Thomas E. Perez, the Secretary of Labor, Has a Sense of Labor History and of Organized Labor’s Continuing Importance

This is an open letter sent by Perez to the United Auto Workers.

Brother and Sisters:

From the U.S. Department of Labor, where I proudly work in a building named for my great predecessor Frances Perkins, let me wish all of my friends in the United Auto Workers and your families–wherever you are–a safe, happy and healthy Labor Day. This Labor Day feels special in many ways: it’s the Department of Labor’s centennial, and last week we celebrated the March on Washington 50 years ago–a transformational moment in our history that was just as much about labor rights as it was about civil rights. Today, let’s remember that these two movements remain inextricably intertwined, their interests converging time and time again, their goals essentially the same.

It’s also my first Labor Day as Secretary of Labor, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you a little bit about me. I grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., as the youngest of five children in an immigrant family. Buffalo was and still is a whole lot more gritty than glamorous. It’s a place that exemplifies the values we all care about, the ones we want to hand down to our children.

My father was a physician in the local VA hospital. He died very suddenly when I was 12, and my best friend’s father became like a surrogate dad to me. He was a union man, and I remember the struggles he and his family went through when he lost his job. And that was the first time I saw how organized labor served as a lifeline and a support network for people when the going got tough.

The principles that took hold within me then have deepened throughout my time in public service, including my strong belief–which you share–that we can only succeed by reaching out to everyone who wants to work in good faith toward mutual goals. They are the same principles that stirred 250,000 Americans to converge on the National Mall 50 years ago to demand justice from their government, led in part by your president at the time, Walter Reuther, who understood perfectly when he said, “the jobs question is crucial.” This week, I saw so many of my friends from the UAW on the National Mall; you were not simply commemorating a moment out of the past; you were reliving it, applying these principles to advance the cause of economic justice for today’s workers. When you boil those principles down to their essence, they are all about one thing: protecting and promoting opportunity for American workers.

This expanded opportunity can only happen when workers have a voice at work and they are free to exercise their right to organize. The labor movement is one of the greatest forces for economic security the United States of America has ever known. Standing together, speaking with one voice, you built America’s middle class, lifting standards for all workers—union members and non-union members alike.

You know how important the work that lies ahead for us truly is. The UAW has been in the trenches fighting for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. You are powerful advocates for President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage, which will benefit 15 million people who lay awake at night sick with worry about how they’re going to pay the utility bill, what they’ll do if the car breaks down, or whether they can put dinner on the table the next day. You also stand with the President in your faith that a better bargain for the middle class rests on the everlasting promise of opportunity: good jobs, ladders to the middle class through skills training and education, strong safety and health protections, and the ability to retire with dignity and peace of mind.

People like Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were leading the fight for workers’ rights as well. All of you who continue to stand up for economic justice carry a part of that legacy into the everyday struggles that remain. I can promise that as long as I am Secretary of Labor, the department will stand with you . . . it will be a bulwark against those who want to undermine the rights of our workers . . . those who want to dismantle the system of collective bargaining that has served workers and employers so well . . . those who want to leave hard-working Americans with no leverage to secure better wages, benefits and working conditions.

Thank you. I hope you will take this day to recharge, spend time with your families, enjoy the benefits of your hard work, and gather your strength for the work ahead.

Sincerely,

Thomas E. Perez
U.S. Secretary of Labor

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