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Obama makes speech to auto workers

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Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery

United Auto Workers Convention

Washington, DC

February 28, 2012

 

As Prepared for Delivery—

Hello, Autoworkers!  Thanks Bob, for that introduction.  Thanks to your International Executive Board and all of you for having me here today.  I brought along my Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, too. 

I'm always honored to spend some time with folks who represent the working men and women of America.  It's unions like yours that fought for jobs and opportunity for generations of American workers.  It's unions like yours that helped build an arsenal of democracy that defeated fascism.  It is unions like yours that forged the American middle class – the greatest engine of prosperity the world has ever known.

You helped write America's story.  And today, you're busy writing a proud new chapter.  You're reminding us that no matter how tough times get, Americans are tougher.  No matter how many punches we take, we don't give up.  We get up, we fight back, we move forward, and we come out the other side stronger than before.

You are showing America what's possible. So I'm here today to tell you one thing: you make me proud.

Take a minute to think about what you and the workers and families you represent have fought through.  Just a few years ago, nearly one in five autoworkers were handed a pink slip.  400,000 jobs across this industry vanished the year before I took office.  And as the financial crisis hit with its full fury, America faced a hard and once unimaginable reality: two of the Big Three – GM and Chrysler – were on the brink of failure.

The heartbeat of American manufacturing was flatlining.  And we had a choice to make.

With the economy in complete freefall, there weren't any private companies or investors willing to take a chance on the auto industry.  Anyone in the financial sector could tell you that.  So we could have kept giving billions of taxpayer dollars to the automakers without demanding real change or accountability in return.  But that wouldn't have solved anything.  It would have just kicked the problem further on down the road.  The other option we had was to do nothing, and allow these companies to fail.  In fact, some politicians said we should.  Some even said we should "let Detroit go bankrupt."

Think about what that choice would have meant for this country.  If we had turned our backs on you; if America had thrown in the towel; GM and Chrysler wouldn't exist today.  The suppliers and distributors that get their business from those companies would have died off, too.  Then even Ford could have gone down as well.  Production: shut down.  Factories: shuttered.  Once proud companies chopped up and sold off for scraps.  And all of you – the men and women who built these companies with your own hands – would've been hung out to dry. 

More than one million Americans across the country would have lost their jobs in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  In communities across the Midwest, it would have been another Great Depression.  Think about everyone who depends on you – schoolteachers and small business owners; the server in the diner who knows your order and the bartender who's waiting for you when you get off.  Their livelihoods were at stake, too. 

And so was something else.  How many of you who've worked the assembly line had fathers and grandfathers who worked that same line?  Or sons and daughters who hope to?  These jobs are worth more than just a paycheck.  They're a source of pride.  They're a ticket to a middle class life.  They make it possible to own a home, to raise kids and send them to college, to retire.  These companies are worth more than just the cars they build.  They're a symbol of American innovation; the source of our manufacturing might.  And if that's not worth fighting for, what is? 

So no, we were not going to take a knee and do nothing.  We were not going to give up on your jobs, your families, and your communities.  In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility.  We said the auto industry would have to truly change, not just pretend that it did.  We got labor and management to settle their differences.  We got the industry to retool and restructure.  Everyone involved made sacrifices.  Everyone had some skin in the game.  It wasn't popular.  And it wasn't what I ran for President to do.   But I ran to do the tough things – the right things –no matter the politics. 

And you know why I knew this rescue would succeed?  It wasn't because of anything the government did.  It wasn't just because of anything management did.  It was because I believed in you.  I placed my bet on American workers.  And I'd make that same bet again any day of the week.  Because three years later, that bet is paying off for America.  Three years later, the American auto industry is back.

Today, GM is back on top as the number one automaker in the world, with the highest profits in its 100-year history.  Chrysler is growing faster in America than any other car company.  Ford is investing billions in American plants and factories, and plans to bring thousands of jobs back home.  All told, the entire industry has added more than 200,000 new jobs over the past two and a half years.  200,000 new jobs.   

And you're not just building cars again.  You're building better cars.  After three decades of inaction, we're gradually putting in place the toughest fuel economy standards in history for our cars and pickups.  That means the cars you build will average nearly 55 miles per gallon by the middle of the next decade – almost double what they get today.  That means folks will be able to fill up every two weeks instead of every week, saving the typical family more than $8,000 at the pump over time.  That means we'll cut our oil consumption by more than 2 million barrels a day. 

Thanks to the bipartisan trade agreements I signed into law with you in mind, there will soon be new cars on the streets of South Korea imported from Detroit.  And Toledo.  And Chicago.  And today, I'm creating a Trade Enforcement Unit that will bring the full resources of the federal government to bear to investigate and counter unfair trade practices around the world, including by countries like China.  American workers are the best workers on Earth, and when the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win.

Because everyone came together and worked together, the most high-tech, fuel-efficient, and good-looking cars in the world are once again designed, engineered, forged and built, not in Europe, not in Asia, but right here in the United States of America.

I've seen it myself.  I've seen it at Chrysler's Jefferson North Plant in Detroit, where a new shift of more than 1,000 workers came on two years ago, and another 1,000 are slated to come on next year.  I've seen it at Ford's Chicago Assembly, where workers are building a new Explorer and selling it to dozens of countries around the world.  I've seen at GM's Lordstown plant in Ohio, where workers got their jobs back to build the Chevy Cobalt, and at GM's Hamtramck plant in Detroit, where I got to get inside a brand-new Chevy Volt fresh off the line.

I know our bet was a good one because I've seen the payoff first hand.  But you don't have to take my word for it.  Just ask the Chrysler workers near Kokomo, Indiana, who were brought on to make sure the newest high-tech transmissions and fuel-efficient engines are made in America.  Ask the GM workers in Spring Hill, Tennessee, whose jobs were saved from being sent abroad.  Ask the Ford workers in Kansas City coming on to make the F-150 – America's best-selling truck – a more fuel-efficient truck.  Ask the suppliers who are expanding and hiring, and the communities that rely on them if America's investment in you was a good bet.  Who knows, maybe the naysayers would finally come around and say that standing by American workers was the right thing to do.

Because I've got to admit, it's been funny to watch some of these politicians completely rewrite history now that you're back on your feet.  These are the folks who said if we went forward with our plan to rescue Detroit, "you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye."  Now they're saying they were right all along.  Or worse, they're saying that the problem is that you, the workers, made out like bandits in all of this; that saving the American auto industry was just about paying back unions.  Really?  Even by the standards of this town, that's a load of you-know-what.  About 700,000 retirees saw a reduction in the health care benefits they had earned.  Many of you saw hours reduced, or pay and wages scaled back.  You gave up some of your rights as workers.  Promises were made to you over the years that you gave up for the sake and survival of this industry, its workers, and their families.  You want to talk about values?  Hard work – that's a value.  Looking out for one another – that's a value.  The idea that we're all in it together – that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper – that is a value.

But they're still talking about you as if you're some greedy special interest that needs to be beaten.  Since when are hardworking men and women special interests?  Since when is the idea that we look out for each other a bad thing?  To borrow a line from our old friend Ted Kennedy: what is it about working men and women they find so offensive?

This notion that we should have let the auto industry die; that we should pursue anti-worker policies in hopes unions like yours will unravel – it's part of that same old you're-on-your-own philosophy that says we should just leave everyone to fend for themselves.  They think the best way to boost the economy is to undo the reforms we put in place to prevent another crisis, and let Wall Street write its own rules again.  They think the best way to help families afford health care is to undo the reform we passed that's already lowering costs for millions of Americans, and go back to the days when insurance companies could deny your coverage or jack up your rates whenever and however they pleased.  They think we should keep cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans so that billionaires can keep paying lower tax rates than their secretaries. 

I don't think so.  That's the philosophy that got us into this mess.  And we can't afford to go back.  Not now.  We've got a lot of work to do and a long way to go before everyone who wants a good job can find one.  We've got a long way to go before middle-class Americans regain the sense of security that's been slipping away since long before the recession hit.  But over the last two years, our businesses have added about 3.7 million new jobs.  Manufacturing is coming back for the first time since the 1990s.  Companies are bringing jobs back from overseas.  The economy is getting stronger.  The recovery is speeding up.  And now is the time to keep our foot on the gas.

We will not settle for a country where a few people do really well, and everyone else struggles to get by.  We're fighting for an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.  We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony profits.  We're fighting for an economy that's built to last – one built on things like education, energy, manufacturing things the rest of the world wants to buy, and restoring the values that made this country great: Hard work. Fair play. The opportunity to make it if you try.  And the responsibility to reach back and help someone else make it, too. 

That's who we are.  That's what we believe in.

I said I visited Chrysler's Jefferson North Plant in Detroit about a year and a half ago.  Well, the day I visited, some of the employees there had recently won the lottery.  I'm not kidding.  Now, you might think they'd all just kick back and retire.  And no one would fault them for that.  Building cars is tough work. 

But that's not what they did.  The guy who bought the winning ticket was a proud UAW member who worked on the line.  He used some of his winnings to buy his wife the car he builds, because he's proud of his work.  He bought new American flags for his hometown, because he's proud of his country.  And he and the other winners are still clocking in at that plant today, because they're proud of the part they and their coworkers are playing in America's comeback.

That's what America is all about.  When our assembly lines grind to a halt, we work together and we get them going again.  Don't forget I got my start standing with working folks who'd lost jobs and hope when nearby steel plants closed down, because I didn't like the idea that they didn't have anybody to fight for them.  That still drives me today.  So I'll promise you this: as long as you've got an ounce of fight left in you, I'll have a ton of fight left in me.  And we're going to keep fighting, right now, to make our economy stronger; to put our friends and neighbors back to work faster; to give our children opportunity even greater than what we knew; to make sure the United States of America remains the greatest nation on Earth. 

Thank you, God bless you and the work you do, and God bless America.

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