Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh visited Durham Technical Community College on Wednesday to discuss jobs and unions.
At the event, Harris said he met with many Durham Tech students and apprentices to hear their views.
Harris said that during the year she visited many union learning institutions where she encountered a diverse, creative and determined workforce.
“I’ve met workers of all ages and from all places,” Harris said. “They have many traits in common. Among them are tenacity, creativity, brilliant minds and an unwavering determination to get the job done right.”
She said she’s seen these same traits in Durham Tech students and apprentices.
“We’ve seen the extraordinary hard work and discipline that goes into the work that builds America,” she said.
Much of Harris’ speech focused on the importance of worker unions and investing in community colleges that provide learning opportunities.
Tara Schmitt, a third-year apprentice at Durham Tech, spoke about her own experiences with an apprenticeship. A member of the Raleigh-Durham Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, she said she joined FIOE Local 553, electrical manufacturing company, to develop concrete and useful skills.
“As a woman in the construction industry, I wanted proof of that skill, proof that I would be accepted and respected across the country,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt said she was drawn to a union apprenticeship because of the pay security and benefits.
And she is not alone in her view. Walsh said many of the apprentices he visited wanted good wages, health care, pensions and other benefits.
Walsh said Harris is focused on expanding those benefits through her position as chair of the White House Task Force on Organizing and Empowering Workers. The task force is focused on mobilizing resources for workers in the United States to organize and negotiate with employers.
Walsh said the task force’s work and the new funding will help more workers move into the middle class. And the key to doing that is community colleges, he said.
“That’s why the president and vice president are committed to supporting community colleges and investing in working Americans across the county,” Walsh said.
In 2021, North Carolina ranked second in the nation for union membership, with just 2.6% of employees unionized, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, the national rate was 10.3%.
Harris’ visit to Durham Tech came just a day after President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address, in which he discussed affordable education and community colleges, relief for the middle class and better wages for low-income workers.
Governor Roy Cooper said at the event that community colleges like Durham Tech provide the training people need for better careers.
People need to be able to afford education and training, Cooper said. Scholarships for low-income students, quality childcare, health care and higher wages are key to making these careers more accessible, he said.
“This better workforce boosts company profits while pumping money into ordinary workers’ paychecks,” Cooper said. “That’s how we fill those jobs.
Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal said ensuring access to well-paying jobs was a top priority for her. She said Harris and Walsh’s visit is timely given the Triangle’s recent progress in job access.
Durham has participated in efforts to protect workers’ rights and support unionization. Last year, the city council approved a resolution supporting the rights of public employees.
At Wednesday’s event, O’Neal spoke about the success of Durham’s economy.
“While Durham has its foundations in agriculture, particularly tobacco, we have evolved into a thriving ecosystem of technology, life sciences, healthcare, green sciences and other major industries,” said she declared.
Since taking office, Harris said, the Biden administration has created more than 6 million jobs and reduced the unemployment rate to 4%.
Harris also said the country has made progress in ending the COVID-19 pandemic and getting the U.S. economy back to normal. As of Wednesday, more than 80% of the US population ages 5 and older had received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Cooper said North Carolina is emerging from the pandemic strong, with record job availability in both rural and urban areas. Cooper recently encouraged state-owned enterprises to apply for pandemic recovery assistance through the government.
But the fight isn’t over yet, Harris said. With the rising cost of living, people are worried about daily expenses.
“They’re tired, they’re frustrated and scared,” Harris said. “But what I see most clearly is not fear or fatigue, but resilience.”
Harris said the Biden administration shares a determination to fight for a better future for the American people, and the fight will begin with lowering the cost of living for working families.
Going forward, Harris said, creating more union jobs is key to recovering both North Carolina and the United States from the pandemic.
“Every person in our country, no matter where they start, deserves an opportunity to succeed,” Harris said. “This is the future we are fighting for.”
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