New York City, NY - Elizabeth Warren delivered a speech today at Washington Square Park, near the site of the former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Elizabeth spoke about how corruption in Washington has allowed the rich and powerful to tilt the rules and grow richer and more powerful.
Below are her remarks as prepared for delivery:
Hello, New York!
When so many good people show up, I usually do a town hall followed by selfies. But tonight is something different. I want to tell a story that I haven’t had a chance to tell before—an important story about our past and our future. But I’ll still stay afterwards for as long as anyone wants to take selfies. Some things we just don’t mess with!
I’m especially glad to be here in Washington Square Park. I wanted to give this speech here—but not because of the arch behind me or the president this square is named for.
No: we’re not here today because of famous arches or famous men. In fact, we’re not here because of men at all.
We’re here because of some hard-working women. Women who, more than a hundred years ago, worked long hours in a brown, ten-story building a block that way. Women who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
It was March 25th, 1911, a Saturday.
At about 4:45 in the afternoon, people walking through this park looked up and saw black smoke billowing into the sky. A fire had started in a building over there. Inside that building, on the top three floors, deadly flames leapt from a bin, to the oily floors, and from the floors to the walls, sweeping across the workrooms and trapping the workers.
Fighting for their lives, women—girls really, some as young as 14—raced to escape. But the exit doors were locked. Others ran to the windows – waving their arms and screaming for help.
But no help was coming.
The fire department’s ladders could only reach to the 6th floor.
The flames leapt higher, and women climbed out onto the ledges.
And as people on the ground stood in shocked silence, a woman jumped. Then another, then another. They hit the ground with a sickening thud. They died on impact. So many, so fast that the women’s bodies piled up on the sidewalk. Their blood ran into the gutters.
Dozens more were trapped inside. Trapped because the door to the staircase was locked—locked by bosses afraid the workers might steal scraps of cloth. Firefighters would later find a pile of burned bodies next to that very door.
It took 18 minutes for 146 people to die. Mostly women. Mostly immigrants—Jewish and Italian. Mostly people who made as little as $5 a week to get their shot at the American dream.
It was one of the worst industrial disasters in American history. One of the worst, but it should not have been a surprise.
For years, across the city, women factory workers and their allies had been sounding the alarm about dangerous and squalid conditions—fighting for shorter hours and higher pay. They protested. They went on strike. They got coverage in the press. Everyone knew about these problems.
But the fat profits were making New York’s factory owners rich, and they had no plans to give that up. Instead of changing conditions at the factories, the owners worked their political connections.
They made campaign contributions and talked with their friends in the legislature. They greased the state government so thoroughly that nothing changed. Business owners got richer, politicians got more powerful, and working people paid the price.
Does any of that sound familiar?
Take any big problem we have in America today and you don’t have to dig very deep to see the same system at work.
Climate change. Gun safety. Health care. On the face of it, these three are totally different issues. But despite our being the strongest and wealthiest country in the history of the world, our democracy is paralyzed.
Why? Because giant corporations have bought off our government.
Americans are killed by floods and fires in a rapidly warming planet. Why? Because huge fossil fuel corporations have bought off our government.
Americans are killed with unthinkable speed and efficiency in our streets and stores and schools. Why? Because the gun industry has bought off our government.
Americans are dying because they can’t afford to fill prescriptions or pay for treatment. Why? Because health insurance companies and drug companies have bought off our government.
Americans disagree on many things, but we don’t want each other’s homes burned down by wildfires. We don’t want each other’s children murdered at school. We don’t want each other’s families bankrupted by medical bills.
What we want is for our government to do something!
And yet, our federal government is unable to act, unable to take even the most basic steps to protect the American people.
When you see a government that works great for those with money and connections and doesn’t work much for anyone else, that’s corruption—plain and simple. And it’s time to call it out for what it is.
Corruption has put our planet at risk. Corruption has broken our economy. And corruption is breaking our democracy.
I know what’s broken, I’ve got a plan to fix it, and that’s why I’m running for President of the United States.
OK, let’s start with the obvious. Donald Trump is corruption in the flesh. He is sworn to serve the people of the United States, but he serves only himself and his partners in corruption.
He tries to divide us—white against Black, Christians against Muslims, straight against queer and trans, everyone against immigrants. Because if we’re all fighting each other, no one will notice that he and his buddies are stealing more and more of our country’s wealth and destroying the future for everyone else.
As bad as things are, we have to recognize that our problems didn’t start with Donald Trump. He made them worse, but we need to take a deep breath and recognize that a country that elects Donald Trump is already in serious trouble.
Republican politicians sold out a long time ago. Filling the courts with judges who expand the rights of corporations while they destroy the rights of citizens. Passing tax cuts for wealthy donors, while doing nothing to help working families. Sucking up corporate donations while lying about climate change, lying about guns, and lying about health care.
And too many politicians in both parties have convinced themselves that playing the money-for-influence game is the only way to get things done.
What has all this corrupt business-as-usual gotten us? The extinction of one species after another as the earth heats up. Children slaughtered by assault weapons. The highest levels of inequality in a century. Wages that barely budge. Crippling student loan debt. Shrinking opportunity for the next generation and the one after that. The American people get it—and they are sick of it.
Corruption has taken over our government—and we’re running out of time. We must root it out and to return our democracy to the people. And—I’ve got a plan for that!
Yes, I've got a lot of plans, but they all come back to one simple idea: put economic and political power in the hands of the people.
We start by rooting out corruption in government. No more business-as-usual—let’s attack the corruption head on!
I have the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate—a plan to shut down the ability of the rich and powerful to use their money to tilt every decision in Washington. And here’s a sample of what we can do:
End lobbying as we know it.
No high-ranking public official should be thinking about their next job while they are collecting a paycheck to represent the American people—so I have a lifetime ban on Senators, Congressmen and Cabinet Secretaries from ever becoming lobbyists
No more hiring corporate lobbyists to staff up the federal government.
The right of every person in this country to petition their government does not protect a multi-billion dollar influence industry whose sole purpose is to undermine democracy and tilt every decision in favor of those who can pay. So let's shut down this industry and return our government to the people.
And there’s more:
No more secret meetings—every single meeting between a lobbyist and a public official should be a matter of public record.
No more lobbying on behalf of foreign governments.
And no more campaign contributions or bundling by lobbyists. Contributing to a campaign at the same time you are paid to influence those same government officials is the very definition of bribery, and we’re going to put a stop to it.
Anyone—anyone—who wants to run for public office will have to put their tax returns online.
Presidents, cabinet members, members of Congress will be barred from owning businesses on the side. Barred from owning and trading in individual stocks. Take care of the people’s business or your own business, but you can’t do both at the same time.
Corruption and influence-peddling has seeped into every corner of our government, so it’s time for some new plans for regulators.
Far too many agencies act like wholly owned subsidiaries of the companies they're supposed to regulate. When these agencies are captured, the results are pollution and financial advisers who cheat people—all while regulators look the other way.
Enough is enough. We will take down the "for sale" signs hanging outside of every federal building in Washington.
It’s also time to call out corruption in the federal judiciary.
Increasingly, big shot corporate lawyers are getting appointed as federal judges, and they turn out one decision after another in favor of corporations and against the interests of American consumers, against unions, and against vulnerable people who must count on the courts to protect their rights. Shadowy right-wing groups have spent millions of dollars to ram through aggressively unqualified nominees who are likely to help advance their causes.
Nobody should be surprised that public confidence in our federal courts is at an all-time low. But we can fix it.
We will rewrite the basic code of ethics for federal judges.
We will appoint a new generation of judges with diverse backgrounds and a wide range of legal experiences—judges who actually believe in fundamental principles like rule of law, civil rights, and equal justice.
And finally, we will end the corruption of our campaign finance system.
Overturn Citizens United—democracy is not for sale.
Get rid of SuperPACs and secret spending by billionaires.
And break the big donor stranglehold by creating a system of public funding of our elections.
I know that some people will always have more money, so they can own more shoes or more clothes than other people. But no one should own more of our democracy!
Corruption comes in other forms too—and I have plans for those.
A plan to end the corrupt practice of selling fancy ambassadorships to wealthy donors, because American diplomacy should not be for sale.
A plan to abolish private prisons. No one should make a profit locking people up—and no one should have a financial incentive to lobby Congress to lock up even more people.
A plan to stop selling access to federal lands and national parks to giant polluters, and to break the stranglehold of the coal industry and oil industry in energy production and transportation.
And yes, when we’re talking corruption, we need to call it out in the Oval Office. I read the Mueller Report, all 448 pages. No one is above the law, not even the president of the United States—impeachment is our Constitutional duty.
So there it is: Step one: tackle corruption head on.
The next task: transform our economy so that every person—no matter where they live, or who their parents are, or how much money they have—every person has real opportunity: the chance to work hard, play by the same set of rules, and take care of themselves and the people they love.
Corruption in Washington has allowed the rich and powerful to tilt the rules and grow richer and more powerful. But this small slice at the top hasn’t just scooped up a huge chunk of the wealth all of us have worked hard to produce—they’ve also gobbled up opportunity itself. For the rich and powerful, there are first, second, third, and fourth chances to get ahead. But for a lot of Americans, and especially for people of color, there’s barely one—or, for some, no chance at all.
We have the power to fix that. We’re the wealthiest nation in the history of the world—we can afford Medicare for All to save our people and a Green New Deal to save our planet.
We just need real investments in working people.
We start with more power in the hands of workers. Make it easy to join a union, and give unions more power when they negotiate.
And yes, it’s time for a wealth tax. That’s a two-cent tax on fortunes over $50 million. Your first $50 million—don’t worry, you’re in the clear. But for the 50 millionth and first dollar, pitch in two cents—and two cents for every dollar after that. Just two cents.
Because I look at it this way: You built a great fortune—well, or you inherited one? Good for you. But I guarantee that any great fortune in America was built, at least in part, using workers all of us helped pay to educate. Built at least in part getting your goods to market on roads and bridges all of us helped pay to build. Built at least in part protected by police and firefighters all of us helped pay their salaries.
And we’re happy to do it. This is America—we’re happy to invest in opportunities for everyone. But we’re saying that if you make it really, really, really big, bigger than 50 million dollars, then pitch in two cents so everyone else can have a chance.
And what can we do with two cents?
Universal childcare for every baby in this country, age zero to five.
Universal pre-K for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in this country.
Raise the wages of every childcare worker and preschool teacher in America.
Make technical school, community college and four-year college tuition-free for everyone who wants to get an education.
Level the playing field and put $50 billion into Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority serving institutions.
And cancel student loan debt for 95% of people who have it.
What does all that mean? Real opportunity—not just for people born into privilege. Opportunity for everyone.
Opportunity—real opportunity—requires honesty. Working families all across this country have been denied the opportunities they deserve, but the path for Black and Brown and Native families has been even steeper. That’s why my plans tackle historical injustice head on and here are a few examples:
My student debt cancellation plan will help close the wealth gap between Black and white families.
My criminal justice plans will end the practice of mass incarceration that has destroyed the lives of so many Black and Brown men.
My housing plan will help families living in formerly redlined areas buy a home and start building the kind of wealth that government-sponsored discrimination denied their parents and grandparents.
My climate plan includes justice for the Black and Brown communities that have struggled with the impact of pollution, and my plan respects the rights of Native Americans to protect their lands and be good stewards of this earth.
And on day one of my administration, I will use my executive authority to start closing the pay gap between women of color and everyone else—because it’s about time we fully valued the work of women of color.
We must recognize the systemic discrimination that infects our economy, and we must work actively—and deliberately—to root it out and set us on a better path.
The time for holding back is over. We need big, structural change!
Now I know what some people are thinking. Whoa, too much. Too big. Too hard. But I know this change is possible—I know it, because America has made big, structural change before.
Let me take you back to that day of the fire .
A woman was visiting friends who lived in a townhouse behind me when the fire broke out.
She hurried into the street, joining the crowds as they ran across this park and headed to the Triangle Factory. When she got there, she watched. Watched as women on the ledge begged for help. Watched as they held each other. Watched as they jumped to their deaths.
The woman watching was Frances Perkins. She was thirty years old and already a workers’ rights activist, but that day set change in motion.
A week later, the women’s trade unions organized a funeral march, and half a million people showed up to march down Fifth Avenue, right behind me. Half a million people in 1911.
It wasn’t their first march, but this time was different. While the women of the trade unions kept pushing from the outside, Frances pushed from the inside. She understood that those women died because of the greed of their bosses and the corruption of their elected officials.
So she went up to Albany, ready to fight. She worked to create a commission investigating factory conditions, and then she served as its lead investigator. Remember, this was years before women could even vote, let alone play major roles in government.
But Frances had a plan. She and her fellow activists fought for fire safety, of course—and they got it. Next time you do a fire drill at school or work or you see a plainly-marked fire exit at work, think of Frances and the Triangle women, because they’re the reason the laws changed.
But they didn’t stop with fire safety. With Frances working the system from the inside, the women workers organizing and applying pressure from the outside, they rewrote New York State’s labor laws from top to bottom to protect workers.
Over time, Frances Perkins became the state’s leading expert on working conditions. Later, when Franklin Roosevelt was elected governor, he appointed her to head his Labor department in Albany. And, four years after that, in the depths of the Great Depression, when Roosevelt became President, he asked Frances to come to Washington to address the crisis as Secretary of Labor for the entire nation.
Frances Perkins became the first woman in history to serve in the Cabinet. And what did she push for when she got there? Big, structural change.
She used the same model she and her friends had used after the Triangle Fire: she worked the political system relentlessly from the inside, while a sustained movement applied pressure from the outside. As Frances Perkins put it: the Triangle Fire was “the day the New Deal was born.”
So, what did one woman—one very persistent woman—backed up by millions of people across this country get done? Social Security. Unemployment insurance. Abolition of child labor. Minimum wage. The right to join a union. Even the very existence of the weekend. Big, structural change. One woman, and millions of people to back her up.
The tragic story of the Triangle factory fire is a story about power.
A story of what happens when the rich and the powerful take control of government and use it to increase their own profits while they stick it to working people.
But what happened in the aftermath of the fire is a different story about power—our power, about what’s possible when we all fight together as one.
Over and over, throughout our history, Americans have been told that it wasn’t possible to make big, structural change—and that they should just give up.
The abolitionists were told it’s just too hard, give up now.
Suffragettes were told it’s just too hard, give up now.
Early union organizers were told it’s just too hard, give up now.
Foot soldiers in the civil rights movement were told it’s just too hard, give up now.
LGBTQ activists were told it’s just too hard, give up now.
But they didn’t give up. They organized. They built a grassroots movement. They persisted. And they changed the course of American history.
2020 is about the direction America goes, not just for four years, but for generations to come. Yes, there’s a lot at stake in this election, and I know people are scared. But we can't choose a candidate we don't believe in just because we're too scared to do anything else. And Democrats can’t win if we’re scared and looking backward.
We win when we meet the moment. We win when we stand up for what is right. And we win when we get out there and fight for it.
I am not afraid. And you can't be afraid, either.
So if you’re ready to fight. Join me.
Go to ElizabethWarren.com. Help us organize. Volunteer. Donate five bucks. Text “FIGHT” to 24477. We need everyone—all-in.
Because here’s the truth.
This is our moment in history. Our moment to dream big, fight hard—and win.