That we have individual responsibility, but we also have collective responsibility to each other.

That's what America is. That's what those workers in Memphis fought for. And that's what we fight for today.

Some of what we need to do is clear. When you have a Republican Congress that says "no" to organizing rights, "no" to overtime pay, "no" to a higher minimum wage, "no" to Social Security, and "no" to Medicaid, it's time to say "no" to that Congress and put Democrats in charge come November.

But if we really want to lead - if we really hope to convince the country that our vision of government is better than theirs - we're gonna need more than just "no." We're gonna need to tell the country what our plan is for the 21st century worker - what we'll do to give every American the chance to get ahead and raise their family.

I won't stand up here and say that coming up with this strategy will be easy, or pretend to know all the answers.

But there's a few places we can start.

We can start by fixing our schools to make sure every child in America has the education and the skills they need to compete. We can start by making sure that college is affordable for every American who wants to go. And by giving unions a real role in creating a real system of lifelong learning so that workers who lose a job really can retrain for other high-wage jobs.

In this new economy, we can start giving our workers a chance by making sure that no matter where you work or how many times you switch jobs, you will have health care and a pension you can take with you always.

We'll never rise together if we allow medical bills to swallow family budgets or let people retire penniless after a lifetime of hard work, and so we can start by demanding that when it comes to commitments made to working men and women on health care and pensions, a promise made is a promise kept.

And in a world where two-income households are trying to juggle work and family, we can start giving workers a chance with policies that give families a chance. When a parent takes parental leave, we shouldn't act like caring for a newborn baby is a three-month break - we should let them keep their salary. When parents are working and their children need care, we should make sure that care is affordable, and that our kids can go to school earlier and longer so they have a safe place to learn while their parents are at work. And when a mom or a dad has to leave work to care for a sick child, we should make sure it doesn't result in a pink slip.

Our vision of America is not one where a big government runs our lives; it's one that gives every American the opportunity to make the most of their lives. It's not one that tells us we're on our own, it's one that realizes that we rise or fall together as one people.

And yet, we also know that, in the end, neither policy nor politics can replace heart and courage in the struggle you now face. Because in the brief history of the American experiment, it has been the ability of ordinary Americans to act on both that has allowed our nation to achieve extraordinary things.

Nearly forty years ago, the strike in Memphis came to an end.

But today, the march goes on.

Every year, on April 4th, the sanitation workers of Local 1733 gather again to march the route that led them to justice so long ago. Sometimes they walk the whole way, other years a bus comes to carry them the last few miles.

They march to remember, but they also march because they know our journey isn't complete - they know we have fights left to win; that we have dreams still unfulfilled.

A few years back, one of these workers, a man named Malcolm Pryor, told a reporter, "You have to remind people: We are not free yet. As long as I march, Dr. King's soul is still rejoicing that people are still trying."

And so today I ask you to keep marching.

As long as there are those who are jobless, I ask you to keep marching for jobs.

As long as there are those who struggle to raise a family on low wages and few benefits, I ask you to keep marching for opportunity.

As long as there are those who can't organize or unionize or bargain for a better life, I ask you to keep marching for solidarity.

And as long as there are those who try to privatize our government and decimate our social programs and peddle a philosophy of trickle-down and on-your-own, I ask you to keep marching for a vision of America where we rise or fall as one nation under God.

My friends, it's time again to march for freedom. Time again to march for hope. Time again to march towards the tomorrow that so many have reached for so many times in our past. I know we can get there, and I can't wait to try. Thank you, and good luck.