Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh visited Durham Technical Community College Wednesday to discuss jobs and workers unions.
At the event, Harris said she met with many Durham Tech students and apprentices to hear their perspectives.
Harris said that over the course of the year, she has visited many union apprenticeship facilities where she has met a diverse, creative and determined workforce.
“I have met workers of all ages and from all places," Harris said. "They have many traits in common. Among them, tenacity, creativity, brilliant minds and a relentless determination to get the job done right."
She said she saw these same traits in the students and apprentices at Durham Tech.
“We saw 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 workers unions and investing in community colleges that offer apprenticeship 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 IBEW Local 553, an 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 wage security and health care benefits.
And she is not alone in her perspective. Walsh said many of the apprentices he visited wanted good wages, health care, pensions and other benefits.
Walsh said Harris is focused on expanding these benefits through her position as chairperson of the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. The task force is focused on mobilizing resources for workers in the U.S. to organize and bargain with employers.
Walsh said the task force's work and new funding will help more working people enter into the middle class. And key to accomplishing this is community colleges, he said.
“That’s why the president and the vice president are committed to supporting community colleges and investing in American workers all across the county,” Walsh said.
In 2021, North Carolina ranked second-lowest in the country for union memberships, with only 2.6 percent of employees in unions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national rate last year was 10.3 percent.
Harris' visit to Durham Tech came just one 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.
Gov. Roy Cooper said at the event that community colleges like Durham Tech provide training that people need for better careers.
People need to be able to afford education and training, Cooper said. Grants for low-income students, high-quality childcare, health care and higher wages are essential for making these careers more accessible, he said.
“That better workforce increases company profits while it puts money in the paychecks of everyday working people,” Cooper said. “That’s how we fill those jobs.”
Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal said ensuring access to well-paying jobs is a top priority for her. She said Harris and Walsh’s visit is timely considering recent progress the Triangle has made in job access.
Durham has been involved in efforts to protect workers' rights and support unionizing. Last year, the City Council approved a resolution supporting public employees' rights.
At Wednesday's event, O'Neal spoke about the success Durham's economy has seen.
“While Durham has its foundation in agriculture, specifically tobacco, we have evolved into a thriving ecosystem of technology, life sciences, health care, green sciences and other major industries,” she said.
Since taking office, Harris said, the Biden administration has created over 6 million jobs and lowered the unemployment rate to four percent.
Harris also said the country has made progress in ending the COVID-19 pandemic and returning the U.S. economy to normal. As of Wednesday, over 80 percent of the U.S. population age 5 and older has 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 has recently been involved in encouraging state businesses to apply for pandemic recovery aid through the government.
But the fight isn’t over yet, Harris said. With the rising costs of living, people are worried about day-to-day expenses.
“They’re tired, they’re frustrated and afraid,” Harris said. “But what I see most clearly is neither the fear nor the fatigue, but resilience.”
Harris said the Biden administration shares in the 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 essential for recovering both North Carolina and the U.S. after the pandemic.
“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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