Text: Obama's speech to the AFL-CIO convention

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Office of the Press Secretary

September 15, 2009

Remarks of President Barack Obama's Prepared for Delivery
AFL-CIO National Convention
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
September 15, 2009

You know, the White House is pretty nice, but there's nothing like being back in the House of Labor. Let me begin by recognizing a man who came to Washington to fight for the working men and women of Pennsylvania and who has a distinguished record doing just that, Arlen Specter.

I also want to give my thanks, and the thanks of our nation, to one of the great labor leaders of our time, a man whose entire life has been devoted to working people, who brought new life to a movement, who worked tirelessly on behalf of organized labor, and who will be stepping down tomorrow, your President John Sweeney. John, I know Maureen's looking forward to seeing a little more of you, and your granddaughter Kennedy's about to get a whole lot more spoiled by her grandfather.

I know it's bad luck to congratulate someone before they are officially elected, but I'm willing to take my chances and congratulate the man who will pick up John's mantle, a son and grandson of Pennsylvania coal miners, a man who worked his way through college to lead the United Mine Workers, my friend, and a fiery advocate for America's ideals, Rich Trumka. I also want to congratulate the officers coming in with Rich: Arlene, who will be continuing her service, and Liz, who will be making history as the first woman elected Secretary-Treasurer. I'm looking forward to working with all of you.

Being here with all of you is a reminder of what we're trying to do in Washington and why I'm there in the first place. Because one of the fundamental reasons I ran for President was to stand up for hardworking families; to ease the struggles, lift the hopes, and make possible the dreams of middle class Americans.

Your stories are what drive me each and every day in the White House. Stories I read about in letters, hear about at town halls, and remember from the campaign trail. Stories like the one told by Steve Skvara, a proud member of the United Steelworkers in Indiana. Steve spent 34 years at LTV Steel, until a car accident left him with a disability, and forced him to retire. When the company went broke a couple years later, Steve lost his pension, and his family lost their health care.

Rising to ask a question at the AFL-CIO debate during the campaign, Steve said -- and I quote -- "Every day of my life, I sit at the kitchen table across from the woman who devoted 36 years of her life to my family, and I can't afford to pay for her health care." And as he said this, he got choked up, and his voice started to crack.

Brothers and sisters, this isn't just about Steve; it's about all of us. Because when hardworking Americans like Steve succeed -- that's when organized labor succeeds. And when organized labor succeeds -- that's when our middle class succeeds. And when our middle class succeeds -- that's when the United States of America succeeds.

For over half a century, the success of America has been built on the success of our middle class. It was the creation of the middle class that lifted this nation up in the wake of a great depression. It was the expansion of the middle class that opened the doors of opportunity to millions more. It was a strong middle class that powered American industries, propelled America's economy, and made the 20th Century the first American Century.

And the fundamental test of our time is whether we will heed this lesson; whether we will let America become a nation of the very rich and the very poor, of the haves and the have-nots; or whether we will remain true to the promise of this country and build a future where the success of all of us is built on the success of each of us.

That's the future I want to build. That's the future the AFL-CIO wants to build. That's the future the American people want to build. And that's the future we've been working to build from the moment I took office.

At the time, folks were fearing the collapse of our entire financial system. Our economy was shedding about 700,000 jobs a month. Our credit market was frozen and folks couldn't get the home loans, car loans, and student loans they needed. What was a deep recession threatened to become a Great Depression.

That's why we acted boldly and swiftly to pass an unprecedented economic Recovery Act. It's a plan that didn't include any of the usual Washington earmarks or pork-barrel spending. But what it did include was a guarantee to uphold Davis Bacon and pay prevailing wages.

Because of the Recovery Act, we're keeping a campaign promise I made by giving 95% of working Americans a tax cut -- a tax cut that will benefit nearly 5 million families in Pennsylvania. We increased and extended unemployment insurance to 12 million Americans -- including hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians. And we are putting Americans to work across this country rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, and waterways with the largest investment in our infrastructure since Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. All in all, many middle class families will see their incomes go up by about $3,000 because of the Recovery Act, helping them get back much of what they may have lost due to this recession.

So, while I know times are still tough for working people, while I know too many folks are still looking for work or worried they'll be the next ones let go, the Recovery Act is making a difference. We have stopped our economic freefall. That is something everyone can agree on.

But the fact is, the problems in our economy preceded this economic crisis. Just last week, a Census report came out showing that in 2008, before this downturn, family income fell to its lowest point in over a decade; and more families slid into poverty. That is unacceptable. And I refuse to let America go back to the culture of irresponsibility that made it possible; back to an economy with soaring CEO salaries and shrinking middle class incomes; back to the days when banks made reckless decisions that hurt Wall Street and Main Street alike. Going back to those days would be bad for unions, bad for the middle class, and bad for the United States of America.

We cannot afford to go back -- we must move forward. That's why we need to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity. By creating the jobs of the future. By reforming our health care system. By laying down tough rules of the road to protect consumers from abuse; let markets function fairly and freely; and ensure that we never experience another crisis like this again.

That's how we'll build an economy that works for working Americans. That's how we'll help our children climb higher than we did. And that's how we'll grow our great American middle class.

We'll grow our middle class with policies that benefit you, the American worker -- and I've set up a Middle Class Task Force to do just that, run by my outstanding Vice President, that scrappy kid from Scranton, Joe Biden.

We'll grow our middle class by building a strong labor movement. That's why I named Hilda Solis, the daughter of union members, as our new Labor Secretary. Hilda and I know that whether we're in good economic times or bad, labor is not the problem -- labor is part of the solution.

That's why we've begun reversing and replacing old anti-labor Executive Orders and policies with ones that protect your benefits; protect your safety; and protect your rights to organizing and collective bargaining. That's why the very first bill I signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Act to uphold the basic principle of equal pay for equal work. And that's why I stand behind the Employee Free Choice Act -- because if a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union.

We'll grow our middle class by creating jobs for Americans who want one -- not just any jobs, but jobs with good wages, jobs with good benefits. Jobs that give a person the satisfaction of knowing they'll meet their responsibilities to themselves and their families. Jobs that are not just a source of income, but a source of self-respect. Every American deserves that much.

Earlier today, I visited a GM plant in Youngstown, Ohio that is rehiring about 1,000 workers to make the cars of tomorrow. That's a sign of life in our auto industry, and I'm pleased to see it. But I don't just want to see jobs returning to our auto industry, I want to see them being created across this country. That's why we're investing in a clean energy economy that will free America from the grip of foreign oil and create millions of new green jobs that can't be outsourced. And that's why I've named a new point person to jumpstart American manufacturing so that we can make "Made in America" not just a saying, but a reality.

We'll grow our middle class by doing a better job educating our sons and daughters. It was the GI Bill that helped strengthen the middle class in the 20th century, and our generation deserves the same kind of commitment. That's why we've begun improving standards, holding ourselves more accountable, making college and advanced training more affordable, and offering students a complete and competitive education, from the cradle to the classroom, from college through a career. That's how we'll prepare every child in America to outcompete any worker in the world.

And we'll grow our middle class by finally providing quality, affordable health insurance in this country. Few have fought for this cause harder, and few have championed it longer than you, our brothers and sisters in organized labor. You're making phone calls, knocking on doors, and showing up at rallies -- because you know why this is so important. You know this isn't just about the millions of Americans who don't have health insurance, it's about the hundreds of millions more who do; Americans who worry that they'll lose their insurance if they lose their job; who fear their coverage will be denied because of a pre-existing condition; who know that one accident or illness could mean financial ruin.

In fact, a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation was released today showing that family premiums rose more than 130% over the last ten years, and now average over $13,000 a year -- the highest amount on record.

When are we going to stop this? When are we going to say enough is enough? How many more workers have to lose their coverage? How many more families have to go into the red for a sick loved one? We have talked this issue to death year after year, decade after decade. And I am here to say the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the time for action. Now is the time to deliver on health insurance reform.

The plan I announced will offer more security and stability to Americans who have insurance. It will offer insurance to Americans who don't. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.

Here is what you need to know. If you already have health insurance through your job, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change your coverage or your doctor. Let me repeat: Nothing in this plan will require you to change your coverage or your doctor.

What this plan will do is make your insurance work better for you. It will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition. It will be against the law for insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick, or water it down when you need it most. They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on how much coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime. We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses -- because in the United States of America, nobody should go broke because they got sick.

And insurance companies will be required to cover, at no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies -- because there's no reason we shouldn't be catching diseases like breast cancer or colon cancer before they get worse. That makes sense, it saves money, it saves lives.

So, that's what we'll offer folks who already have health insurance -- more stability and more security. For the tens of millions of American citizens who don't have health insurance, the second part of this plan will finally offer you affordable choices. We'll do this with a new insurance exchange -- a marketplace where individuals and small businesses can shop for an affordable health insurance plan that works for them.

Because there will be one big group, these uninsured Americans will have the leverage to drive down costs and get a better deal than they get right now. That's how large companies and government employees get affordable insurance. It's how everyone in Congress gets affordable insurance. And it's time to give every American the same opportunity.

I've also said that one of the options in this exchange should be a public option. Let me be clear: it would just be an option. No one would be forced to choose it. No one with insurance would be affected by it. But what it would do is offer Americans more choices, promote real competition, and put pressure on private insurers to make their policies affordable and treat their customers better.

Now, when you're talking with your friends and neighbors, they might say, Well, that all sounds pretty good, but how are you going to pay for it? And that's a legitimate question. So, let me try and answer it. The plan I'm proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years. That's less than we've spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed during the previous administration; wars and tax cuts that were not paid for and ballooned our deficits to record levels.

We will not make that mistake again. We will not pay for health insurance reform by adding to our deficits -- I will not sign a bill that adds a dime to our deficits, either now or in the future.

We will pay for it by eliminating hundreds of billions of dollars of waste, fraud, and abuse, including subsidies for insurance companies that pad their profits but don't improve care. We'll also set up a commission of doctors and medical experts to encourage the adoption of common sense best practices that can further reduce costs and raise quality in the years ahead. That's how we'll pay for most of this plan -- by using money that's already being spent, but spent badly.

So, don't pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut. That will never happen on my watch. We will protect Medicare so it's a safety net our seniors can count on -- today, tomorrow, and forever. Not a dollar from the Medicare Trust Fund will be used to pay for this plan -- not a dollar.

These are the reforms I'm proposing. These are the reforms labor has been championing. These are the reforms the American people need. And these are the reforms I intend to sign into law.

Quality, affordable health insurance. A world-class education. Good jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced. A strong labor movement. That's how we'll lift up hardworking families. That's how we'll grow our middle class. That's how we'll put opportunity within reach in the United States of America.

The battle for opportunity has always been fought in places like Pennsylvania. It was here that Pittsburgh railroad workers rose up in a great strike. It was here that Homestead steelworkers took on Pinkerton Guards at Carnegie's mill. And it was here that something happened in a town called Aliquippa.

It was a tough place for workers in the 1930s, "a benevolent dictatorship," said a local steel boss. Labor had no rights. The foreman's whim ruled the day. And the company hired workers from different lands and different races -- the better to keep them divided, it was thought at the time.

But despite threats and harassment; despite seeing organizers fired and driven out of town; these steelworkers came together -- Serb and Croat, Italian and Pole, Irish and Greek, kin of Alabama slaves and sons of Pennsylvania coal miners. And they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, securing the right to organize up and down the Ohio River Valley, and all across America.

And I know that if America can come together like Aliquippa -- and rise above barriers of faith and race, region and party -- then we will not only make life better for steelworkers like Steve Skvara in Indiana, and not only make life better for members of the AFL-CIO, but we will make possible the dreams of middle class families and make real the promise of the United States of America. Thank you.


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