Cornell University

May 31 2013

"Ready to Serve"

Contribute to policy debates, Katz urges new grads

Dean Katz 2013_©D.H. GoodallILR's 2013 graduates are "prepared and ready to serve" as public policy discussions erupt around global poverty, international labor standards, worker rights and other issues.

Harry Katz, ILR's Kenneth F. Kahn Dean, told 280 graduates and 2,200 guests at ILR's degree ceremony Sunday in Lynah Rink that he is confident their skills will contribute to the world's increasingly complex debates on work-related policy.

ILR's expanding international curriculum, including the "Labor in the Global Economy" course and more on-site learning and service opportunities, leads at Cornell, Katz said.

Increased numbers of ILR students will learn and serve abroad, the dean said.

" … We are determined to ensure that not just wealthy students, who have the benefit of prior travel experience and resources, are able to take advantage of new international opportunities," Katz said.

Today's students are graduating into unprecedented technological change that is transforming the global economy, he said.

Perhaps the most troubling international issue resulting from this "massive intensification of competition" that took root decades ago and accelerated in recent years, is unsafe working conditions, he said.

In Bangladesh this spring, more than 1,100 apparel workers, mostly women, died when a building collapsed.

"My own family history is tied to the garment industry, as my grandfathers both spent their careers working in so-called sweatshops in New York City after coming to the U.S. as young immigrants."

In 1911, Harry Katz, for whom the dean was named, and Morris Weber were working only a few blocks from the Triangle Shirt-waist Fire where more than 140 garment workers died.

Ensuing wage and benefit improvements negotiated by the union that eventually represented garment workers benefitted his grandfathers and their families, Katz said.

But, millions of workers in Asia and elsewhere still toil in barbaric conditions while making poverty wages.

"You know from your ILR studies that it is no simple matter to develop effective strategies that can address global poverty … the fact that competitive pressures can produce a race to the bottom is not a new problem," he said.

" … There are growing efforts to improve international labor standards and worker rights … each of those efforts face severe difficulties and limitations …"

"But, the difficult nature of the problem is no excuse for inaction. I encourage you to find ways to contribute to policy debates and actions that will address this issue."

"Confronting public policy challenges is something that ILRies do," Katz said, citing a call in May from President Barack Obama to Danny Werfel '93.

Werfel accepted the president's invitation to serve as acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, wracked by scandal this year.

"Twenty years ago to this day, Danny Werfel was sitting, like you, at his ILR graduation."

Read Dean Katz's full speech (doc).

View ILR 2013 Commencement photos