Remarks at AFL-CIO Convention

Office of the Press Secretary
(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

For Immediate Release

September 24, 1997


David Lawrence Convention Center
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

10:25 A.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. I am delighted to be here. Thank you for the warm welcome. Thank you for the fast introduction. (Laughter.)

The last time I spoke at your convention it was two days before you elected John and Rich and Linda. And I must say, from the outside, it seems to me that they have done a remarkable job, and I know that you must be very, very proud of them. (Applause.)

I am delighted to be here with Secretary Herman, and Deputy Secretary Kitty Higgins, and Secretary Slater, a number of other members of the administration. I should mention one other -- the successor at the White House to Alexis Herman, former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Wage and Hours Maria Echevesta. We're all glad to be here. (Applause.)

I also want to say right at the outset that I am very glad that you voted to support campaign finance reform. Now there will be a vote on the Senate floor, and that will be a time of testing. But I have made clear where I stand. All 45 of our Democratic senators have made clear where they stand. You have now made clear where you stand. We will soon see where the Senate stands, and then where the House stands. This is a good time to make our campaign finance laws better, and I thank you for your crucial role in it. (Applause.)

On a very personal word, I might say, I came in a few moments ago and I was able to hear Sandy Feldman and hear your tribute to our friend, Al Shanker. And I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that. Under his leadership, and Sandy's, the AFT has been a constant supporter of educational opportunity and educational excellence -- a clear signal that working professionals can be organized for the objectives, the legitimate objectives of the union movement. And one of those objectives would be excellence on the job. And there is no more important place to have excellence on the job than in educating our children. So I'm very, very grateful for the AFT and for Sandy Feldman. (Applause.)

With your new leadership team and the new energy I feel of the presidents who are here on this great stage and all of you in the audience, your members back home, it is clear that American labor once again has a clear voice and you are making it heard. You made it heard loud and proud in the boardrooms of Unite Parcel Service. You made it heard in the halls of the Capitol, standing up to a barrage of anti-worker legislation. (Applause.)

You're making it heard in the strawberry and mushroom fields of California, in the fiery tones of Arturo Rodriguez, with noble echoes of Cesar Chavez. (Applause.) You're making it heard in nursing homes in Minnesota, giving new strength to women workers. And you're making it heard right here in Pittsburgh through the steelworkers biggest organizing campaign in more than 60 years. This must be a proud time for the men and women of the AFL-CIO. (Applause.)

Our nation can clearly see and hear that American labor is back. Thanks in no small part to your leadership in the workplace and your involvement in the political process, America is back, too.

Six years ago, when I announced my candidacy for President, I said that America had a vital mission for the 21st century -- to keep the American Dream alive for every person responsible enough to work for it, to keep America the world's strongest force for peace and freedom and prosperity, and to bring our people together across all the lines that divide us into one America. America's oldest, most incandescent ideals --opportunity for all, responsibility from all, a community of all.That is what has to illuminate our path as we stride forward to address the challenges of a new era.

I pledged then to take America in a new direction -- toward the future, not the past; toward unity, not division; with America leading, not following; putting people and values, not power politics, first; reforming government not to do everything or do nothing, but to give all our people the tools they need to make the most of their own lives; and beginning by building an economy that works for all, not the few.

We started with a new economic policy for the new economy, putting in place a bold new strategy to shrink the deficit and balance the budget, invest in our people and lower unfair trade barriers to our goods and services. The philosophy was solid and simple: remove the impediments that have restrained the American people and give them the tools and training to help them race ahead. By reducing the nation's massive deficits, we could free our people of the dead weight that slowed their every step from the early 1980s. By investing in their education and health, we would enable them to run fast and strong over the long run. By reducing trade barriers, we would knock down the unfairly high hurdles that we have had to leap over for far too long, and build bridges to new democracies with growing economies to ensure our leadership for peace and freedom well into the next century.

The strategy has succeeded: nearly 13 million new jobs; America leading the world in auto production once again; unemployment below five percent; over a million new construction jobs, a half a million transportation jobs, a half a million new jobs for machine operators, auto jobs having the fastest increase since Lyndon Johnson's administration; the biggest drop in welfare rolls in history, with welfare reform that is tough on work, but pro-child and pro-family; dramatic drops in crime year after year, putting 100,000 more community police officers on the street and the Brady Bill preventing 250,000 sales of handguns to people with criminal or mental health histories that indicates they should not have them. We know we have more to do, but together we have made progressive government work again.

Let's look at three crucial elements of our economic strategy -- reducing the deficit, investing in our people, expanding exports. First, deficit reduction. Back in 1993, when I introduced our first deficit reduction plan, we both knew it was important to get our fiscal house in order. And we did it the right way -- we did it while increasing investments in our people. And we did it without a single Republican vote, cutting the huge deficit of $290 billion 87 percent before the balanced budget law passed. (Applause.)

After a new majority took control of Congress in 1994, they tried to cut the deficit in the wrong way. They sent me a budget that made unjustifiably deep cuts in Medicare, that increased taxes on working Americans, that allowed corporations to raid their workers' pensions, that cut enforcement of worker safety laws, that slashed funding for education and training by $30 billion. With your support, I vetoed that budget and the veto was upheld. (Applause.)

Later, when they pushed a balanced budget with a harmful independent contractor provision, a misguided privatization scheme for Medicaid, and a shameful plan to deny workfare participants the minimum wage, you and I stood firm together. We stood firm together. And I thank you for your support for that opposition. (Applause.)

I believe this balanced budget that I signed honors our workers and our values and our future. And I will explain by going to the second element of our economic strategy -- investing in our people. In the new economy the most precious resources America has are the skills and securities of working Americans. Here, too, we are succeeding. After decades of working harder and longer for lower wages, millions of working Americans finally are getting a raise. And it's about time.

Since I took office the yearly income of the typical family is up $1,600. Wages are rising again. In 1995 and 1996, over half the new jobs created in this economy paid above the average wage. With your strong support, we also increased the minimum wage and dramatically increased the earned income tax credit -- it is now worth about $1,000 a year to the typical family of four with an income of less than $30,000. And this summer, I signed into law a $500-per-child tax credit that will mean $1,000 in take-home pay for a typical family with two children. And I didn't sign the bill until we made it work for rookie police officers, teachers and others of modest means the Republican majority would have left out of their budget and tax cut plans.

From 1945 until the mid-1970s, all of us grew together in America. Each group of our economy, from the lowest 20 percent to the highest, increased their incomes, but, actually, in percentage terms, those in the bottom 40 percent grew slightly faster than those in the upper 40 percent. And that was as it should have been. We were sharing our prosperity and growing together.

Then, unfortunately, we began to grow apart, partly because of developments in the global economy, historic developments that could not be reversed and offer us great opportunity of seize them -- partly, I believe, because of wrongheaded policies in the United States government throughout the 1980s.

Fortunately, now it looks like our hard work and your hard work is paying off and America is starting to grow together again. I believe the general sense that this should be so is one of the reasons for the renewed success and receptivity of the efforts that you are making all over America.

But we cannot rest. We cannot rest until every single American has a fair chance to reap the rewards of the American economy. That is why, above all, investing in people means giving every American the best education in the world.

Our balanced budget includes the largest increase in aid to education since 1965, when President Johnson was in office, and the biggest increase to help people to go on to college since the G.I. Bill was passed 50 years ago. (Applause.) The budget has $1 billion more for Head Start; more money to help our schools achieve excellence; the America Reads program to mobilize a million volunteers, organized by our national service program, AmeriCorps, which has already given 70,000 young people a chance to work and serve in their communities and earn the money for college.

It contains money to help connect every classroom and library in this country to the Internet by the year 2000. It also contains a new HOPE Scholarship to guarantee access to all Americans to at least two years of college; other tuition tax credits for all college and skills training; an IRA you can withdraw from, tax-free, to pay for your own education or your children's education; the biggest increase in Pell Grants in two decades; a million, total, work-study slots now; and doubling aid for dislocated workers.

When you put all this together, we can really say for the first time in the history of this country, we have opened the doors of college education to every American who is willing to work for it money will not be an obstacle again. (Applause.)

There is still a lot to do. First of all, we have to pass every year for the next five years the funds necessary to make good on the budget agreement. Secondly, we have got to increase the quality of education in our public schools. I have sought to provide more options to parents in public school through public school choice and allowing teachers to organize new charter schools within public school districts. But I also know we need national standards. Every other major economy in the world educates its children according to national academic standards. And I have called for national standards and voluntary national exams to begin with 4th grade reading and 8th grade math to see how our children are doing. Voluntary exams developed not by politicians, but by a non-political board; not by the Department of Education, but financially supported by the Department of Education.

There are those who say no to this, no the standards, no to the idea that we ought to have accountability. Some of them, frankly, don't believe all our children can learn. Some of them see some dark plot to take over local schools. All I see is reading is the same in Minnesota as it is in Maine, and mathematics is the same in Washington as it is in Florida. And our children had better know it if they expect to compete in the world of the 21st century. (Applause.)

There are also those in the Congress who say no to every effort we make to expand educational opportunity -- those who failed to close the Department of Education, but would still like to cut it down; those who still would reduce our commitment to scholarships and grants and shut down completely innovative initiatives, like America Reads, even though we know -- we know -- that 40 percent of our 3rd graders still cannot read independently on their own. We know that and we cannot afford to back up; we need to bear down.

So I need to ask your help again on education in the tough days ahead. With your help we can open up opportunity, build up education and shake up the status quo crowd that fights every effort we make to lift up our children.

We are making progress in this country in education. The teachers of this country are doing a better job. The principals are doing a better job. Parents are steadily getting more involved. We are learning how to come to grips with all the social problems that our kids bring to school. This year, on international exams, a representative sample of our children by race, by region, by income -- for the first time the 4th graders scored above the global average in mathematics and science. So I know all children can learn, and I know we've got people who can do the job. We just have to support them and bear down and do more of the kinds of things that we know will work.

Al Shanker, for his whole adult life, advocated national standards and meaningful measures and then all the efforts necessary to give every kid in this country a chance to learn. And I am not going to back away from this if it takes me every last minute of the next three years and however many months and days I've got left. And you ought to be there, too, because there's nothing more important for the future of this country than giving our kids a decent education. (Applause.)

Investing in our people also means protecting the rights of workers, to demand their rights. Over the past four years we've defeated callous attempts to repeal prevailing wage laws, to bring back company unions, to weaken occupational safety laws. We cracked down on sweatshops and fought to protect your pension funds and make pensions more portable. I have vetoed every piece of anti-labor legislation that has crossed my desk, and I will continue to do so. (Applause.) Thank you.

A lot of the people pushing these bills have missed the main point: the key to success in tomorrow's economy is people, and you cannot move into the 21st century by restoring the labor policies of the 19th century. I will oppose it, you will oppose and we will prevail. (Applause.)

In that context, let me just say one more word about the UPS strike. I and, indeed, my entire administration believe deeply in the collective bargaining process. In the UPS strike collective bargaining worked. UPS and the Teamsters reached an historic settlement that recognizes that companies have to invest in their workers in order to be competitive in the 21st century. I did the right thing to let the process work. The parties got together, they worked through it and we got a good result. (Applause.) Thank you.

Investing in people also means expanding access to health care, quality health care. The Family and Medical Leave law that you worked so hard for, the very first bill I signed as President, ensures that millions of people don't have to choose between being good parents and good workers. I still hear from citizens as I travel across the country and just stop at airports, or in crowds in communities and shake hands -- people still come up to me and say, that law changed my life, saved my family, has meant more to me than anything the government has done in my life. It is a good thing and I thank you for your support of it. (Applause.)

The Kennedy-Kassebaum law helps millions to keep their health care if they take a new job or if someone in their family gets sick. The new balanced budget spends $24 billion to expand health care to 5 million of the most vulnerable Americans -- 5 million children, almost all in working families, without health insurance. That is the largest investment in health care since the creation of Medicaid in 1965. Never -- never -- would this have happened unless you had helped me wage the fight we waged and lost to give health insurance to every American family that doesn't have it. And sometimes you have to lose a battle. I'm glad we fought for it. I'm proud that you helped me. And those kids are going to get insurance because of the issues we raised in 1994. (Applause.)

Finally, I ask for your support to help me pass sweeping legislation to keep tobacco, our number one health problem, out of the hands of our children. The health of our children is my bottom line and I believe it should be the bottom line of the tobacco industry as well.

The final component of our three-part economic strategy, one that is just as essential for the future growth and the future wage growth of our economy, is our continuing work to open new markets and give American workers a fair break. I know we don't see eye to eye on fast track, but I think I owe it to you to tell you exactly why I feel so passionately about it. And I think I've earned the right to be heard on it. (Applause.)

Fast track authority is a tool that has been given by Democratic Congresses to Republican Presidents and Presidents, indeed, of both parties for more than 20 years now. It simply says that if the President or his representative, his trade representative, negotiates a trade agreement, then the Congress has to vote on it if it rises to the level of comprehensive agreement, but must vote it up or down, so that the other country does not believe it is having to negotiate with 535 people in addition to the person with whom they negotiated.

We cannot create enough good jobs and increase wages if we don't expand trade. There's a simple reason why. Indeed, about a third of the economic growth that has produced 13 million new jobs over the past four and a half years has come from selling more American products overseas. Here's why: We have four percent of the world's population and we enjoy 22 percent of the world's wealth. If we want to keep the 22 percent of the wealth we have as four percent of the world's people, we have to sell something to the other 96 percent.

And this did not happen by accident. There were over 220 trade agreements signed in the first four years of this administration. In the over 20 agreements signed with Japan, in those areas our exports went up by over 80 percent.

The information technology agreement that we just signed, worldwide, covering 90 percent of information technology services in the world, under residual fast track authority that covered that area amounts to a $5-billion tax or tariff cut on American products -- high value-added products, many of which are made by union workers.

Now, in the next 15 years, the developing countries in Latin America and Asia will grow three times as fast as the United States, Europe and Japan. As I told the United Nations a couple of days ago, early in the next century, about 20 nations comprising half of the world's people will move from the ranks of low-income nations to middle-income nations. They are going to grow in a world economy. We are going to participate in that growth to a greater or lesser extent. The more fair trade deals we have to allow us entry into their markets where we've been at a significant disadvantage for too long, the more we will participate.

You know that our own markets are among the most open in the world. We were able to get 220 trade agreements in the first four years because we made people know that if they wanted access to our open markets, they were going to have to open theirs. We have to insist upon this treatment. If we don't act and we don't lead, nobody else will level the playing field for us.

Indeed, our competitors in the other wealthy countries, in Europe and Japan, would just as soon we not make these trade agreements. They can make them because they read the same predictions we do -- they know that their economies are only going to grow a third as fast as the ones in Latin America and Asia as well, and they are looking for some way in to protect their workers and their longtime economic security.

We can compete if given a fair chance. Last year, I had a chance to visit the Jeep Cherokee plant in Toledo -- a UAW plant producing tens of thousands of right-wheel-drive jeeps for export to Japan and other markets we thought hard to open up for them. They have 700 new jobs at that plant, and I think it's the oldest auto plant in the United States of America still operating. The global economy is working for them. I am determined to see that it works for everyone.

Should we ask other people to adhere to global standards on the environment? Of course, we should. I think you could make a strong case that no administration has done more to preserve and protect the environment against onslaughts than ours has. Should we acknowledge that global trade can pull the rug out from some of our people? Of course, it could. At every period of economic change in our country's history, that has happened to people. The difference is that we have to be committed to give more aid, to do more for people who are suffering, who are displaced. Because nobody should be left behind in the global economy. Nobody. That's why we double funding for displaced workers. That's why I know we have to do more. We don't have to leave people behind. Everybody should have the right to keep a good job and to go into tomorrow.

But we can only do that with a growing population if we continue to grow the economy. So the trick is to get the right economic growth package, to create the right mix of new jobs, to try to make sure always more than half of your new jobs are paying above average wage and not leave people behind. It's not easy to do, but this administration is committed to doing it. And I think we have demonstrated that commitment time and again. We also have to recognize that the global economy is on a fast track. It is changing amazingly. For example, every month -- every month -- millions and millions of new contacts are made on the Internet. Every single month. It's exploding like nothing ever has, creating all kinds of networks of commerce and bringing people close together in new and unusual ways. We have to figure out how to make this work for us. If it doesn't work for us, it will work against us.

I believe leaving our trade relations on hold with the fastest growing economies in the world will not create a single job in America, and it certainly won't raise environmental standards or labor standards in other countries. This year -- this year alone, so far, two-thirds of the increase in America's trade has come from Canada to the southern tip of South America, our neighbors. Two-thirds. We could do better. This year, leaders from Europe have gone to South America to tell them that the United States no longer cares about their markets, or the cooperation and leadership that goes along with working with them. They say that their future should be with Europe, and they should organize to give Europe considerations and breaks in opening their markets, and leave us out.

Now, think about it. Think about Chile, or Brazil or Argentina. Their markets are more closed to us than ours are to them. We still are selling more just because they're growing so much. But we know they'll grow a lot more over the next 10 to 20 years. They now need things that we sell and things that your people produce better than any other group of people in the world.

This is not about NAFTA or factories moving there to sell back to here. I think all of us agree it is highly unlikely anyone will move a factory to Chile to sell back to here. This is about how we can best seize our opportunities in the economy that is emerging, and how 4 percent of the world's people can continue to maintain 20 to 22 percent of the world's wealth, and continue to grow the economy so incomes can rise and new jobs can be created.

Now, I know this is a difficult debate and I know we disagree about it. But the debate over fair trade and fast track should itself be fair. It should also be open and honest. I have personally sat alone in the White House and listened to talk shows where your representatives were on the shows, because I wanted to hear the arguments and hear the concerns and know the things that you want. And you know we have had exhaustive numbers of meetings between the administration and leaders of the labor movement. We ought to have an open, fair and honest debate. We are trying to move as much as we can on a lot of the concerns that you have raised.

But I also want to say that I think we share too many values and priorities to let this disagreement damage our partnership. You just think of all of the things that I reeled off that we've done together and all of the things we've stood against in the last five years. I have worked to make this economy work for middle-class Americans. I care about making sure everybody has a chance and making sure nobody is left behind. But I can't build a better future without the tools to do the job, and America can't lead if it's bringing up the rear.

At the moment of our greatest economic success in an entire generation, we shouldn't be reluctant about the future; we ought to seize it and shape it. And I think I also have to say to you that there are a lot of good members of Congress who agree with me about our trade policy who also stood for the minimum wage. They agree with me about our trade policy, but they fought to provide health care for 5 million more kids. They support open trade, but they also fought to protect Medicare and Medicaid and education and the environment, and to open the doors of college to all Americans.

And when the majority in Congress wanted to do so, they stood against them and fought with you against the Contract on America. They fought with you against attempts to repeal the prevailing wage laws, to weaken unions and workplace health and safety laws. They did so in the face of intense pressure. They have fought for you and for all working people, and they deserve our support. If they were to lose their positions because they stood up for what they believe was right for America's future, who would replace them, and how much harder would it be to get the necessary votes in Congress to back the President when he stands by you against the majority?

America is far better off when the friends of working people stand together without letting one issue trump all the others. Friends and allies don't participate in the politics of abandonment; they band together -- disagreeing when they must -- but banding together.

I pledge to do that, and I hope you will, too. We've got a lot to do -- in education, in making sure Medicare and Social Security are there for the next generation of parents, in bridging the divide of race and all of the differences that are now taking place in this country. That's an area where you've always been out front, and I want to close with that. Because you can help -- perhaps more than almost any other group in America -- to bridge the divides and to preserve the bonds of community.

When I leave you, I'm going home to Arkansas, and tomorrow I will try to focus our nation on a haunting but hopeful moment in our country's struggle to make America the nation live up to America the idea -- a day, 40 years ago, when nine brave African American boys and girls, shielded from a hateful crowd by United States Army paratroopers, walked through the doors of Little Rock Central High School for the first time. I will honor the courage and vision of those whose eyes were fixed on the prize of equal educational opportunity without regard to race.

There are still a lot of doors we have to open. There are still some doors we have to open wider. And now, unfortunately, there are some doors we've got to work hard from being shut again. There is also a new reality we're all going to have to come to grips with that very few Americans have thought about. It will change the workplace. It will change communities. It will change the way we do our business as citizens. That reality is that we are not simply a black-white nation, we are not simply a black-Hispanic-Native-American-white nation. Instead, we are a nation now of nearly all the peoples of the world, with greater diversity in how we work and live together, and greater integration in how we work and live together than virtually any other democracy on Earth. And within the ranks of Caucasians and blacks and Latinos and Asians, there is increasing ethnic and cultural diversity.

As we become the most diverse democracy on Earth --and make no mistake about it, we are becoming that -- today, only Hawaii has no majority race. Within a decade, probably within four or five years, California, our largest state with 13 percent of our population, will have no majority race. And sometime before the next century is half done, America will have no majority race. Are we going to embrace this? Are we going to say that we celebrate our diversity, but we're united by something more important? Or are we going to let it get away from us and drift off into little enclaves and weaken our country and our future and our children's future? You're in a unique position to help. (Applause.)

Labor has a tradition here, established by visionaries like A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther. Labor has helped generations of African Americans and new immigrants to gain dignity and respect. Your members reached across racial and ethnic lines to fight for a common future and personal dignity. Few institutions in America can claim anything like the record of the labor movement in fighting for equal opportunity. (Applause.)

It was for that reason and for her own merit that I appointed your Executive Vice President, Linda Chavez Thompson, a member of my Race Advisory Commission. (Applause.) She has seen discrimination firsthand. She knows discrimination is not a thing of the past, but she is determined to see that it has no place in our future. I am grateful for her help, and I ask you for yours.

A century ago the working men and women of labor imagined an America where older people had health security, where African Americans enjoyed equal protection under the law, where working people had the right to organize and fight for a better life. Because they imagined it and because they worked for it, it's the America we're living in today.

Now it is up to us to imagine the America of the 21st century. And on every issue I discussed today, that is all I ask you to do. Imagine it, based on what we now know. Imagine an America in which every child has a world-class education; in which every family can fairly balance the demands of work and child-rearing; in which we lift living standards here and around the world; in which we learn to grow our economy and preserve the common environment which is our home; in which our oldest values of opportunity, responsibility and community guide us into a new time of greatest opportunity.

As American working men and women have shown time and time again, if we imagine it and we work at it, we will build it -- an America for our children, always eager for tomorrow. You have brought new energy to the labor movement. You have brought new energy to America. Let us work to build that into a future we can be proud of.

Thank you, and God bless you. (Applause.)

What's New - September 1997

Tobacco Settlement Review

Service Employees International Union

Land Mines

President Clinton's Remarks on Back to Work

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Air Force

America Goes Back to School

United Nation's General Assembly

Helping America Reach High Standards

Remarks at AFL-CIO Convention

Income and Poverty Report

Four Seasons Elementary School

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