2003 Conference Speakers

Remarks by Edward Wytkind
Executive Director, Transportation Trades Dept., AFL-CIO
April 30, 2003


It is nice to be invited back once again to address your conference.  You are gathering here to carry out one of your most important functions as trade unionists: speaking out on the issues and demanding more from your elected officials.

Being in a union gives you a voice, but in difficult times that voice has to be strong and loud to be heard.  So I want to thank Jimmy Tarlau and the entire leadership of NASHTU for bringing all of you together.  In your state, each of you represent your members with pride and dedication.  You try to make your state’s transportation system bigger and better and more efficient, and remind the powers that be that behind all these transportation projects lie working men and women who deserve respect and fair pay for what they do.

But the creation and growth of NASHTU is a recognition that that is not enough.  That we must all come together – that our union voice is stronger when we all speak with a united – and hopefully loud – voice.  The state of our nation, the state of our economy, and the state of our transportation system demand that we must come together.  So to all of you, I say thank you.

So if you if you hear anything I say to you today, let it be this: you oughta be angry, and you oughta leave here angry … ready to do something about it.

 I’m angry that our economy is teetering.  When President Bush took office, unemployment was at its lowest level in 40 years.  Since then, 1.7 million jobs have been lost.  That’s more than the combined population of 10 states.  Gone.

I’m angry that 1.3 million Americans have slipped below the poverty line since the President took office, and bankruptcies are up 8 percent.

I’m angry that 1.6 million more Americans don’t have health insurance.

I’m angry that we’ve blown a hole in the federal budget the size of those corporate loopholes his friends at Enron used to steal workers’ pensions.  And real priorities like securing Social Security, building new schools, or fixing our crumbling roads are all suffering.

I’m angry that through all of this, the Administration’s only solution to the economic woes we face is a knee-jerk call for more tax cuts for those who just plain don’t need the help.  With a growing number of people losing their jobs, and many more just barely hanging on, the President wants to give $726 billion in tax cuts to the very people who need them the least.   Did you know that people’s grandmothers pay more taxes in this country than many big corporations?

And as all of you know far too well, our states are in their worse financial shape since the Great Depression.

The state of our states is not very bright – literally.  I read in the paper the other day that the Governor of Missouri has ordered every third light bulb unscrewed to save money.  The New York Times reporter who wrote the piece called it the “state equivalent of rooting for coins in an ashtray.”

This would all be pretty funny – like something out of a Dilbert cartoon – if it weren’t so symbolic of the terrible crisis facing our states.

In my home state of California, for example, 82,000 jobs have been lost in last two years.  In that same time unemployment statewide is up by 36 percent, and in 2001 median family income actually dropped by $5,000.  Homicides went up 11 percent last year.

State governments have been forced to slash health care for the poor and mentally ill, close schools and lay off teachers in droves, raise tuition at state colleges as much as 20 percent, get rid of key transportation programs, and scale back nearly every public service.

As state workers you are on the front lines of this economic crisis.  But as public employees – and as union members – you are also on the front lines of another war, a political war.  And that’s the war being waged by President Bush and his allies against unions and their workers.

My brothers and sisters, there has never been a more anti-worker presidency in this nation.  He’s had some tough acts to top  – remember Ronald Reagan firing the air traffic controllers – but he’s done it.

Whether it’s blatantly siding with management and intervening in collective bargaining or nakedly using the guise of national security to bust every union he can or filling every corner of his Administration with enemies of labor or regulatory harassment of labor unions, George W. Bush has made it clear that he views labor – and the hard-working people we represent – as the enemy.

The ink wasn’t even dry on the election returns last fall when the White House announced a plan to contract out up to 850,000 federal jobs.  Even such clearly inherently governmental, such inherently common sense, functions like air traffic control and safety inspections are caught in the crossfire of this ideological crusade that assumes the worst of someone just because they hold a public sector job.

In creating the massive new Department of Homeland Security, President Bush hid the behind the flag and forced Congress to ensure that no employee in would have the right to join a union.

And he said that collective bargaining rights and true whistleblower protections for the newly federalized airport security screeners were incompatible with the war on terrorism.

Perhaps worst of all, when a Senator named Max Cleland of Georgia stood up to the White House and defended the bargaining rights of Homeland Security workers, they slandered him and engineered his defeat at the polls.

This might sound like run-of-the mill politics.  Happens every day, right?  But Max Cleland left three limbs behind in Vietnam.  To question that man’s patriotism and run him out of town is just plain disgusting … And you oughta be angry about it!

And Bush isn’t acting alone.  He’s a got a cast of characters in Congress who feed from the same corporate trough, and aid and abet this war on workers.  Take, for instance, Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader.

You see, Tom DeLay’s living out the American dream.  Only in America can someone go from being a termite and water bug exterminator in Texas to a Republican Congressman and the second most powerful politician in the House.  It’s a great country.

Recently, Tom Delay had his name on a fund-raising letter put out by the National Right to Work Committee.  In one of the most despicable and offensive acts in political memory, DeLay asked for money to help stop what he said was an effort by Big Labor Bosses to exploit the war against terrorism and the situation in Iraq to expand their power.

In other words, to Tom Delay belonging to a union gives aid and comfort to the enemy.

How low can you go?

I’m angry that the family members of all the union workers who gave their lives on September 11 and all the union members who worked around-the-clock in a living hell combing through the rubble for the smallest human remains have to live in a country with politicians like Tom DeLay who malign them, who attack their motives … even their patriotism.

And you know what Tom DeLay had to say when word of his letter got out and the you-know-what hit the fan?  He said he had never seen the letter.  Never said it was okay for it to bear his signature.  That a junior staffer said it was okay to put the boss’ name on it.   Yeah, right.

That’s pure cowardice, Mr. DeLay, and you oughta be ashamed and we oughta be angry.

So why are we the enemy?  Why are they after us with such a vengeance? They are after us because America’s labor movement stands for the economic and social justice that Tom Delay and his allies want to do away with.  My friends, we stand in the way of the America they and their fat cat donors want.

They are after us because we mobilize workers across this great land to secure and protect good jobs and to defend the progress we’ve made over the years.  They are after us because they know that workers joined together in a union stand up for each other … that there is nothing more potent than a group of workers like the ones you represent fighting together for what’s right.

All of you here today have a choice to make.  And you must choose to get angry, rise up, stand up, raise your voice – whatever it takes – to see that America takes the right road.

That’s the chance that democracy give us, a chance to somehow affect the way things turn out.  I’m here today to ask you not to let that chance pass you by.

My friends, the obituary for the labor movement has been written many times over the last century.  They always say our best days are behind us.  And in the transportation sector, the press has been talking about how our public and private sector employers are in such financial disarray that unions no longer matter.

Every time this obituary has been written, the labor movement has, like Mark Twain, always stood up and said that the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

I’d like to give you an example of how just a few weeks ago transportation workers and their unions took on tall odds, quieted the skeptics, and delivered for our members.

As I’m sure you know, airline workers are suffering like never before.  Nearly 200,000 have lost their jobs since September 11.  Their prospects for being rehired anytime soon are bleak.

But airline workers and their unions took their case to the Hill and to the press.

Congress was hearing from airline lobbyists, looking for yet another government bailout.  But we muscled our way into the debate and said don’t forget about the workers.  We put a human face on what policymakers and the press usually treat as a cold, antiseptic business story full of big numbers and business deals.

Cesar Chavez once said, “this is not about grapes or lettuce, it is about people.”

And that’s what we did.  We reminded Republicans and Democrats, from all parts of the country that these workers were hurting.  The White House was so tone deaf to the plight of working families that they actually had the gall to call the prospect of giving extended unemployment benefits to airline workers, “excessive.”  And the Republican leadership in Congress followed in lockstep.

But when the votes were counted, it was a win for workers.  67 Republicans in the House stood up and cast the right vote, and a number of key Republican Senators did the same, delivering a much needed helping hand to some of the most hurting workers in our economy.

A prime example of putting workers first is right here in the audience.  IFPTE President Greg Junemann – with help from his legislative director Matt Biggs –  kept reminding Republicans from Washington State and Kansas that Boeing and other aviation workers in these states were being laid off in droves and needed help badly.  Some of these Senators and Congressman from these states vote with labor about as often as women golf at Augusta, but this time they were a cornerstone to a tremendous victory for labor.  IFPTE, thank you.

So let’s hope this bodes well for things as Congress begins to take up the TEA-21 reauthorization.

Earlier this year, leaders of the AFL-CIO transportation unions joined together in putting forward a broad blueprint for a new TEA-21.  The policy resolution, which is in your packet, calls for a reauthorization of federal highway and transit programs that improves the quality of transportation, creates good jobs, and provides key protections and training for workers.

TEA-21 has invested more than $200 billion to help better move a nation, and in the process has created an estimated 9.4 million jobs.  It has been a tremendous success.

And now, as workers are hurting in our terribly anemic economy, we have the chance to pass a bill that creates jobs invests in our transportation system and infrastructure.

And not only do we need to create jobs in this country, but we need to find ways to get people to their jobs.  Our economy and our society keep changing, and our transportation system must change and grow to better serve the public.

We must stand together behind continuing funding guarantees and budget “firewalls” that provide state and local officials the certainty they need to plan, finance and implement their programs.  America’s shaky economy cannot afford a step backward in transportation spending.

Any TEA-21 legislation must continue to honor federal labor standards and worker protections such as Section 13(c) and Davis-Bacon.  These have been instrumental in maintaining labor-management cooperation, managing multi-billion transportation projects, protecting the collective bargaining rights ensuring job and wage stability for many workers.

And in this time of tight budgets, you’re going to hear a lot about innovative financing mechanisms, things such as State Infrastructure Banks.  Now all of us here are open to finding new sources of money — provided they don’t involve unscrewing every third lightbulb.  But these can’t be back-door ways of weakening workers through bureaucratic assaults on their wages, benefits, and collective bargaining rights.

And — to borrow a phrase from your excellent report — we must make our voice heard to ensure that TEA-21 reauthorization does not allow for Highway Robbery.

TEA-21 can’t further open the door to quick-buck privatization schemes that provide better service to shareholders than to the public.

The religious fervor of the privatizers just won’t quit.  They won’t let the facts get in the way of the line of bull they keep peddling.

We must tell Americans the truth – the cold hard facts the privatizers don’t want them to know about.  We must tell them to ask a lot of questions before signing on the dotted line.  Ask them how much it willreally cost versus what they want us to believe it will cost.  We must shine a bright light on how privatization can be a corporate welfare scheme carried out at the expense of the people who built the industry and those who rely on the service.

Unfortunately their crusade has friends in high places like they’ve never had before.  And they’ve set their sights high.  Mass transit.  Amtrak.  Air Traffic Control.  You name it, it’s gonna be up for sale in a matter of time.  This is the bite at the apple they’ve always wanted, and their mouths are watering.   They got their seat at the table as part of the Republican party’s wing that cares and feeds its rabid right.  Yet another mortgage payment, yet another IOU to the folks who helped get them into power.

Mr. President, Mr. DeLay, you just don’t get it.  Americans want more – and better – transportation.  Americans that don’t take limos to work are crying out for more transportation.

Excuse me, we’ve all seen the Enrons and WorldComs and the cast of characters who butcher and mismanage their companies and prey on their workers – and now we want to turn our public services over to them?  We say no thanks.

In conclusion, my brothers and sisters, threats to workers  — and threats to the transportation system that we all helped build — come from a thousand sources, and a thousand different directions, all at the same time. So we must stand guard together to protect our members, their families, and our communities.  We must always be on the look-out, always talking to each other, so when we stand and fight for our members we are as strong as we can be, as strong as we must be.

Brothers and sisters, as you can see the stakes are high and ante just went up.

 I want you to leave here angry.  Leave here angry about what too many people want to do to you, your rights on the job, and the industry you’ve dedicated your life to.

Leave here angry and when you get to Capitol Hill this afternoon, let `em know what’s on your mind.

Thanks to your union, you’ve got a voice.

Now is the time to get angry and make it heard.

Thank you – let’s get to work.