WASHINGTON – For Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, unions represent what’s right with the U.S.
In a stem-winding speech at the National Press Club on Oct. 22, Perez, who grew up in a working-class family in Buffalo, declared unions are responsible for creating and sustaining the middle class. And the decline in unions is bad for the nation, he added.
Perez’ remarks are notable because they represent one of the Obama administration’s few full-throated instances of advocacy of unions before a non-union audience. While Obama himself says people should join unions – most recently in a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee – he’s restricted those remarks to appearances before union and/or partisan Democratic crowds.
They’re also notable because Perez has been backing words with enforcement actions. His predecessor, first-term Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, repeatedly declared herself “the new sheriff in town.” She repeatedly used those words to union audiences.
But Perez’ DOL has been backing the words by acting on a wide range of labor law enforcement issues, unveiling job health and safety rules and cracking down on worker misclassification, for example.
In his speech, Perez skipped areas where Obama and unions split: The president’s support of magnet and charter schools and conflicts with teachers unions over testing, his refusal to push the Employee Free Choice Act when Democrats ran Congress – though Obama said he would sign it – his negotiation of so-called “free trade” pacts and lobbying for “fast-track” trade treaty authority for presidents to ram the pacts through without worker rights.
But after touting the statistical recovery from the Great Recession (also known as the Bush Crash) since Obama took office in 2009, Perez admitted it isn’t enough for rank-and-file workers. “The pie is getting bigger…American workers helped bake it…but they’re not getting a bigger slice. Their sweat equity hasn’t translated into financial equity,” he said.
“We’re on pace for 2014 to be the best year for private sector job growth in 16 years. But the difference between then and now is that the rising tide of the late 1990s lifted more boats – the yachts and the rafts; the cruise liners and the dinghies. The principal unfinished business of this recovery is to ensure that prosperity is broadly shared, and that we build an economy that works for everyone.”
That means building a “stairway to shared prosperity” for all, Perez declared. Its steps include raising the minimum wage, building infrastructure, paid sick leave, empowering and equally paying woman workers, comprehensive immigration reform – and unionization.
“Worker voice can take many forms, one of the most important being membership in a union,” he said. “The Obama administration is resolute when it comes to protecting the collective bargaining rights of workers across America, rights that have come under withering attack in recent years. Because it’s clear to me, throughout our history, there is a direct relationship between the health of the middle class and the vitality of the labor movement.
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that last year median weekly earnings for union members were $200 higher than for non-union workers. That’s not pocket change, and it doesn’t even account for the superior benefits enjoyed by union members,” he pointed out.
“I grew up in Buffalo, the quintessential 20th century manufacturing town, and I saw firsthand that a job in a union shop was a surefire way to punch your ticket to the middle class. What I saw in Buffalo and continue to see as Labor Secretary is that unions don’t succeed at the expense of business. They succeed in partnership with business.”
His examples of such partnerships include the Ford plant in Louisville, Kentucky, which rose from 1,000 workers in 2007 to 4,400 and rising now; joint Teamsters-UPS cooperation on “building a pipeline of skilled workers;” and joint union-management training sponsored by the Service Employees to increase the number of health care professionals.
But Perez did not limit his remarks to traditional union structure. He singled out, and praised, alternative models.
One he lauded is the mass movement of low-wage workers for a living wage, decent conditions and benefits and the right to organize without employer interference. The other is the United Auto Workers’ experiment with the German labor-management “works council” cooperation model at the Chattanooga, Tenn., Volkswagen plant. Perez will travel to Germany to discuss that “works council” model. He advocated importing it to the U.S. on a wider scale.
“We need to create space in America for new forms of collaboration between workers and their employers,” he explained. And building the stairway to prosperity should be bipartisan, Perez stated. The first person he quoted saying those words was GOP President Theodore Roosevelt.
“There are still many stubborn obstacles making it harder for workers to have a meaningful voice,” Perez admitted. “Many workers are scared to speak out because they don’t want to lose their jobs. Many states have passed laws making it harder for workers to organize,” he noted, without saying that Republicans pushed those so-called right-to-work laws and other anti-union, anti-worker measures.
“But I’ve been around the block enough to know that you can’t stifle the voices of the American worker for long. The various movements and models – some longstanding, others emerging – give me great hope that we can fortify this critical step in the stairway of shared prosperity,” Perez said.
Photo: Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. AP