A Posthumous Honor for Ted Kennedy for His Support of Labor

Remarks
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez,
Induction of Senator Edward M. Kennedy
Into the Department of Labor Hall of Honor
,
Washington, D.C.,
March 12, 2015

[as prepared for delivery]

 

Thank you, Chris. Mrs. Kennedy, Teddy, Patrick, Secretary Brock, Secretary Herman, friends, colleagues, thank you so much for joining us today.

I looked it up, and in the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the all-time top vote-getter is Tom Seaver with 98.8 percent. With all due respect, I believe that Senator Kennedy was an even more effective advocate for workers than Mr. Seaver was a pitcher. And so I’m proud to say that we’re inducting him today thanks to a 100 percent unanimous vote.

It’s wonderful to look out into this audience and see so many old friends and familiar faces. The Kennedy diaspora is out in full force, that’s for sure. Just about everyone who had the privilege of serving on Senator Kennedy’s staff describes it as one of the most profound influences on their professional lives. It certainly was for me.

What’s most important, though, is the influence he had not on the people in this room, but on the millions whom he never met but whose lives he changed. The workers who needed a raise, the unemployed folks who needed an extension of UI benefits, the children who needed a first-class education, the seniors seeking retirement with dignity, the newcomers to our shores striving for a piece of the American Dream, the people around the world struggling for human rights, the LGBT Americans seeking protection against discrimination at work and violence in their neighborhoods, the young people that wanted to empower their communities through national service, the men and women with disabilities demanding their civil rights—it is for them that he worked so hard and fought so vigorously.

I thought about him last weekend when I had the privilege of traveling to Selma for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Because he was there in the U.S. Senate half a century ago, leading the courageous fight for the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, playing a pivotal role in retiring Jim Crow to history’s dustbin and eliminating a system of legalized racism in America. But if he could have been in Selma last weekend, he would have been the first to caution against complacency, the first to acknowledge the hard work still ahead of us. Civil rights, he said, is the great unfinished business of America.

I thought about him when we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and this July we’ll honor his work when we mark the 25th.

I thought of him when the Supreme Court struck down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. I was working for him during the 1996 debate over the DOMA. Exactly 14 senators had the courage to vote no, and Senator Kennedy was one of them—because his commitment to civil rights was unwavering, regardless of the direction of the political winds. In addition to noting that it was a “flatly unconstitutional exercise of congressional authority”, he called DOMA “a thinly disguised example of intolerance” and “a mean-spirited form of legislative gay-bashing designed to inflame the public…”

Less than 20 years later, he’s a lonely voice no more. Marriage equality is firmly in the American mainstream, and as a society we’ve taken so many bold and historic steps toward assuring the dignity of LGBT lives. Without question, Senator Kennedy and the other 13 are the ones who ended up on the right side of history.

But it was the modest gestures as much as the sweeping accomplishments that I hope we remember him for, and which made him so effective. Every time I write a thank you letter, I think about him. Everyone on his staff knew that you didn’t go in to see him after a hearing unless you had thank-you notes already drafted. The truth was you had to have them done before the hearing, so they could be sent out the same day. And he didn’t just send them to VIPs and the leaders of organizations; he sent them to the anonymous folks who did the busy work. He sent them to staff members on the Hill, Democrat and Republican. That kind of thing matters. Over the years, as I’ve gone to people’s offices, what do I find on their walls? Framed thank-you notes from Senator Kennedy.

Passionate and principled; progressive but also pragmatic—that was Ted Kennedy. I think about him whenever I grow frustrated with the gridlock in Washington. I ask myself: What would Senator Kennedy say? What would Senator Kennedy do? He was a man of deep conviction—and no one was prouder to be a Democrat–but he also knew that you didn’t solve problems or move the country forward by isolating yourself in an ideological echo chamber. He believed that responsible governing demanded bipartisan consensus and compromise. He taught me that idealism and pragmatism were not mutually exclusive, but could and must go hand in hand.

So I think about him every time I forge an unlikely alliance or do something to try to break the impasse. I channeled him a few weeks ago when I met with a senior House Republican and challenged him to find common ground on important issues. Because that’s what Senator Kennedy always did—extending a hand across the aisle to Senator John McCain on immigration, to Senator Mike Enzi on mine safety, to Senator Nancy Kassebaum on health care portability, to Senator Lauch Faircloth on hate crimes, and to Senator Orrin Hatch on S-CHIP and so many other issues.

I think about him when I see Attorney General Holder and Senator Rand Paul finding common cause on criminal justice reform. I thought about him when I watched Senator Bob Dole return to the Senate a few years ago to urge passage of the UN Disabilities Treaty.

And I think of him as we take up this effort to help working families meet their responsibilities both on the job and at home. Senator Kennedy was in the vanguard on paid leave. A decade ago, he was leading this fight, and what better way to honor his legacy than to finally bring our laws out of the Leave it to Beaver era and make them relevant for the challenges of the 21st century?

There’s a funny story about his work on paid leave. During a push on the Healthy Families Act about a decade ago, staff had scheduled him to speak to a group of about 100 paid sick days advocates. And even though the Senator took a back seat to no one on this issue, the truth is he didn’t really want to go. The previous night had been one of those late-night appropriations session on the Floor—when they wheel the cots into the Senate chamber to show that the leader is willing to keep everyone in session all night to run out the post-cloture 30-hour clock. So, the boss had slept on his office couch, and he was tired and cranky. Plus, the Red Sox were in the playoffs and where he really wanted to be was in front of the television.

So, he reluctantly went to the event, muttering under his breath the whole way that he didn’t know why he was going, and he didn’t remember agreeing to do it. But once we got there, woman after woman got up to tell personal stories about how badly they needed leave, or how they were fired for staying home with a sick child. And suddenly, like David Ortiz stepping into the batter’s box, he had his game face on and was ready to hit it out of the park. When he got to the podium, he gave a roaring, rousing speech about the importance of paid leave and concluded by telling them that he loved them so much he was willing to miss the Red Sox game to be there. On his way out the door, with his staffers breathing a sigh of relief, he turns to them and says: “We really should do more events like that—it was great!”

When I think about Senator Kennedy, there are a lot of lighter memories like that. It’s almost spring, and baseball season is just a few weeks away; so naturally I can’t help but reflect on the time he introduced two legendary homerun kings as “Mike McGwire and Sammy Sooser.”

And I think of him around the holidays, when I know that not one of the parties on my calendar will be nearly as lively as those thrown by Senator Kennedy. There are many, many ways in which I hope to emulate him, but I don’t have any plans to ever dress up for the holidays as Batman, or a penguin, or Elvis, or Fawn Hall.

And whenever I see a Portuguese water dog, or any time I see any dog accompanying their owner to the office, it’s hard not to think about Senator Kennedy. . . and about Splash, Sunny and Cappy. And it appears his family has inherited more than his passion for public service. Because when I went to visit his grandnephew, Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, in his office . . . I was greeted by a border collie mix named Banjo.

Senator Kennedy’s dogs were a kind of secret weapon. When he met with the families of victims of the Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster in Utah, Sunny and Splash tagged along. You might think that was a little unusual for a solemn occasion, but the family members who might otherwise have been intimidated by the Senator’s presence were immediately relaxed. They started playing with the dogs and soon they were opening up about their experiences. Senator Kennedy had that way of putting people at ease with his generosity of spirit, even though he was the most famous person in the Capitol.

There are so many good stories. As many of you know, when the Senate debates the budget resolution, there’s a ritual called “vote-a-rama”, which calls for consecutive consideration of amendment after amendment, all of which are considered germane. This is grueling for senators and staff alike, and of course talking points were prepared for the Senator on every amendment that they anticipated would be offered. There was a whole relay system in place. Some staff would be in the office in the Hart Building, waiting to see who was offering the next amendment. They’d pull the talking points for the amendment they thought that particular senator would offer. Then someone who could run really fast would dash to the Floor to get them in Senator Kennedy’s hands so he could speak in opposition to the amendment.

Very late one night, one senator—never mind who—rose to offer an amendment. This guy was what you might call a repeat offender—he had a lot of anti-labor amendments in his quiver, so it took a minute to figure out which one he was offering. So the staff’s system broke down and Senator Kennedy was left without any talking points—and plenty agitated about it—when the Chair recognized him to speak. So he took a deep breath, and with no idea what the amendment was about, looked at this senator and just started yelling repeatedly: This amendment is an anti-worker amendment. Why are you so against American workers? What did they ever do to you? Finally, after what seemed like a near-eternity, the talking points arrived. And seamlessly, without missing a beat, he launched seamlessly into a substantive rebuttal to the amendment. Classic Ted Kennedy.

When I think about Senator Kennedy, I reflect on his impact on almost every one of the issues I’ve confronted in my own career. And yes, I feel a sense of obligation to meet his high standards.

When I defended the right of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to have a mosque in their community free of harassment and bomb threats . . . I thought of the work I did with Senator Kennedy on a church arson bill in the 1990s. Every day at the Justice Department, I thought about his zero-tolerance for religious bias or racial discrimination in any form. He knew we weren’t far removed from a time when his own people suffered stinging prejudice. In case anyone was inclined to forget, he kept in his office a relic and reminder of the past, a sign that read: “No Irish Need Apply.”

And on just about every issue we touch here at the Labor Department, the trail has been blazed by Senator Kennedy. He was there to help pass ERISA, as well as the legislation that gave us Job Corps and OSHA. Whether it’s protecting pensions, standing up for the health of miners, investing in job training and building the workforce system, fighting for equal pay for women, or helping veterans find good jobs… we stand on his shoulders. His work is our work.

And so every time I speak out on behalf of a minimum wage increase, I think about him thundering away on the Senate Floor about it.

And every time I weigh in on immigration, I think about him. I remember how passionate and also how conversant he was on that issue. He had so internalized even the finer points of the debate that inevitably the talking points I had written would be tossed aside.

And every time I meet a truck driver who has higher wages and paid leave because of the Teamsters, or an assembly line worker who is safer on the job because of the UAW, or a teacher who has a good pension because of AFT or NEA. . .  I think about Senator Kennedy. Because no one was more resolute about making sure the labor movement had a seat at the table. No one cared more about the power of worker voice. No one understood better the way that unions and collective bargaining rights have built and sustained the middle class for generations in America.

And when I see that 11.4 million people have enrolled in the Health Insurance Marketplace, with the biggest drop in the uninsured rate since the 1970s . . . I think about him and what he called “the cause of my life.” I think about how tenaciously he fought for decades to make health care a right and not a privilege. He didn’t live to see it enacted, but make no mistake about it: there would be no Affordable Care Act without Senator Edward Kennedy.

In the spring of 2009, I was moved to get a call from him, congratulating me on my nomination to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. It was my last conversation with him. Even in his final weeks, it was all about someone else.

It’s been more than five and a half years since he left us. But looking out today at so many people whom he inspired and mentored, so many people who have proudly inherited the torch, so many people who shared his devotion to social justice and the dignity of work . . . I couldn’t be more optimistic about the future. Because of all of you, the work indeed goes on. Because of you, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

And so, let’s get down to the business at hand. By the power vested in me as the United States Secretary of Labor, I hereby induct Senator Edward Moore Kennedy into the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor.

 

 

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