Durbin meets With Illinois Firefighters, Speaks At The International Association Of Firefighters Conference

[WASHINGTON, DC]. – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) met with firefighters from across Illinois today to discuss labor rights, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant programs that support local fire stations, and first-responder issues. A photo from the meeting is available here.

Earlier in the day, Durbin spoke at the International Association of Firefighters 2015 legislative conference. In his speech, Durbin discussed labor issues, including his support for the National Labor Relations Board rule change to modernize a broken election process for workers.

Durbin’s speech, as prepared for delivery, is available below:


Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-IL)

International Association of Fire Fighters

Legislative Conference

March 9, 2015


I want to thank my friend President Harold Schaitberger for those kind words.


They say that tough times call for tough leaders.  Harold Schaitberger is one tough leader.  And we’re lucky to have him leading the fight.


I also understand that we have a few friends from home here: Pat Devaney, President of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois - representing 217 locals in Illinois with 14,685 members.  


And Tom Ryan, President of Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2.


It’s an honor to be here with so many dedicated firefighters.  


If some of the firefighters from Illinois are a little tired, there’s a good reason.  You might have heard about it.


Last Thursday a freight train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed in northern Illinois, near the town of Galena – and close to the Mississippi River.


Five of the train’s cars burst into flames and burned for more than a day.


You know who got the call when those tankers erupted in flame?


You know who pulled on their boots and coats and ran out into freezing whether to try to contain that fire and protect the people living near the crash site.


I’ll give you a hint.  They didn’t call in a bunch of hedge fund managers to put out that fire.  They didn’t ask the Koch Brothers to risk their lives managing that disaster.


No, they called local and county firefighters – and emergency and haz-mat crews from Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.


Let me tell you:  Politicians who say that we can make America stronger by making firefighters’ voices and rights weaker are just plain wrong.

I know that you’ve been keeping a close eye on Congress these days.  It hasn’t been our finest hour.


For the last several weeks, House Republicans have been playing politics with the Department of Homeland Security.


Unbelievably, at a time when ISIS is a real and growing threat… and our intelligence agencies warned that extremist groups are threatening targets here at home, the far right decided to play politics with the department that’s responsible for keeping America safe.


Democrats made sure the doors stayed open at DHS.  


Remember before the election, when Republicans said let us run the Senate and we’ll break the gridlock in Washington?  


It turns out that a Republican Senate can’t even work with a Republican House.


Here is what would have happened if House Republicans got their way and DHS was not funded:


30,000 DHS employees would have been furloughed; and


About 200,000 agency staff, including border agents and TSA agents, would have been ordered to work without pay.


SAFER grants would have stopped.


FIRE grants that help departments hire new firefighters and retain experienced firefighters – those would have stopped, too.


Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) that help provide new fire trucks, better gear, more reliable communication tools and first responder training – stopped.


We would have seen layoffs at local fire departments, resulting in slower response times.  And property and lives would have been put at needless risk.


Every day, you put the well-being of others before yourself.  When others are running from danger, you are running toward it.  It’s unacceptable to play politics with funding that helps you do your job. 


How did we get in such a crazy position? 


Republicans held DHS funding hostage in a failed effort to block President Obama’s executive action to improve our immigration system.  That action is to prioritize the deportation of serious criminals and temporarily stop the deportation of worthy immigrants who grew up in this country or are the parents of American children. 


At the start of this Congress, the Senate’s new Majority Leader, Senator McConnell, said Republicans needed to avoid looking – quote: “scary.”


They aren’t off to a good start.


So what’s next?


Last week, in the latest attack on unions, the Republican majority passed a resolution to block the National Labor Review Board’s rule to modernize a broken election process for workers.


The NLRB’s rule is about reducing unnecessary delay and litigation, and giving the workers a chance to vote one way or the other on whether they want a union. 


Somehow, this is considered radical by my Republican colleagues.


Today, unions are declining, while corporations are making record profits.  As a result, workers are working harder and making more profits for their companies.  Yet, they aren’t seeing any real growth in wages or benefits.


But instead of standing up for workers, Republicans have chosen to side with corporations and challenge these commonsense reforms. 


I’m always struck when we get on the topic of unions, how we all come to this debate with such a different point of view. 


I grew up in a household where every member of my family was a member of a union.


My father and mother each had an 8th grade education and belonged to the railroad unions in East St. Louis. 


And because of their union, they were able to bargain for their wages and benefits.


We weren’t wealthy, but we were comfortable.  We never went hungry and I thought we lived a pretty good life. 


Like you, Mom and Dad were hard workers.  And in those days, if you were hard workers and had the benefit of belonging to a union, you could make a decent living.  And we did. 


The far right is out to break unions.


They brag about how they teamed up with tea party groups, and other anti-union folks, to change the rules and make it more difficult for workers to organize and bargain collectively for decent wages, benefits and safe working conditions. 


In 2011, Wisconsin stripped collective bargaining for most public sector employees.  And they are about to become the 25th so called “right-to-work” state. 


In my home state of Illinois, the new Governor is joining the campaign against unions and talking about “right-to-work” zones.  


We know what those laws are really about -- the right to work for less.


According to the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, “right-to-work” laws reduce union coverage by nearly 10 percent.


Supporters say that “right-to-work” laws attract new businesses and new jobs. 


Don’t believe it.  Seven of the 10 states with the highest unemployment rates are “right-to-work” states.


If we could increase the unionization rate by 10 percent, the average income for middle class households – unionized or not – would increase by $1,500 a year.


The ability of workers to organize and collectively bargain is the only way workers have to level the playing field.


Since the far right started their no-holds-barred campaign to crush unions in the 1970s, union membership has fallen, income inequality has worsened and the middle class is shrinking – reaching levels that we haven’t seen since the 1920s.  That’s no coincidence.


Today, 47 people in America own more wealth than 160 million Americans combined. 


That’s no coincidence, either.


If you want a strong economy, you need a strong middle class.  And if you want a strong middle class, you need strong unions.


Here’s a quote that I want to print on bumper stickers and give to all of the Tea Partyers and union haters.


Quote:  “Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”


You know who said that?


Harold Schaitberger?  No.


Rich Trumka?  No.


Those words of wisdom were uttered by President Ronald Reagan on Labor Day, 1980. He was defending collective bargaining rights championed by Lech Walesa – leader of the Solidarity union in Poland – as they battled the Soviet Union, which was trying to strip workers of their collective bargaining rights.


I don’t say this often – but Ronald Reagan was right.


We know that an economy with a strong middle class is key to growing America.  But it’s becoming harder and harder for families to reach the middle class. 


The wealthiest Americans are doing just fine, but too many American families are sitting around the kitchen table trying to figure out how to make ends meet. 


Lately, Republicans are waking up to this reality. 


Some Republicans have shifted and are talking more about income inequality and the middle class.


But this concern for working people is so new to them that they don’t really have any solutions. 


Well.  In the spirit of bipartisanship, let me help them.


You want to grow the middle class in America?


Let workers organize.  Stop your war on the NLRB.


Stop trying to kill pensions, retiree health care and other benefits that workers have bargained and sacrificed for. 


You want to help working class families?


Stop rewarding corporations with billions of dollars in tax breaks for shipping American jobs overseas.  Instead – help working families pay for college.


These days, it’s hard to predict what can get done in a Congress that struggled to keep the doors open at DHS.


But I’d like to end on a more hopeful note and talk about a bill that has bipartisan support – that we can get done.


I know it’s hard to believe, but there are some areas that we agree.


Like passing the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would give states the option to require online retailers to collect sales tax.


When state and local governments cannot collect the sales taxes they are owed, they have to raise taxes, or cut benefits – or both. 


And you know what’s always at risk of being on the chopping block: police and fire departments.


Passing the Marketplace Fairness Act ought to be easy.


One reason: It’s bipartisan.  My co-sponsors include Mike Enzi… Lamar Alexander.  Two solid… conservative Republicans.


Another reason: The International Association of Fire Fighters is in our corner.  That’s a huge help.  Thank you for your support.


Since 1918, the International Association of Fire Fighters has been fighting to provide all fire fighters with basic employment rights.


You have thrived in good times and got through the bad times - but you’ve never quit the fight.  As long I’m here, I won’t either. 


Keep up the good work.  And stay safe.