Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez Wows the AFL-CIO 27th Constitutional Convention

These are the Secretary of Labor’s prepared remarks. He apparently diverged in some instances from these prepared remarks in reaction to the very enthused response from the crowd at the convention.


Good morning, brothers and sisters! What a great honor to be here with this extraordinary gathering of dedicated and powerful champions for working men and women.

Rich, thank you so much for your gracious introduction, your strong support and your tireless leadership. Your relentless efforts on so many fronts have made an enormous difference in the lives of so many people who are trying to climb the ladder of opportunity.

Arlene, I’m sorry I missed this convention’s tribute to you yesterday, but let me express my deep gratitude for your decades of activism in the trenches — you will be missed.

To Liz Shuler and everyone in this room . . . thank you for the energy you bring to the struggle to advance the interests of the middle class and working families. Thank you everyone for your efforts to restore a fully functioning National Labor Relations Board. After 10 years, isn’t it about time?

President Obama is very sorry that he can’t be here with you in person. I know you understand that he needs to be in Washington to focus on the situation in Syria and to address the nation later today. I’m glad you were able to hear from him by video and in person from Valerie Jarrett, who has been such a great friend and strong ally in our efforts to build an opportunity society.

I always feel at home at a gathering of labor leaders and labor activists, because I share your values, hopes and aspirations. We are all a product of our life experiences, and I would like to share some of mine — because they have informed my approach to every job I have ever had . . .  and because they will animate my work as U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Like so many people in this movement, I am the child of immigrants. They taught me and my four siblings to work hard, aim high and always be sure that the ladder is down for others. I am so pleased, Rich, that you have so many international partners here at this conference, because the struggle for labor rights is indeed a global struggle.

I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and proud of it. Buffalo was and is more grit than glamor. There isn’t a phony person in Buffalo. It’s a place that believes to its core in the dignity of work and the promise of America. It’s the place that exemplifies the values we all care about — hard work, fair play, commitment to family and community — the values we instill in our children. It is also a union town.

My father was a veteran. He served with pride and distinction in the U.S. Army, while he was a legal immigrant. Once he left the service, he worked at the VA Hospital. I was 12 years old when he died suddenly. It was a bad summer, a kick in the gut, but Buffalo isn’t called the “city of good neighbors” for nothing. I had a village of family members and friends who looked after me. My best friend’s father became my surrogate father. He was a union man. He didn’t finish high school, but he was the wisest person I’ve ever known. He took me under his wing. I remember vividly the struggles he and his family endured when he lost his job, and I remember vividly how organized labor served as a lifeline and support network for him and so many others.

I was able to get a first-class education, thanks to Pell Grants, scholarships, and work study programs. I learned the value of hard work as a teenager. I had three paper routes, worked at Sears, worked on a trash truck and did many other jobs. After I got my degree, I chose a career in public service because my parents taught me that to whom much is given, much is expected.

Over the past 25 years, I have worked in local government, state government and the federal government. At every stop, I have been passionate in my pursuit of basic fairness and opportunity for everyone. I have had many incredible mentors, including the late, great Senator Ted Kennedy — one of the most tireless champions for working families and organized labor ever.

I learned from growing up in Buffalo and working for Senator Kennedy that the labor movement is one of our greatest forces for middle-class economic security. 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 in America.

And as Senator Kennedy also taught me, we can only have strong unions when we protect the right of collective bargaining… a right that has come under withering attack in recent years. When I was a local elected official in Montgomery County, Maryland, I learned an important lesson about the lengths some will go to in order to thwart unions. When the Communications Workers of America were seeking to organize at Comcast, I wrote Comcast a letter asking them to allow a free election. They responded by issuing me a subpoena. I didn’t back down because I thought the workers were entitled to a fair vote. And I continue to believe in the power of workers organizing for a greater good.

The direct relationship between the health of the middle class and the health of labor movement is not speculation. It is historical fact. When the highest proportion of workers chose union representation, wages and productivity rose together. Middle class workers shared in the prosperity of their employers. But as union density declined, so did the growth in wages, even as productivity and corporate profits continued to rise. A coincidence? No. Strong unions reduce inequality and build the middle class.

At the same time, the President’s support and my support for a strong labor movement is not about nostalgia for the glory days. This is about what workers need today. We are not going to restore the American middle class if workers fear for jobs if they organize, if they face harassment and delays that make their legal rights a hollow promise. Workers’ right to join together and form a union to improve their lives remains essential to a thriving middle class, and together we must defend that right.

And that vision has to include the millions of people who work in the public sector, which has been such an important steppingstone to the middle class for so many. This is the first economic recovery in American history in which government jobs haven’t come back. If state and local employment had held steady during the recovery instead of losing half a million jobs, the unemployment rate would be below 7 percent.

The men and women who teach our kids, patrol our streets and put out our fires are too often getting a raw deal. These folks are central to the civic life of our nation. Their work makes the nation work. When public employees are under the gun, it doesn’t just hurt them and their families. It hurts all of us who depend on them every single day of the year. We can’t have vibrant communities without strong public services. And we can’t have strong public services without middle-class public servants.

A couple weeks ago, many of us had the opportunity to participate in activities commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. One of the most compelling aspects was the reminder of how much the 1963 gathering was about economic justice as well as civil rights. The driving forces and the organizers behind the march — great Americans like Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin — were in fact leaders of the labor movement.

When President Obama spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he explained that the original marchers were seeking “jobs as well as justice.” And he spoke eloquently about the unfinished business of the struggle. As the President put it: “It’s along this second dimension, of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil for people of all races and backgrounds to advance one’s station in life – where the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.”

So who’s going to make up the ground where we’ve fallen short? Who must play a key role as we confront the challenge of income inequality, secure a better bargain for the middle class, and build ladders of opportunity with sturdy rungs that all people can reach?

My friends, I am hear to communicate in the clearest terms possible that the Department of Labor can, must, does and will play that role.

Boiled down to its essence, the Department of Labor is the Department of Opportunity. As we emerge from the worst recession of our lifetime, I will make it my top priority to expand opportunity in a number of different ways.

We expand opportunity by making sure that every worker has the skills to compete for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs, and that every employer has access to the workforce that will enable it to grow. The Labor Department is the quarterback of our workforce development system with a lot of teammates in the huddle. I’ve worked with many people in this room to develop and implement skills partnerships with employers and apprenticeship programs that create win-win opportunities for employers and workers alike.

And by the way, for the best possible example of effective apprenticeship partnerships, look no further than the Building Trades, leveraging $750 million a year in private sector money to provide state-of-the-art training that helps so many people find good work.

We expand opportunity by enforcing laws designed to ensure a level playing field for workers. We are cracking down on Davis-Bacon violators, so that construction workers and contractors can receive the local prevailing wage instead of being undercut and undermined. Nationally, we are doing more than four times as many Davis Bacon investigations as we did in 2008. And now we’re debarring egregious offenders who don’t play by the rules.

We expand opportunity when we combat the unfair, illegal practice of misclassifying employers as independent contractors. Some people call the practice “misclassification.” I call it what it is: workplace fraud. Workplace fraud has three victims: the worker of course; the employers who do the right thing but find themselves undermined by an un-level playing field; and the government, which gets cheated out of unpaid taxes. I made combatting workplace fraud a priority when I was Maryland’s Labor Secretary, and I will continue to support the Department’s efforts in this area.

Expanding opportunity means ensuring a level playing field for workers and employers in every industry through fair and aggressive enforcement of our wage and hour laws. Last year alone, we recovered a record $280 million dollars in back wages, and we will continue to make use of liquidated damages provisions in cases involving egregious offenders.

We will also not hesitate to create opportunity by using our regulatory authority — to ensure that workers, including but not limited to home health workers, receive the full protection of our wage and hour laws.

There can be no opportunity without health security. This will be an important fall for the Affordable Care Act. I want to thank you, on behalf of President Obama, for all you have done to ensure every American can finally get the coverage they need at prices they can afford. Though challenges remain — as should be expected when working to solve any problem so big — we are committed to continuing to sit down in good faith to work through solutions.

We must also take the necessary steps to ensure that our workplaces are safe — that is a centerpiece of our opportunity agenda. No worker should have to choose between their job and their health.

In my brief time on the job, I have had the opportunity to meet many remarkable people. Let me tell you about one of them: a fellow Buffalo native named Alan White. He’s a member of the United Steelworkers Local 593. He’s a few years younger than I am, but he’s staring at a future of debilitating health problems, where he won’t even be able to climb a few steps or walk a few blocks. “As a new grandfather,” he said, “I probably will not be able to run with my grandchild through the park as I had hoped.” Like so many who work in foundries, as well as in steel and construction, Alan has silicosis.

We’ve known about the dangers of inhaling this dust for decades. Frances Perkins convened a conference about silica in 1930. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health recommended 40 years ago that we take action. We’ve studied it and studied it, but in Alan’s case, he’s worried we’ve studied the issue quite literally to death.

Well now, finally, we’ve taken an affirmative step towards change. A few weeks ago, after consultation with all stakeholders, we issued a proposed rule that would limit silica exposure and ultimately, if fully implemented, save lives.

In the coming months, I look forward to receiving comments from all stakeholders, including people in this room. I firmly believe it is a false choice to suggest that we can have job creation or job safety, but not both. I have spoken to many responsible business owners who recognize that their workers are their most precious resource, and that cutting corners on safety is penny-wise, pound-foolish.

To expand opportunity and secure the President’s better bargain for the middle class, there are other false choices we must reject. My friends, it is time for Congress to raise the minimum wage.

The notion that a company must choose between its shareholders or its workers is just nonsense. I have spoken to many business owners who pay a living wage to their employees, while still profiting and providing an enviable return on investment to their shareholders. The union-management partnerships I recently observed in the Las Vegas hospitality industry have allowed service workers to earn a living wage with benefits and a career path, while allowing companies to compete, prosper and thrive.

The president is committed to raising the minimum wage because he believes, as I do, that in the United States of America… in the wealthiest nation on earth… hard-working people who put in 40 hours a week and take responsibility for themselves and their families should not live in poverty.

Is this a moral imperative? Yes. Is it a fundamental matter of social justice? Of course it is. But it’s not just the right thing to do for working people; it’s the smart thing to do to grow our economy.

Don’t believe the naysayers who claim a higher minimum wage stifles job growth. In fact, 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 and the local business. A higher minimum wage equals purchasing power and consumer demand, which equals jobs and economic growth.

Thank you to all in the AFL-CIO and the union movement who have consistently and passionately supported efforts to raise the minimum wage. I also want to thank leaders of grassroots nonprofits who are here today and who have done remarkable work to give voice to the needs of low wage workers in the taxi industry, restaurants, domestic, home health and other industries with high concentrations of low wage workers.

Like the President, I spent considerable time early in my career working with grassroots communities. I had the privilege of serving on the Board, including as Board President, of Casa de Maryland, a nonprofit that empowered and served the low income immigrant community in Maryland. Casa evolved from a shoestring organization that worked out of the basement of a church to a multimillion dollar advocacy and empowerment organization that organized and advocated for vulnerable people seeking access to opportunity.

Casa partnered closely with labor unions and labor leaders on many worker rights issues, and I think we learned a lot from each other. Unions provided strategic guidance on how to address issues of concern.

What we did at Casa, and what nonprofits here today at your invitation are doing, is to define success in terms of the number of people we helped to lift up the economic ladder. I am perhaps most proud of the fact that Casa evolved from a Latino-serving organization to one that served immigrants from across the globe. Let me be honest: there were some people who expressed concern early on about Casa expanding its focus beyond the Latino community. Ultimately, our leader Gustavo Torres successfully persuaded people that we are all in this together, we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and we should work to empower all people without voice seeking to climb the ladder of opportunity.

As someone who has spent a good chunk of his career working alongside union leaders and nonprofit leaders alike who are united in their commitment to using creative grassroots strategy to expand access to upward mobility and self-sufficiency for underserved communities, I thank you and commend you for making this type of partnership a focus of your conference.

I also commend you for inviting international partners into the labor rights movement. Creating opportunity in an increasingly global economy means ensuring that workers have basic rights overseas. When they suffer and die from dangerous working conditions; when they are harassed, fired, or even killed for organizing, that affects American workers too. It affects your ability to bargain, to claim your fair share, and to assert your own rights.

That’s why the Labor Department funds projects to help build the capacity of governments to enforce their laws and of unions to represent their members. It’s why we encourage supply chain initiatives with real participation for workers and real accountability for companies. It’s why we work for strong labor protections in our free trade agreements. These policies help all workers, everywhere, enjoy basic dignity at work, and they create more demand for goods made here in the United States.

Last Friday, the Labor Department released our monthly job report. And the numbers clearly demonstrated that our economy is slowly but surely healing. We’ve now had 42 straight months of private sector job growth, with 7.5 million new jobs created over that time. Make no mistake about it: the auto industry is coming back. The President invested in you, and you delivered, and we are a stronger nation for it.

Encouraging news to be sure, but we must do better, and President Obama knows that. As you well know, there’s still a great deal of economic anxiety out there, with a lot of working families still in a world of hurt, with so many of our people still finding the rungs on that ladder of opportunity further and further apart.

We need to pick up the pace of this recovery. And that’s why the president is fighting so hard to create more jobs, to secure a better bargain for the middle class, to put the American Dream within the grasp of every single one of our people.

He wants to invest in education, skills development and human capital, so our people have the tools to succeed in a 21st century economy. He wants to invest in infrastructure — because rebuilding our roads and bridges creates good construction jobs, makes our businesses more competitive and facilitates growth across the economy. He wants to give a shot in the arm to manufacturing and bring those jobs back to our shores, because we prosper in America when we make things in America.

As the new Labor Secretary, I’ll be working every day with the President to accelerate this recovery, restore middle-class prosperity and create opportunity for every American willing to participate.

To make that happen, I believe we need faith in the power of innovative partnerships, the idea that different stakeholders working together can build a whole greater than the sum of its individual parts. That’s the theme of this convention, right? We are stronger when everyone who cares about the rights of workers stands together.

Emerging from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes is an all hands on deck situation. We’re all in this together. That means we have to find ways to work with people we don’t agree with 100 percent of the time. As Senator Kennedy taught me, idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive. We can be principled and progressive, yet also pragmatic and productive.

I won’t back down from a fight when a fight needs to be had. But I also believe there are times when we have to come together in a spirit of cooperation and consensus-building. That means working with responsible businesses to create win-win solutions that reject false choices.

I don’t think I’ve seen a more powerful statement about collaboration than Rich Trumka and Tom Donohue standing shoulder-to-shoulder on comprehensive immigration reform. The values powering this effort are universal values — rewarding hard work; protecting our border; respecting the rule of law; promoting entrepreneurship; growing our economy; bringing people out of the shadows and fully into the American family.

In the long struggle for opportunity and middle-class growth, the AFL-CIO has worked as hard as anyone. Every time the stakes have been high for workers and their livelihoods, you were there.

The stakes are high again, my brothers and sisters. We have to rise to major challenges:

To create good jobs and complete this economic recovery . . .

To invest in our people’s skills and raise the minimum wage . . .

To save lives through safer workplaces and fix our broken immigration system . . .

To work together to protect and restore collective bargaining . . .

To ensure pay equity for women and work together to pass ENDA so our LGBT brothers and sisters can’t be fired for who they are . . .

And to strengthen the middle class and ensure that every working family can live up to its highest and best dreams.

We’ve come a long way and accomplished a great deal, but we’ve got a lot more work to do. A lot more obstacles to overcome, a lot more partnerships to build, a lot more struggles to endure. But if there’s one thing I know about the AFL-CIO, it’s that you’re ready to work. You’ll be there, and I’ll be there with you. Thank you very much.

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