Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) “Protecting English in the Workplace Act”

Posted on March 12, 2008

Madam President, I wish to speak for a moment about an amendment I propose to send to the desk in a moment that relates to keeping the family budget in balance by reducing the costs of small businesses, and it has the even more important advantage of helping to unify our country. The subject is the same subject that is chiseled into stone there: e pluribus unum -- the motto of our country, what has been the motto of our country: one, from many. Let me begin with this story. In March of 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a Federal agency, sued the Salvation Army for allegedly discriminating against two of the Salvation Army's employees in a Boston area thrift store. What had the Salvation Army done to earn this lawsuit from the Federal Government? Well, it had required its employees to speak English on the job. The English rule was clearly posted, and the employees were given a year to learn it. But this lawsuit, in plain English, means that a shoe shop in Tennessee or a small business in Missouri or in Washington State would have to hire a lawyer in order to make sure they have a clear business reason to require their employees to speak our common language on the job. So I have an amendment to bring some common sense to this subject. It would be to take $670,000 used by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which it is using to bring actions against employers who require their employees to speak English, and instead uses the money to help teach English to adults through the Department of Education's English Literacy/Civics Education State Grant program, which is one of the principal ways we help American adults learn our common language. So, Madam President, I send an amendment to the desk and ask for its immediate consideration. Madam President, this is not the first time I have offered this amendment. I offered it in the Appropriations Committee of the Senate in June of 2007. Enough Democrats as well as Republicans voted for it to be reported to the Senate floor as a part of the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill. On October 16, 2007, the full Senate voted 75 to 19 to approve that appropriations bill, containing similar language to the amendment I have just sent to the desk. On November 8, 2007, the House of Representatives, with the support of 36 Democrats, voted 218 to 186 to instruct its appropriations conferees to recede to the Senate position on the EEOC. However, the Speaker of the House canceled the conference of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittees over this issue, even though the Senate and the House both voted that a Federal agency should not be suing businesses that ask their employees to speak English on the job. The Speaker of the House, for some reason, thought it was so important that she canceled the entire appropriations bill rather than accept this language. So it must be a matter of great significance. I hope the Senate, having already passed this language before in the appropriations bill, as I have said by a vote of 75 to 19, will do it again when the opportunity comes tomorrow. Madam president, there are thousands of small businesses across America. They may be a Japanese restaurant where the owner may say: I would like for my employees all to speak Japanese. That is fine. They might be an Irish pub, and the owner might say: I would like for them all to speak with an Irish lilt. Or it might be a Chinese restaurant, and for a whole variety of reasons, the owner of the restaurant might say: We would like for all our employees to speak Chinese. That’s fine. But in America, if the owner of a business wants to ask his or her employees to speak English on the job, that ought to not be an issue. You shouldn’t have to go ask a lawyer to come up with a business reason why you can tell some Federal agency why you asked your employees to speak English on the job. There are practical reasons for it. There are safety reasons for it. There are communications reasons for it. There may be customer reasons for it. But it is a bigger picture than that. We have, in this country, valued English as our common language for a long time, and let me go back to the reasons why. One of our country's greatest characteristics is its diversity. But diversity is not our greatest characteristic. Our greatest accomplishment as a country may be that we’ve taken all that diversity and molded it into one common country. It is a source of our great strength. No other country has been able to do it as well. We see many European and Asian countries that wish they had our practice in inviting people from all over the world to come to their country and becoming one country. How do we do it? Because we say at the beginning in our Constitution that we do not make any distinctions based on race or gender or where your grandparents came from. We say to anyone who wants to become a citizen here: You must become an American. You have to raise your right hand. You have to say essentially the same oath that George Washington and his officers said at Valley Forge, and you basically renounce where you came from. You prove you are of good character. You wait for 5 years. You learn our history. You must learn our common language. Then we are all Americans. We are proud of where we came from, but we are prouder to be Americans. We have made that a great part of our tradition. The late Albert Shanker, the head of the American Federation of Teachers for many years, felt passionately about the importance of helping children and new Americans learn what it means to be an American. Once he was asked the rationale for a public school. He said the rationale of a public school is to help children learn English, to learn the "three Rs," and what it means to be an American. The hope was that these students would then go home and teach their parents. Since 1906, we have required every new citizen to learn English. Federal law requires that all children learn English in public school. We have programs to help adults learn English -- including the program I wish to put the EEOC's lawsuit money into. We have in No Child Left Behind, passed not long ago by this Congress, programs to help children learn English, and schools are held accountable for students learning our common language. When the Senate has recently debated immigration, it has passed two amendments to help value our common language. One was that by 64 to 33 we declared English as our national language. Another, I introduced, was to say that if a new citizen or an applicant for citizenship learned English to a proficient level, that person would be able to wait only 4 years instead of 5 years to become a citizen -- a way of valuing our common language. We even said we will give a $500 scholarship to any applicant for citizenship who wishes to learn English, helping them learn English. So in many ways through the last century we have asserted the importance of our common language. I am sure many of us in the Senate -- and many Americans -- saw Ken Burns' epic series on World War II. My wife and I went to see a preview of that series last fall, and we were struck by how magnificent it was. Ken Burns said he felt, after doing years of work on World War II, the war was the period of the greatest unity in our country's history. Quoting a book by the late Arthur Schlesinger, "The Disuniting of America," which was written in the 1990s, Ken Burns said: Maybe what we need is a little less pluribus and a little more unum. Where do we get our unum? We do not get it from race. We do not get it from gender. We get it from learning American history, and we get it from our common language. The reason we learn American history is so we can understand and learn the principles that unite us. It is those principles and that language which makes it possible for us to say we are all Americans. So the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has turned the civil rights laws upside down when it sues the Salvation Army and says: You cannot ask your employees to speak America's common language on the job. The purpose of the civil rights laws is to unify us, to say no distinctions based on race. We want to be one country. Well, if we want to be one country, we need to have a common language, and in this country that language is English. It was my hope when I was Education Secretary that every child would grow up to speak at least two languages well. One of them would be English. That is still my hope today. As I look at the motto above the Presiding Officer's desk, and I think about whose century this is going to be -- is it going to be a Chinese century, a Japanese century, an Indian century, a European century, an American century? -- part of it has to do with our economy, part of it has to do with our military strength, a big part of it is whether we can stay one country or whether we become just another version of the United Nations -- the United States of America or the United Nations; whether we can say we are all Americans or whether we can't. One way to help us be able to say we are all Americans, one way to unite us is to value, not devalue, our common language. So in some ways this is a very small and simple amendment, taking the approximate amount of money that a Federal agency is using to sue the Salvation Army and other businesses to say: You can't require your employees to speak English on the job, and lets instead use that amount of money to help adults who want to learn English. We have been sacrificing our unity in the name of diversity for too long. Diversity is a great strength, but our most magnificent accomplishment is our unity. You can't become German, you can't become Japanese, you can't become French very easily, but in order to be a citizen of this country, you must become an American. The way you become an American is by showing good character, waiting 5 years, learning our history, and speaking our common language. The Federal Government ought to be consistently on the side of valuing that common language and not on the side of devaluing it. So I hope the Senate, when it has the opportunity, will find the same sort of bipartisan support that it had last year, October 16, 2007, when the Senate voted 75 to 19 to approve the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill containing substantially the language in this amendment. We will then be able to say to American small businesses, of which there are hundreds of thousands: No, you don't have to go hire a lawyer to come up with some business reason why you need to ask your employees to speak English on the job.