Sen. Harkin closes career with demand that lawmakers give workers ‘opportunity’

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Closing his 40-year career on Capitol Hill, retiring Senate Labor Committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, challenged his colleagues to give workers and all other people in the U.S. opportunity.

And that includes the opportunity and the right to organize to stand up for themselves and to better their lives by strengthening unions and collective bargaining, he said.

Harkin, 75, a longtime defender of workers, women and the disabled, retired at the close of the 113th Congress. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, ran an inept campaign in trying to succeed him and lost Harkin’s seat to state GOP lawmaker Joni Ernst, a tea party favorite, in the 2014 Republican Senate sweep. Her term started Jan. 3 and the Senate convened Jan. 6.

“When my family hit rock bottom in the late years of the Depression, with my father out of work and with no way to provide for his family, the government gave us a hand up,” Harkin explained in the speech, part of which he posted on his website as a farewell letter to Iowans.

“Dad got a postcard in the mail, notifying him to report for employment with the Works Progress Administration, the WPA. Dad always said that Franklin Roosevelt gave him a job. That opportunity gave my father dignity, and enough money to put food on the table. And, maybe most important of all, it gave him hope (Harkin’s emphasis).

“A few years later, Dad was able to qualify for a New Deal program called Social Security, and later he got Medicare, which meant he no longer had to rely on charity care. So I learned at an early age that our government can do good things and create opportunity for ordinary people. It is there to help people build better lives.

“And from my first day in the political arena, I have strongly believed that a cardinal role of government is to provide a ladder of opportunity for every American.

“Notice I didn’t say escalator, I said ladder. This is not about a free ride. With a ladder, you still have to exert energy and effort and responsibility to get to the top. But rungs of opportunity should be there-like job training, a minimum wage, maternal and child health care, Head Start, affordable health care, quality public education, Pell Grants, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.” In his speech, Harkin added strong unions to his ladder.

But he warned that “some people are going to fall off the ladder from no fault of their own…That’s why we created a safety net of unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and job re-training-so people have the opportunity to regain their footing and climb that ladder again.” He urged colleagues to retain that safety net so people can reclaim their opportunity.

The incoming GOP-run 114th Congress is unlikely to heed him. The new class of Republican senators – including Ernst – and the expanded GOP House majority is more likely to cut people programs while giving further gains to the rich.

Photo: Tom Harkin.  |  J. Scott Applewhite/AP


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Press Associates Inc. (PAI) is a union news service located in Washington, D.C. Mark Gruenberg is editor.

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