Remarks by Vice President Harris at National Education Association 2022 Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly

The White House

McCormick Place Convention Center

Chicago, Illinois

5:12 P.M. CDT

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, NEA! Good afternoon! (Applause.)

Oh, what a sight my eyes behold. I am so happy to be with you all this afternoon. I am so happy to be with you. And thank you for everything you do and everything you are. Thank you. (Applause.)

And, Becky, thank you for being such an extraordinary leader in extraordinary times. (Applause.) Truly. I’ve run into her in different places around the country, and she is always speaking about you and the importance of this organization and the importance of this organization to the future of our country. Thank you, Becky, for that introduction. Thank you. (Applause.)

So, before I start with my address to you, I want to just briefly but importantly address the tragedy just miles away in Highland Park.

As we all know, yesterday should have been a day to come together with family and friends to celebrate our nation’s independence. And instead, that community suffered a violent tragedy. Children, parents, grandparents — victims to a senseless act of gun violence.

And Doug, who is here with me, he and I — of course, we mourn, as you do, for those who were killed. And we pray for those who were injured. And we all grieve, I know, for the lives that are forever changed in that community, including, of course, the students and the teachers of that community who have suffered great loss.

And I don’t need to tell NEA: We need to end this horror. We need to stop this violence. (Applause.)

And we must protect our communities from the terror of gun violence. You know, I’ve said it before: Enough is enough. (Applause.)

I mean, here we are, and our nation is still mourning the loss of those 19 babies and their two teachers in Uvalde. This massacre was the most recent reminder — in Uvalde — of the risks that our children and our educators face every day.

Teachers should not have to practice barricading a classroom. (Applause.) Teachers should not have to know how to treat a gunshot wound. (Applause.) And teachers should not be told that “Lives would have been saved if only you had a gun.” (Applause.)

Now, we have made some progress. For the first time in 30 years, our President, Joe Biden, signed a federal gun safety bill. (Applause.) And it strengthens background checks, and it closes what we call the “boyfriend loophole,” and it includes funding for mental health services and school security.

But we have more to do. We have more to do. (Applause.)

And Congress needs to have the courage to act and renew the assault weapons ban. (Applause.)

You know, I’ll talk in a minute about how you as educators teach the children so much. And you teach the children, among many things, reason.

So, let’s talk about what an assault weapon is designed to do. An assault weapon is designed to kill a lot of human beings quickly. There is no reason that we have weapons of war on the streets of America. We need reasonable gun safety laws! (Applause.)

And we need to have Congress stop protecting those gun manufacturers with the liability shield. Repeal it! Repeal it! (Applause.)

So we cannot be deterred. We know we have challenges. We cannot be deterred.

And, NEA, we will not give up this fight. We will not tire because I know who you are; that is just not in our nature. (Applause.)

And that, NEA, is why I am so honored to be here with you — because I do know this room. This is a room of fighters. And I know — (applause) — how deeply personal this work is to each one of you.

As an educator, your work doesn’t stop at the end of the day when you walk out of your school. Your work is full-time. (Applause.) I know that.

Students come to your classroom before the day starts — for help with homework; sometimes with an empty stomach that you feed — (applause); or just to have someone they trust to talk with. (Applause.) Your students look to you to tell them everything is going to be okay, even sometimes when you may not be sure.

But you continue to show up. And that is why the President and I are honored to partner with the NEA to build our nation’s leaders. (Applause.)

And as a personal point of pride for all of us to have an educator and one of your active members in the White House as First Lady — (laughs) — (applause) — Dr. Jill Biden. Yes. (Applause.)

And I can tell you — so I sometimes see her in a different situation than you might, and let me just tell you something. I have watched her go from the classroom directly to events at the White House or across the country and around the world, grading papers in between. (Applause.) So, like you, she is a remarkable educator who inspires us all.

NEA, who you are and what you do is also personal to me. I’ve shared with some of you: My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Frances Wilson — God rest her soul — attended my law school graduation. (Applause.) And there are many people who have contributed to me to be able to serve as the first woman Vice President of the United States — (applause) — but I’m going to tell you, Mrs. Wilson was one of the earliest. (Applause.)

So, you all, you not only shape lives, but you also shape policies.

And we heard you when we took office when you told us about the issues that matter most to you and your students.

We heard you when you told us about the fear and the uncertainty that you faced during the pandemic and about the extra help children needed once they returned to the classroom. So, with your help, we directed over $120 billion to our nation’s schools through the American Rescue Plan — with your help. (Applause.)

And this funding also led to a new initiative, launched just today, to help students who fell behind during the pandemic, which means 250,000 tutors and mentors across the country will be in schools to give students the support they need and to support your work every day. (Applause.)

We also heard you when you said your buildings are falling apart — that the school buildings are falling apart. (Applause.) We heard you that air conditioners were broken in the summer heat. We heard you when you said too many of our children drink water poisoned with lead and breathe dangerous fumes from their bus ride to school. (Applause.)

We heard you when you said your students cannot do their homework because they cannot afford nor do they have access to be able to get online. (Applause.)

So we passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and it will repair aging school infrastructure to save schools money. It will replace lead pipes in 400,000 schools and childcare facilities across the country — (applause) — so that our children can drink clean water. It will electrify our nation’s school buses so children can have clean air to breathe. (Applause.) It will make high-speed Internet accessible and affordable to every American household.

And this will happen because of your support and your leadership. Thank you, NEA. (Applause.)

And we still have more to do, and we have so much to do together.

NEA, you are extraordinarily effective as a group advocate for change, which is why we know that you have been able to see the success you have achieved. And it is no surprise why, because we know unions know how to organize. (Applause.)

I say all over the country: You may not be a member of a union, but you better thank the union for the five-day work week and weekends, paid leave. (Applause.)

And I often meet — and it’s — I know you do, and many are here — I often meet with young organizers from around the country. And what’s exciting is that we are seeing in a new, younger generation that they want the benefits and the protections that come from joining a union. (Applause.) They want it. They want it. Because they know what we all know: Unions give workers a voice. (Applause.)

And so, this is an historic moment, I think, for the labor movement. Today, unions have their highest approval rating since 1965. (Applause.) About half of all non-union workers say they would join a union if given the chance. That is almost 60 million people. (Applause.) Think about that.

But we also know there are obstacles for them to meet that desire. And we know what it is. One is that many people still don’t know how to join a union, and so that’s part of the work we have ahead is to continue to remind them about how. But even if they do know how, we also know, across our country, folks face barriers that have been built up over the years by corporate interests and anti-union politicians and regressive court cases. (Applause.)

I’ve fought many of those cases when I was Attorney General of California, so we know the obstacles are there. (Applause.)

California is in the house. (Laughs.) (Applause.)

And so, our administration, together with you, we are all doing a lot to tear down those barriers.

And I’ll tell you, I’m very proud to lead the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, along with my good friend — our good friend — Secretary Marty Walsh. And — (applause) — from Massachusetts.

And our President, Joe Biden, accepted all of our 70 proposals to make it easier for workers to organize. And here’s the significance of that: It relates to federal workers, but the federal workforce is actually — the federal government is largest employer in the country. And so, when you think about it, as we adopt the recommendations to make it easier for federal workers to organize, you will point to all of that to say, “If it can happen there, it can happen here.” (Applause.)

And there is more to do.

So, we are looking at the fact that the President and I are determined to lead not only the most pro-union administration in American history but to move our country forward.

We are determined to fight for a future where a teacher’s wage can provide for a family. (Applause.) Because I know it is still the case that some of you are working two jobs. (Applause.) Some maybe even three. I know that.

We are determined to fight for a future where you never again have to spend your own money on school supplies to meet your students’ needs. (Applause.)

We will fight for a future where teachers can educate our children with the resources, with the safety, and the respect that you deserve. (Applause.)

Because we are clear: When we do that, we can be sure that every child can reach their God-given potential. (Applause.)

So, these are the values that our administration stands for. And I think, when it comes down to it, it’s basically this: When you know what you stand for, you know what to fight for. (Applause.)

And so much of what we just got through talking about is what extremist so-called “leaders” stand against.

Since our administration has started, not one Republican leader in Washington voted to rescue our nation in the middle of a pandemic, including when we proposed resources for our children and our educators.

Not one Republican leader in Washington, D.C., voted to extend the Child Tax Credit, which helps the poorest students and their families.

Instead, these extremist so-called “leaders” fought against raising your pay.

Instead, these extremist so-called “leaders” refuse to keep assault weapons off our streets and out of our classrooms and tried to silence your voice through your union.

And instead, these so-called “leaders” have tried to make you pawns of their political agenda.

Because while you work hard to inspire the dreams and ambitions of our next generation, they dare question your dedication, your motivation, and your value.

While you work hard — (applause) — while you work hard to teach the principles of liberty and freedom in your classroom, these so-called “leaders” are taking freedoms away — (applause): freedom away from women and the freedom to make decisions over their own bodies — (applause); freedom away from a kindergarten-to-third-grade teacher in Florida to love openly and with pride — (applause); and away from every American as they intentionally try to make it more difficult for folks to vote. (Applause.)

We are 126 days away from an election, and we all know what we need to do. (Applause.) And, you know, I also think — I’m speaking to a group of educators — I also think that these extremist so-called “leaders” need to attend a civics lesson. (Laughs.) (Applause.)

I think — I actually think it would benefit us all if they sat in your classroom for a few days to remember how a democracy works — (applause); to remember what freedoms stands for; and to remember what jobs they were elected to do. (Applause.)

All that to say that, as educators, you know, we all know that history has never been an unbroken line toward progress; that even when we have advances, there will be setbacks. In certain times, those setbacks being more drastic than in others. This is one of those moments, but we will not be deterred.

The President and I are counting on you to help us move forward as a nation, just as NEA has done throughout its history. Because I remember that this organization fought to lower the voting age to 18. (Applause.) I remember that this organization fought to protect Black teachers from school districts that defied desegregation orders. (Applause.) I remember that this was the organization that stood with others to fight to pass DACA and ensure undocumented people can learn in our communities. (Applause.)

Again and again, you have been champions of social justice. And it is clear: Educators are a central part, then, of moving our nation forward. You are not only essential to our children’s future. I’m here to share with you: You, I believe, are essential to the future of our democracy. (Applause.)

So, we will do this work together because, NEA, when we look at where we are, we know that NEA has always been a powerful force — a powerful force whose members understand the power of unity.

So, these may be difficult times. And I know that at the end of this convening, you will each go back to your home district; you will go back and you will spend long evenings and nights preparing for the next day; you will go back and often be in a situation where it feels kind of like you might be the only one who sees what you’re seeing and understands what’s at stake. (Applause.)

But let’s remember moments like this. And let us remember that the fight toward progress by its very nature is not linear. We’re going to have our ups; we’re going to have our downs.

Let’s remember — I like to paraphrase all the time what Coretta Scott King said. She said: The fight for justice, the fight for civil rights, the fight for freedom, the fight for equality must be fought and won with each generation. And I think when she said that, she had two points in mind. One is that it is the very nature of what we stand for and, therefore, fight for that whatever gains we make will not be permanent.

There’s so much strength in what we achieve, but there is also fragility. So, we must be vigilant. And the second point then being: If we understand that’s the nature of it — it’s not going to be permanent; it is fragile, unless we are vigilant — it’s the nature of it, so do not despair. Do not be overwhelmed. Do not throw up our hands when it is a time to roll up our sleeves. (Applause.)

Thank you, NEA. God bless you. God bless our education. And God bless the United States of America. Thank you all. (Applause.)

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