Labor Sec. Perez Rouses AFL-CIO with Pro-Worker Stemwinder

Sec. of Labor Tom PerezLOS ANGELES—New Labor Secretary Tom Perez virtually threw away his script at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles, with a stemwinding speech pledging worker protections, promising labor and the administration would do it together and with several blasts at corporate greed thrown in for good measure.

Perez, who’s been in the job only for a few months, invoked his working class background in Buffalo and his mother’s faith that things happen due to God’s will – but then he started to question that in his Sept. 10 address.  Believe it or not, he turned the crowd on.

“As I grew older, I grew to conclude that it’s not God’s will that people who work a 40-hour week should live in poverty.  That it’s not God’s will that a coal miner should not live to see his children graduate.  That it’s not God’s will that there are 11 million people in the shadows.  And that it’s not God’s will to accept the fate of Alan White,” a Steel  Worker from Buffalo who is afflicted with silicosis.

“All these challenges are man-made!  And we will fix these challenges and they will be fixed by the people in this room.  No matter who you are and no matter where you came from…we can do it together, because I know this president and he and I share your values.  Our values are the same, and we’ll go it together and grow the middle class, so help me God!”

Perez’ Sept. 10 speech came the day after a video from his boss, Democratic President Barack Obama.  The president had to cancel a scheduled convention address to stayed in Washington to address U.S. military intervention in the conflict in Syria.  Obama instead taped a short video.  He got, at best, mixed reviews from delegates.

Unions and workers have high expectations for Perez, a former Maryland state labor commissioner, a son of immigrants and a former elected county commissioner in the D.C. suburbs.  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said two weeks ago he expects Perez to be a stronger secretary than his predecessor, former Rep. Hilda Solis, since Perez knows how to run major agencies and work with competing interests.

Perez certainly didn’t disappoint the crowd.  Among his high points:

• “The labor movement is one of the greatest forces for middle-class economic security in the history of this country.  President Obama’s vision of an economy that grows from the middle out can only be achieved if we continue to have a dynamic and empowered labor movement.”

To achieve that, Perez promised “together we must defend that right” to organize workers so they can bargain collectively and join the middle class.  “And you have my word that I will do my best to defend that right at the Department of Labor.”

• Blasted cuts in state and local government, which he said have hampered the economic recovery.  The recovery from the 2007-09 Great Recession, Perez said, “is the first in history in which government jobs haven’t come back.

“We lost our teachers, our police, our fire fighters.”  Had the governments not cut those jobs, he added, “the unemployment rate would be well below 7%.”  That statement cheered the federation’s largest union, AFSCME, whose members have suffered the brunt of the cuts.  The Fire Fighters, who have suffered layoffs and pension threats from budget-strapped cities, also appreciated Perez’ comments.

• Called the economic agenda of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. 1963 March on Washington its “unfinished business,” repeating a line that Arlene Holt Baker, the federation’s retiring executive vice president, often uses.

“So who’s going to make up the ground where we’ve fallen short?  Who’s going to play a key role as we confront the challenge of income inequality, secure a better bargain for the middle class, ensure our workplaces are safe and build ladders of opportunity with sturdy rungs all people can reach?  My friends, I’m here to communicate in no uncertain terms that the Department of Labor can, must, does and will play an active role in securing a better bargain for the middle class.”

• Said DOL would step up its enforcement of Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rules.  Perez said DOL now has four times as many probes of shady underpaying contractors as it did in 2008 and promised more.  “We’re now debarring egregious violators who don’t play by the rules,” he said.  Debarment bans them from federally funded contracts.

• Said the new proposed silicosis rule isn’t the only one to expect.  That rule has taken 40 years to announce, and the AFL-CIO has long chafed at the delay.  Perez acknowledged the gap, adding silicosis dangers were known in the 1930s.

“It is a false choice to suggest we can have job creation or job safety, but not both.  Cutting corners in safety is penny-wise, pound-foolish and can have fatal consequences.  There was no economic development in Upper Big Branch,” referring to the explosion, due to massive safety violations, that killed 29 West Virginia miners more than two years ago.  “We’ll work to promote job creation and job safety – because it’s the right thing to do in the United States of America!”  Perez declared.

The next rule, he all but promised, will bring tens of thousands of home health care workers under federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

• Blasted, and renamed, misclassifying workers as “independent contractors.”  “That sounds like a paperwork error,” Perez jabbed.  “I call it what it is.  It’s fraud.  It’s cheating.  It’s cheating the workers, of course.  It’s cheating the honest businesses.  I spoke to a restaurateur in Maryland who was playing fair with his workers and down the road, his competitor was paying people under the table and not paying taxes.”

Solis, at Obama’s direction, started DOL’s pursuit of misclassification.  Perez, who made reversing misclassification a major goal when he was Maryland labor commissioner, vowed to continue and support it.

• Again strongly supported raising the minimum wage, and stronger enforcement of wage and hour and overtime laws.  “We will be a realistic deterrent” to violators.

“And we do not need to grow this economy on the basis of low wages and no benefits.  Raising the minimum wage enables people sweeping floors and cleaning rooms to make a living wage.  We can have both.  Nobody who works a 40-hour week should have to live in poverty,” Perez declared.

“Don’t believe those who claim a higher minimum wage stifles job growth.  When you put more money in the pockets of working families, they don’t stash it in offshore bank accounts.  They spend it at the corner store.  There was a guy named Henry Ford who understood that, in 1914.  He gave his workers a raise.

“When people questioned him, he replied, ‘They have to be able to buy my cars.’  He had the right idea: When you have worker prosperity, you have economic prosperity.”

• Thanked the labor movement, in another departure from his text, for its strong support of comprehensive immigration reform.  “It’s an economic imperative and a moral imperative,” Perez declared.  It’s also Obama’s major domestic legislative goal this year.

The Senate passed comprehensive reform, including a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people – 7.5 million workers and 3.5 million kids – earlier this year, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has deep-sixed that measure.  He wants separate small pieces, all more anti-immigrant than the Senate version.

A beaming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka introduced and thanked Perez for his commitment.  He also took a partisan jab just before the secretary spoke: “We all know the (Senate) Republicans were attacking Tom for his vigorous enforcement of the law.  He’s done that all his life.  That’s why the Republicans went after him: He shares our values and he never backs down from a fight.”

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer