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

Posted on March 16, 2008

America’s unity depends in part on our use of English as a national language. While diversity is among our country's greatest strengths, it’s our ability to unite people from many different backgrounds into one nation that is our greatest achievement. That’s why during debate on the fiscal year 2009 budget last week, I offered an amendment to protect small businesses who ask their employees to speak English in the workplace from government persecution. Fortunately, a majority of my fellow senators agreed, and the amendment passed by a vote of 54 to 44. The need for this legislation arose because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has used $670,000 in federal funds to bring actions against employers who require their employees to speak English. My amendment takes those funds and requires that they instead be used 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 adults learn our common language. In March of 2007, the EEOC, 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. This lawsuit, in plain English, means that businesses 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. This is not the first time I have tried to stop this practice. Last June I offered a similar amendment in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it passed by one vote. Then last October the full Senate voted 75 to 19 to approve the appropriations bill containing this amendment to block the EEOC from these lawsuits. In November the House of Representatives, with the support of 36 Democrats, voted 218 to 186 to accept the Senate position on the EEOC. However, even though the Senate and the House both voted to prohibit a federal agency from suing businesses that ask their employees to speak English on the job, the speaker of the House, for some reason, canceled the entire appropriations bill rather than accept the language. I believe most Americans would oppose that decision. Diversity is among America’s greatest characteristics. 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. How do we do it? We say at the beginning of our Constitution that we do not make any distinctions based on race or gender or where your grandparents came from. 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. Whose century is this going to be – is it going to be a Chinese 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.