Sen. Warren's Remarks to the AFL-CIO Convention
Sep 8, 2013
Los Angeles Convention Center
As Prepared for Delivery
It's great to be able to be here with you - even if just for short time. I was just in Washington for a classified briefing on Syria, and I'm headed right back to participate in the Senate debate and the vote on military intervention. But it was very important to me to be here with you today, so thank you all for inviting me.
To Rich Trumka and my old friend Damon Silvers, to Steve Tolman, Lou Mandarini, and all my friends from Massachusetts, and to all of you who are here today, thank you for your hard work and, most of all, thank you for your friendship. I would not be here today as the Senior Senator from Massachusetts without your extraordinary support.
I've also got to give a special shout out to the operating engineers - my brother's union for many years. My brother has a pension today because of your work!
I love being here with labor. It reminds me of a family reunion. Lots of roughhousing. Occasional arguments. Plenty of food. But ultimately, in a family we know we've got each other's back.
But there's another reason I love being here with labor. When I'm here, I know I'm with people who stand up for working families all across this country.
When important decisions are made in Washington, too often, working families are ignored. From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hard-working people get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups. Those with power fight to take care of themselves and to feed at the trough for themselves, even when it comes at the expense of working families getting a fair shot at a better future.
This isn't new. Throughout our history, powerful interests have tried to capture Washington and rig the system in their favor. But we didn't roll over. At every turn, in every time of challenge, organized labor has been there, fighting on behalf of the American people.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, when factories were deathtraps, when owners exploited workers and children, and when robber barons amassed the kind of power and influence that made them think they were modern day kings, the American people came together under the leadership of progressives to bring our nation back from the brink. And labor was there, leading the way.
Labor was on the front lines to take children out of factories and put them in schools. Labor was there to give meaning to the words "consumer protection" by making our food and medicine safe. Labor was there to fight for minimum wages in states across this country.
Powerful interests did everything they could to block reform. But our agenda was America's agenda, and we prevailed.
A generation later, when our country was mired in the Great Depression, when people were on bread lines and looking for work, we fought back. We created jobs by investing in infrastructure and public works. We brought light and power to our poorest and most remote areas. We established federal laws on wages and hours. We enshrined into law the right to organize. We made banking boring and put real cops on the beat on Wall Street. And because we believed those in old age should not be mired in poverty, we created Social Security. And all along that journey, labor was there, leading the way.
Once again, the powerful interests did everything they could to stop it. But our agenda was America's agenda, and we prevailed.
When political injustice threatened to break our democracy, members of the labor movement were there, working for jobs and freedom, marching right alongside the Reverend Dr. King, fighting together for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
When hard working families were getting squeezed, labor was there, fighting alongside our beloved Ted Kennedy, and now we have the Family and Medical Leave Act, we have the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and we have continued to protect Medicare.
And in 2008, when the economy crashed and it was time to reign in financial predators and Wall Street banks, labor was there-you were there-standing shoulder to shoulder with me, standing with President Obama, and fighting for consumer protection. And thanks to those efforts, we now have a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - with a confirmed Director to lead it. And just so everyone knows, that little agency has already returned half a billion dollars to families who were cheated by big financial institutions and helped tens of thousands of consumers solve their problems with big banks.
In every fight to build opportunity in this country, in every fight to level the playing field, in every fight for working families, we have been on the front lines because our agenda is America's agenda.
But let's be clear, we have always had to run uphill. We have had to fight for what we've achieved. Powerful interests have done everything they can to block reform. They attacked Social Security and Medicare. They attacked pensions and public employees. They attacked bank regulation and consumer protection.
The powerful interests have attacked so many of the basic foundations that built a strong middle class - and too many times, they have prevailed.
Even today, our work is uphill. The powerful interests fight us on every battlefield they can.
Look at the increasing corporate capture of the federal courts.
According to a recent study, the five conservative justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court are in the top ten most pro-corporate justices in a half century - and Justices Alito and Roberts are numbers one and two - the most anti-consumer in this entire time.[i] The Chamber of Commerce is now a major player in the Supreme Court, and its win rate has risen to 70% of all cases it supports.[ii] Follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you'll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of big business.
Look at where we are on the "Too Big to Fail" problem.
Five years ago, experts said the banks had to be bailed out because there was too much concentration in banking and one failure would bring down the entire economy. Now the four biggest banks are 30% larger than they were five years ago. The five largest banks now hold more than half of all banking assets in the country. Because investors know they are too big to fail, those big banks get cheaper borrowing, which, according to one study, adds up to an annual $83 billion subsidy from taxpayers-another benefit of being Too Big to Fail.
What about reform? The Dodd-Frank Act was an incredibly important achievement, but since it passed, the big banks and their army of lobbyists have fought every step of the way to delay, water down, block, or strike down regulations. When a new approach is proposed - like my bill with John McCain, Angus King, and Maria Cantwell to bring back Glass-Steagall - you know what happens - they throw everything they've got against it.
One more: take a look at what's happening with trade deals.
For big corporations, trade agreement time is like Christmas morning. They can get special gifts they could never pass through Congress out in public. Because it's a trade deal, the negotiations are secret and the big corporations can do their work behind closed doors. We've seen what happens here at home when our trading partners around the world are allowed to ignore workers rights, wages, and environmental rules. From what I hear, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters, and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the upcoming trade deals in their favor.
Why are trade deals secret? I've heard people actually say that they have to be secret because if the American people knew what was going on, they would be opposed. Think about that. I believe that if people would be opposed to a particular trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not happen.
Finally, look what is happening in our states. Republican governors in Indiana and Michigan push for so-called right to work laws, and in Wisconsin Scott Walker and the legislature he controls have declared war on working families by ripping the guts out of collective bargaining agreements.
The fight continues to rage, and the powerful interests continue to be guided by their age-old principle: "I've got mine, the rest of you are on your own."
But we're guided by principle too. It's a simple idea, and all of you know it as an old labor idea - we all do better when we work together and invest in our future.
We know that the economy grows when hard working families can improve their lives. We know that the country gets stronger when we invest in helping people succeed. We know that our lives improve when we care for our neighbors.
And we know that even though pundits and big corporate lobbyists in Washington might need to be dragged kicking and screaming - we know that America agrees with us.
On almost every issue of economic concern, our values are America's values, and our agenda is America's agenda.
We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement - and you know what? So do more than 80% of people.[iii] Wall Street will fight us, but the American people are on our side.
We believe in raising the minimum wage - and so do 71% of people.[iv] The Republicans will fight us, but the American people are on our side.
We believe in preventing cuts to Social Security benefits - and so do 87% of Americans.[v] The Washington insiders will fight us, but the American people are on our side.
We believe in rebuilding our infrastructure and in passing legislation to create jobs - and so do 75% of Americans.[vi] The Tea Party will fight us, but the American people are on our side.
And we believe that the sequester is stupid. And, you know what? A majority of Americans-including a majority of Republicans agree with us too.[vii] We ought to be making smart choices about where to cut and where to invest. Washington will fight us but the American people are on our side.
It was less than a year ago that the American people overwhelmingly re-elected President Obama and gave us a mandate to fight for middle class families.
We have a mandate-a mandate to build a fair tax code, one that isn't rigged to give breaks to big oil and billionaires while it crushes working families. We have a mandate to invest in the future - in infrastructure, in research and innovation, and in education. And we have a mandate to create jobs - jobs right here in America, jobs for hard working people!
So here's my message: Our agenda is America's agenda. The American people know that the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field. That's our mandate!
I've already fought and lost my share of battles in Washington, and I've been around long enough to know that Washington is a tough place. Real reform isn't easy. But I also know this: If we don't fight, we can't win.
But if we fight, we win. The Budget. Immigration. Minimum wage.
Uphill battles? You bet.
But however tough the challenge, however steep our climb, I am proud to stand with you, to march with you, and to fight side-by-side with you.
Our agenda is America's agenda and if we fight for it, we win.
[i] Lee Epstein, William M. Landes, & Richard A. Posner, How Business Fares in the Supreme Court, 97 Minn. L. Rev. 1431, 1450-51 (2013), available at http://www.minnesotalawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/EpsteinLanderPosner_MLR.pdf.
[ii] Doug Kendall & Tom Donnelly, Not So Risky Business: The Chamber of Commerce's Quiet Success Before the Roberts Court - An Early Report for 2012-2013, Const. Accountability Ctr., (May 1, 2013), available at http://theusconstitution.org/text-history/1966/not-so-risky-business-chamber-commerces-quiet-success-roberts-court-early-report.
[iii] Americans for Financial Reform, Recent Polling on Financial Reform and the CFPB, available at: http://ourfinancialsecurity.org/confirm-cordray-defend-the-cfpb/recent-polling-on-financial-reform-and-the-cfpb/
[iv] Lydia Saad, In U.S., 71% Back Raising Minimum Wage, Gallup Politics, Mar. 6, 2013, available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/160913/back-raising-minimum-wage.aspx
[v] Pew Research, As Sequester Deadline Looms, Little Support for Cutting Most Programs, Feb. 22, 2013, available at: http://www.people-press.org/2013/02/22/as-sequester-deadline-looms-little-support-for-cutting-most-programs/
[vi] Jeffrey Jones, Americans Widely Back Government Jobs Creation Proposals, Gallup Politics, Mar. 20, 2013, available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/161438/americans-widely-back-government-job-creation-proposals.aspx
[vii] Greg Langer, Budget Cuts Get Personal; Those who Hurt, Hollar, ABCNews, available at: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2013/05/budget-cuts-get-personal-those-who-are-hurt-holler/