The American economy is emerging strong from nearly two years of pandemic-induced disruptions and losses, and the best way forward is to create more jobs that allow workers to organize for better wages and save more money, Vice President Kamala Harris said Wednesday.
In her third trip to North Carolina since taking office, Harris came to Durham, having most recently visited the Triangle while campaigning in 2020.
She spoke about the Biden administration’s efforts to create more “good-paying, union jobs” throughout the country and promote collective bargaining in both the public and private sectors. Accompanying her from Washington was US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, as well as US Reps. David Price and GK Butterfield.
“As a nation we have made real progress in our fight to end this pandemic, and get our economy back to normal. And with more than 215 million people vaccinated, our communities are more protected from this virus than they’ve ever been before,” Harris said to a crowd at Durham Technical Community College. “And that said, the president and I know the fight is not yet won.”
Traveling across the country over the past year, the Democratic vice president said she had met several people who were struggling to pay their heating bills, fill their cars with gas or afford groceries. People are understandably tired and frustrated, Harris said, but they’re also determined to return to work, school, and a sense of normalcy.
“What I see most clearly, is neither the fear nor the fatigue, but resilience,” Harris said. “The resilience of the American people, and the determination of the American people to always build a better future.”
The status of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of living could be key factors in whether voters keep Democrats in control of Congress in the 2022 midterms or deliver a blow to President Joe Biden’s agenda by putting Republicans in control.
The vice president’s visit was part of a travel blitz by administration officials following Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. Biden touched briefly on community colleges, jobs and wages, and advocated for a $15 minimum wage.
Before her speech, Harris toured the IBEW local 553 apprentice program at Durham Tech along with Walsh, Price and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. Students in the program, which trains them to become union electricians, demonstrated equipment for the vice president. Tara Schmitt, a third-year apprentice at Durham Tech, introduced Harris.
“You are a face and image of the future of labor in America,” Harris said to Schmitt.
The vice president later said union workers are helping build critical infrastructure including solar panels and wind turbines that will cut energy costs and combat climate change, fiber optic cables that will deliver high-speed internet to households throughout the country and new pipes to bring families safe drinking water.
North Carolina has long had the second lowest union membership rate in the country, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, after South Carolina, though it has seen some increase in private sector unionization during the pandemic. The state’s ban on collective bargaining for public sector workers has been in place for more than half a century. The average national union membership rate is 10.3%. North Carolina’s rate is 2.6%.
New funding for community colleges
The Biden administration is committed to empowering workers to organize, Harris said, and is “deeply proud to be the most pro-labor administration in the history of our country.”
Part of that commitment is $45 million in new spending by the Labor Department on grant programs to bolster community colleges, Walsh announced on Wednesday.
The grants will connect people to training and good-paying jobs, and will help bring more working people into the middle class, Walsh said. The program will be focused on women and people of color, he added.
Harris said the Durham Tech students she met on Wednesday will be part “of a new era of the American labor movement.”
Union jobs will uplift people from every walk of life, Harris said.
“Every person should be able to benefit from the power of solidarity, because every person in our nation, no matter where they start, deserves an opportunity to succeed,” Harris said. “That is the future we are fighting for.”
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