From the AFL-CIO
The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy this week leaves a void in the lives of working families that will be hard to fill, if ever it can be. Kennedy fought throughout his life with one goal in mind: to improve the lives of working people. He championed civil rights for people of color and LGBT people; better education for literally millions of kids; immigration reform; women; workers’ rights; the freedom of workers to choose a union; and, of course, health care reform.
Kennedy wasn’t just a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act. He helped create it, and he was the first to introduce it in the Senate.
For some other senators, these issues were opinions. For Kennedy, they were a passion.
In fact, there is a simple and beautiful pattern in these causes Kennedy made his own. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once wrote about another gifted politician Franklin Roosevelt, “he really did desire a better life for mankind.” That precisely explains Ted Kennedy.
He called health care reform “the cause of my life,” and as early as 1966, introduced his first health care bill. He had toured a community clinic at the Columbia Point housing project in Boston, and he was deeply impressed to see it bringing medical care to people who needed it. Typically for him, Kennedy noticed everything, including the rocking chairs set aside in special waiting rooms for nursing mothers.
A few months later, Kennedy secured funding for creating about 30 such clinics in low-income areas around the country. The number later grew to several hundred.
Passion for justice fueled his decades in the Senate. Perhaps his earliest important battle when he took office was against the poll tax, which he despised. Although he had little power and less seniority, he tried to eliminate it with an amendment to the 1965 Voting Rights Act when better-established liberals were stepping aside.
Kennedy has been rightly called the greatest senator of the 20th century—and even the entire history of this country. In a magnificent career, Kennedy achieved considerably more than did most presidents, and he proved to be one of the finest friends in public life American working women and men have ever had.
It may seem odd for someone who came from vast wealth and privilege, but his relationship with workers and their unions was one of deep affection and—one hesitates to say it—love. Anyone who ever spotted Kennedy at a Labor Day event or local union meeting could see it. He always listened closely to us. He understood and enjoyed us. He was one of us. As he said to our union movement in 2005:
:”We stand together in our founding purpose to improve the lives of workers and their families and to achieve social and economic justice. And we will emerge from these times bigger and stronger than before, better prepared to take on the challenges, the global economy, and guarantee that America’s workers are always put first.”
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says Kennedy ”personified a sense of aspiration that has become America’s aspiration—to make things better, to make them more fair, to make our nation more compassionate and hopeful, to make life work for working men and women.”
Few can claim the adoration he received not only as the senator who more than any other defined America’s vision for civil rights, workers’ rights, health care, education, disability rights and so much more—but also as “Teddy,” the man who remembered birthdays, celebrated family and shared chuckles.
Like his brothers, John F. and Robert, Kennedy believed that unions are key to improving the lives of working people. Speaking at the 2005 AFL-CIO Convention, Kennedy put it this way:
“Kennedys are with you, because we know the difference you make in the lives of average families. Union workers earn 25 percent more than nonunion workers, are 40 percent more likely to have health insurance, four times more likely to have a solid pension plan.
But each year—each year over 20,000 workers are illegally discriminated against for exercising their rights in the workplace. In a quarter of all organizing campaigns, a worker is fired for supporting the union. Every employee who manages to form a union often can’t get a contract because employers refuse to bargain. That’s wrong, and it’s doubly wrong that this GOP Congress won’t fix it.”
There must be a room somewhere in Boston or Washington filled with the trophies and plaques and honors Kennedy received from countless local unions. No one in our movement knew him better or was closer to him than the trade unionists of Massachusetts.
“The enormity of the loss of Ted Kennedy cannot be overstated, especially in terms of the impact his life has had on the pursuit of social and economic justice in this country,” Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes said in a statement.
“His heart was with us,” said Joe Faherty, a Boston Edison utility worker who served as the state fed president and was a friend of Kennedy. “That’s the best way to explain him.”
“He had a great sense of humor, and he had a very serious side to him that looked deep into people’s problems. I don’t think he could have been involved in health care the way he was if he wasn’t sentimental. He saw what happens when people have health care, and what happens when they don’t.
“He did so much for people that you never forget.
“He was one of the most compassionate people I ever met,” recalls Arthur Osborn, who was president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO before Faherty.
“You know when people are kissing up and when they’re genuine. He really loved to be around us. When he’d speak at our conventions, he’d get going, he’d be rocking and rolling, and the delegates would be on their feet. He was enjoying it all. His worries would be somewhere else.
“And when he was campaigning? He’d look you right in the eye and give you that big Irish smile, and he’d make you feel good. He was a perfect representative of the working person in the Senate. He was the greatest senator I ever saw. I loved him.”
Kennedy never ceased in his dedication to working families and if truth be told, after 43 years, they’re still not over. They will come to an end on the day when President Obama signs the bill that provides affordable universal health care. On that day, America will owe Ted Kennedy a great debt of honor.