October 18, 2021

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken Opening Remarks at a Local Labor Roundtable

25 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

IBEW Local #5

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  José, thank you so much, and thanks to all of you for spending the time this afternoon.  It’s really wonderful not just to be in Pittsburgh but to be here, to be with all of you.  I’m looking forward to this conversation.  And these past couple of days have really been on so many levels terrific, not just in our meetings with our European counterpart but actually getting (inaudible) meetings here in Pittsburgh – an industrial city in the last century, a high-tech capital now, but still plenty of both in many ways; and labor leaders who have shaped the history and the future of this city, and our country as well.  And you can really see, I think, in this city as well such a microcosm of so many positive things that we’re trying to do across the country.

And it’s really why we chose Pittsburgh to be the place we would get together for this inaugural meeting of something we’re calling the Trade and Technology Council between the United States and the European Union.  We just wrapped up this morning after having a day and a half meeting.  And as José said, the issues we’re taking on through this council are critical to our economy, to our competitiveness, and to our workers’ livelihoods, now and I think well into the future.  And I just want to spend a couple minutes telling you a little bit about that before we get into our conversation.

Having said that, before I go any further, I’ve got to say right from the start that there’s clearly something, or maybe I should say someone missing today, and that’s Richard Trumka.  I had the opportunity to meet with President Trumka and the AFL-CIO Executive Council in July.  We did it virtually because of COVID.  And even through the screen he was such a powerful, eloquent force and voice just as committed to the issues that mattered in his life as ever.

He cared deeply, of course, not just about labor rights in the United States but worldwide, which was the focus of our conversation, and also about how what we do around the world has an impact here at home on American workers, something that he wanted to make sure that we were keeping front and center in our minds as we went about doing the work of the State Department.

As I told President Trumka and as José noted, we have an administration led by President Biden that is committed to investing in labor diplomacy, including by naming a special representative for International Labor Affairs.  I very much look forward to working with President Trumka’s successor, President Liz Shuler, and I want to congratulate her for being the first woman to hold the position.

One thing that President Trumka said that was very clear was that he wanted trade unions to participate, as he put it, at the table where the Secretary of State works.  I completely agree, and that’s one of the reasons I’m at this table today with all of you.

Simply put, we believe strongly, the President believes strongly, that labor groups have to be our partner in policy, and that includes foreign policy.  More than at any other time since I’ve been working these issues for the better part of more than 25 years now, distinctions between our domestic and foreign policy have faded away.  And our domestic renewal as well as our strength in the world I see as completely entwined.

And one of the reasons that we had the Secretary of Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative,  the Secretary of State all together here in Pittsburgh was exactly because of that.  Our domestic competitiveness, our national security, and a thriving middle class are mutually reinforcing, and I think mutually necessary.

We are committed to trying to get all three of these pillars strong and right, and we want to make sure that as we’re engaged in an innovation economy that it actually delivers for everyone, for workers across the country.

One of the things I talked a little bit about yesterday as we were meeting with our counterparts and meeting with a broad cross-section of stakeholders in the TTC work was that if we were sitting at this table a hundred years ago and the question we were asking was, “How do you define, how do you calculate, the wealth of a nation?  What makes a nation rich and strong?”  The answer you’d probably get is, “Well, it’s the size of its land mass, its geography, it’s the size of the population, it’s the strength of its military, its abundance of natural resources.”  And all of those things still matter, and in the United States we’re very fortunate that we still have an abundance of each of those things.

But I think as we’re sitting here today, the real answer to that question, “What really makes the wealth of a nation,” the answer more than ever before is its human resources – its people, its workers.  And the job of government, among other things, as we see it, is to do everything we can to unleash those resources, to support them, to defend them, to protect them, to allow them to reach their full potential.  And that starts with the working men and women of our country.  That’s how we see it.

And when you really break it down, that’s what this Trade and Technology Council that we put together is all about.  It’s trying to align with Europe, our largest trading partner – together with us, almost half of the world’s gross domestic product – how we can align more to do things together more effectively and more equitably.  Because one of the things that got lost – and I’ve put myself in this place too over the years, particularly on trade – was we lost sight of the need to have truly equitable impacts and to make sure that as we were moving forward, some of our fellow citizens didn’t get left behind.

So we have this remarkably powerful, large relationship with the European Union and all the countries that constitute it.  It is the most integrated, it is the most interdependent relationship in the world (inaudible).  And for whatever differences there are, it’s profoundly grounded in shared values: democratic governance, fair competition based on market principles, the rule of law, respect for human rights.  All of these things animate both of us, and that’s important because we know other countries are pursuing a very different approach to growth and competition.  So it’s critical from where I stand that the EU and the U.S. stand together to push back on unfair and dangerous policies and practices, and ultimately, most important, prove that the way we do things delivers for people.  Because if we can’t show that and we can’t demonstrate that, we’re simply not going to gain support.

So let me just quickly, before we get into the conversation, highlight a few areas where we made progress this week, these last couple of days with our European counterparts.  First, one of the things we pledged was – and agreed – was to develop and implement uses of artificial intelligence that drive innovation, that strengthen and don’t undermine privacy, that respect democratic values and human rights, and that are focused on impacts, including impacts on labor forces.  That is vitally important.  And that’s, by the way, across the board in everything we’re looking at in terms of technology.

We agreed we would deepen cooperation on investment screening, including by sharing information, for example, on division of investments, types of transactions so that we can better protect our national security while recognizing that foreign investment can be a critical source of growth for many U.S. sectors and many U.S. communities.

Third, we talked about and agreed to work more closely together on effective export controls, including enhancing the capacity of other countries, but focusing on the most sensitive technologies and products, not trying to erect a low fence around everything – because exports are so critical – but making sure that when it comes to things that are truly sensitive, we together build a high fence to protect those technologies and products.

Fourth, we agreed that we would strengthen cooperation on the supply of something we all recognize is especially critical these days, and that’s semiconductors, both to deal with near-term disruptions in supply, but also to try to lay a foundation for longer-term resilience.  That requires, among other things, improving a shared capacity to design and produce leading-edge semiconductors.

Fifth, we agreed to pursue common strategies to try to mitigate and respond more effectively to non-market distortive policies and practices like massive industrial policies and subsidies, forced labor, tech transfer that undermine the competitiveness of our economies, that endanger businesses and consumers, and that undercut workers’ rights.

And finally, we committed to protect worker and labor rights, combat forced and child labor, and to make sure that we had that lens applied to the work that we were doing.

So I say all that knowing that many of you have questions, concerns, even doubts about some of these issues, which I hope we get a chance to talk about.  Because not only do I want to hear them, I need to hear them.  And to be clear, we also talked very candidly with the EU representatives about points of difference, points of friction in our relationship, including, of course, on trade.  Because we want to deal with those areas of difference directly, not try to sweep them under the under the rug or ignore them.

So mostly, what I’m eager to do is, again, hear from you not only on these issues that I just mentioned, but more broadly on this question, which is:  How do we make sure that our diplomacy is working on behalf of America’s workers?  That’s what I want to focus on.  That’s where we really want to be your partners, not only – and this is critical – not only on the landing, but on the takeoff.  Because from my own experience, what I’ve found is this:  More – again, more than ever before, if critical stakeholders in any given issue are not at the table and not with you on the takeoff, it probably is not going to hold up.

And so it’s not good enough to simply say, “Okay, here’s what we did, here’s what we agreed.”  We need to have all of this input; we need the ongoing dialogue.  We need, ideally, the partnership on these issues from the get-go if we’re going to create anything that’s sustainable and actually works for all of our people.

That’s the spirit that we’re bringing to this.  It’s never going to be perfect, to say the least, but that’s at least where our starting point is.

And with that, let me stop talking, because I’m interested in hearing from all of you.

Thank you.

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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