Labor Secretary Perez vows to grow middle class, “so help me God”

LOS ANGELES (PAI)-New Labor Secretary Tom Perez virtually threw away his script at the AFL-CIO Convention here, with a stem-winder 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.

“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 steelworker 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’ speech came the day after a video from his boss, 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.

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.

Perez certainly didn’t disappoint the crowd. He acknowledged that organized labor “is one of the greatest forces for middle-class economic security in the history of this country.” To achieve that, Perez promised to “defend that right” to organize workers so they can bargain collectively and join the middle class.

Perez blasted cuts in state and local governments, which he said have hampered the economic recovery. “We lost our teachers, our police, our firefighters.” Had the governments not cut those jobs, he said, “the unemployment rate would be well below 7 percent.”

Addressing income inequality, he called the economic agenda of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. 1963 March on Washington “unfinished business” and pledged that the Labor Department would play a key role in confronting the challenge. In that vein, Perez recognized that an economy based on low wages and no benefits is a dead end, adding the president’s call to raise the minimum wage.

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.”

Perez promised a vigorous enforcement of existing rules, including Davis-Bacon prevailing wage, minimum wage and misclassification of workers as “independent contractors.” Employers claim workers are “independent contractors” to avoid paying taxes and abiding to wage and hour regulations, paying workers under the table. Perez called this practice “fraud” and “cheating honest businesses.”

Perez trumpeted an important newly proposed silicosis rule and that it isn’t the only change to health and safety rules to expect. Perez said the silicosis danger has been known since the 1930s and the rule has taken decades to announce. (See 1938 Department of Labor video on stopping silicosis here.) The AFL-CIO has long chafed at the deadly delay.

“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.

Lastly, Perez 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.

A beaming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka thanked Perez for his commitment, reminding delegates of the battle to get him confirmed as Labor secretary. “We all know the 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.”

Photo: Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez addresses the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, Sept. 10. (U.S. Department of Labor/Flickr)


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.