This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the text of this speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library.
Labor the Source of American Strength
I come to you today as a friend of labor.
I have worked with the leaders and members of organized labor for fourteen years as a member of the House and Senate Labor Committees. My credentials are written in the record of that fourteen years. I need no ringing phrases – no proclamations of friendship for the “little man” – to gain admission here. I stand on a solid record of fourteen years of service to the cause of the workingman – and on the basis of that record I hope I can – in the words of the old-time orators – claim kinship here and have it allowed.
For that friendship to labor I have never apologized or made excuses – not in Washington, not in Massachusetts and not in Wisconsin. And I am not going to start apologizing now. And I will never apologize – no matter what office I may hold.
The cause of the friends of labor has not been an easy one in the past few years. Unfortunately the headlines, the speeches, the attention has been largely focused on the few hoodlums and racketeers who have insinuated their way into the labor movement – plundering its members, destroying the hard-won gains of the workers, and harming the reputation of the entire, great brotherhood of organized labor.
But you know, and I know, and I believe, the American people know, that the Hoffas, the Becks and the Dios – the scum of labor – do not represent the American worker. Rather they are the few parasites on the body of a great, vital group of men and women who have contributed more to the economic health, the well-being and the strength of this country than any other organized group, in any other country, in any other period of human history.
And we also know – and so do the American people – that it has been this same labor movement – not Congress or its Committees – which has been the most ardent and effective champion of clean, honest unions in America. I know of no parallel instance in American history when a large and important part of our society so frankly recognized its own internal problems and set out to correct them – even though it meant expelling a large portion of its dues-paying members.
I know of no business organizations or bar associations who have disciplined their members the way labor has – even though some of those members have been engaged in activities which deserve the just condemnation of a law-abiding society. And I know of no voluntary organization which has set any higher standards of discipline than the Ethical Practices Codes adopted by the AFL-CIO – even though our hearings showed that higher standards of ethics are often badly needed in these other groups. Labor is cleaning its own house – let business do the same.
There are those in America today who say that labor is too big – that it has grown too strong. But I say that the size of organized labor is a blessing – and its strength is a powerful force for the good of all America
That is the lesson of the history of our labor movement. For labor was not always strong. In his autobiography Samuel Gompers wrote of the early days of the AFL when he was its only employee, and empty tomato boxes were used as file cabinets. “It is pathetic and tragic,” he said, “to look back over those struggles of the early labor movement, to remember the hardships we endured and the makeshifts that we utilized to develop the labor movement of today.”
But out of the work and efforts and ingenuity of men like Samuel Gompers – and out of the hardships, the sweat and the blood of American workers – there was forged the great, strong labor movement of today – a movement which, throughout its history, has used its growing strength to eliminate industrial terror, sweatshops and inhuman working conditions – a movement which gave to the worker – for the first time – a voice in his own economic destiny – a movement which is primarily responsible for securing to the American worker a just portion of his labors, and a measure of equality at the bargaining table. “Trade unionism,” said Franklin Roosevelt, “has helped give to everyone who toils the position of dignity which is his due.” As long as labor remains strong, it will continue to fight for the dignity of all men – and we intend to see that it does remain strong.
But the manner in which the labor movement has improved the life of the American worker is well-known. Less well-known, and equally important, is the manner in which it has served the entire nation.
George Meany has truly said that the record shows beyond contradiction that the trade union movement “has consistently used whatever power it has to raise the American standard of living, to promote the interests of all the American people, and to enhance the power and prestige of the nation as a whole.”
That record can be seen in every city and town – every household and factory in America. We can see it in the thousands of hospitals which organized labor has built. We can see it in the new schools and roads which the unremitting work of labor – on every level of government – has helped to bring about. We can see it in almost every home in America where people are living a better, happier life because of the efforts and programs of American labor. And we can see it every day in Washington where every time a piece of legislation is introduced for the benefit of all the people – every time we have a bill which seeks to advance the cause of the poor, the sick or the friendless – a representative of organized labor is there to fight for its passage. And we in Congress need this aid – we want more of it – it must never be allowed to flag or fail.
And labor has also played a vital and a constructive role on the world scene – resisting communist expansion – helping the underdeveloped nations – encouraging the struggle for freedom wherever it is waged – and, at home as well as abroad, constantly demonstrating its dedication to the cause of equal rights for all men – a cause for which it will continue to fight until the last oppressed member of the last oppressed group is guaranteed that equality which is his right as a member of the human race.
Yes, the strength and size of American labor – and the purposes to which it has dedicated that strength and size – should command the admiration, the respect and the pride of all Americans.
But even though American labor has advanced far beyond the early days of Samuel Gompers – even though it is the largest and most prosperous labor movement in the world – it has not yet solved all the problems or won all the battles. And no one knows that better than the unions themselves. The sixties will be a decade of challenge and struggle for the labor movement – challenge and struggle which will require all the resources, all the vision and all the work which have gone into the building of this great brotherhood of workers.
First on the agenda is a vast new program of social welfare legislation – increased minimum wage, adequate unemployment compensation, medical care for the aged – and all the other many extensions and expansions of New Deal programs which are no longer adequate to meet the needs of the sixties. We cannot rest on past gains – there are millions who still suffer from want and disease – we must and we will come to their aid.
Second, we must ensure that the National Labor Relations Board administers its proceedings and its statutes in a manner which is fair to the workers it is supposed to protect. Today there is interminable and unjustified delay in the handling of certification proceedings and unfair labor practice charges. As a result of these delays the controversy is often over, labor is defeated, and the worker has suffered – long before the Board acts. A victory after months of economic hardships is a hollow victory indeed. For the American worker “justice delayed”, is indeed, “justice denied”. And we must also have an NLRB which understands the problems of labor and is not merely an instrument of management.
Third, we must act – and act soon – to meet the growing challenge of automation. We cannot – and we would not – halt the steady advance of technology with its promise of economic growth and increased productivity for the future. At the same time, government, industry and labor must collaborate in planning for the important social and economic changes which automation is certain to bring. Workers must be retrained – factories must be relocated – and, above all, we must be certain that the worker himself shares in the fruits of his increased productivity – in terms of greater leisure and higher income. Up to now government has failed to meet its responsibilities – there has been no planning for automation at the government level. In the sixties we will meet this challenge – so that automation can be a blessing and not a curse to the American worker and the American people.
Fourth, we must work to defeat legislation designed to repress labor – to destroy its power – and render the worker helpless to advance his own welfare.
Let me make it clear once again, as I have in the past, that – whatever office I shall hold – I shall always be unalterably opposed to so-called “right-to-work” laws at any level, Federal or State. I shall oppose the arbitrary and unnecessary extension of our anti-trust laws to cover unions. And I shall oppose, as I have for 14 years, any and all other such devices which are sure to spring from the fertile minds of labor’s powerful foes – devices which our strength and the justness of our cause will surely defeat.
Guided by these principles – and with a plan of action based on its magnificent heritage of the past – and its hopes for the future – American labor can advance into the sixties unafraid, and with full confidence in its strength and in the righteousness of its cause. For, as Abraham Lincoln said of labor:
“All that serves labor serves the nation. All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn between these two.
“If a man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar.
“If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.
“There is no America without labor, and to fleece the one is to rob the other.”