Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez feels at home among union activists
Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez knew all the right things to say in his biggest speech since getting the job a few months ago.
“I feel at home,” Perez told the thousands of union activists gathered at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles on Tuesday. He then spent the next 40 minutes of the keynote address pledging to raise the minimum wage, protect worker rights and look after middle-class and immigrant workers.
“Nobody who works 40 hours a week should have to live in poverty,” he told union leaders. “As we work together, we will build a better America. As we work together we will bring the middle class to thrive again. As we work together, we will make sure that everybody has the ladder of opportunity to climb.”
The audience gave him a standing ovation when he was finished. The speech was seen as an important first step for Perez to publicly cement his reputation as a strong union backer at a time when labor membership has waned.
Union leaders are banking on his support as they seek to bring in new members — non-union progressive allies and other worker nonprofits — to broaden the labor movement.
Expect Perez to set a worker-rights agenda, said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. Much like his predecessor, former California Rep. Hilda L. Solis, he is likely to be aggressive in enforcing existing labor law and going after unscrupulous employers for wage theft issues.
“Unions had a very friendly relationship with Hilda Solis and would expect that type of relationship with Thomas Perez,” Wong said.
But business groups and some Republicans have warned that the former Justice Department attorney has a track record of supporting liberal causes.
Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute, a pro-business group, said that U.S. employers are “concerned about the actions that the new labor secretary will take while in office.”
In a statement last week when Perez was ceremonially sworn in, Wszolek said that “every indication is that he will endeavor to reward labor bosses intent on receiving payback for their political support of President Obama.”
Congressional Republicans lobbed sharp criticism at Obama’s nomination of Perez, who they said was too partisan. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a May statement that Perez was not qualified for the position even though “many Americans, especially those of us of Hispanic descent, celebrate his success and his personal story.”
Perez, the son of Dominican immigrants, was raised in Buffalo, N.Y., a union stronghold. He went on to serve as the head of Maryland’s Labor Department and leader of the civil rights division in the Justice Department. He was confirmed to his current job in a 54-46 Senate vote along party lines in July.
In an interview after his speech, Perez said his key focus of “jobs, jobs and jobs” fits with Obama’s economic agenda of boosting the middle class.
“Our economy is slowly and unmistakably healing, but we need to pick up the pace,” Perez said.
He beat back criticism that he is anti-business, citing his record working with businesses while serving in Maryland.
“If you’re going to create jobs, you talk to the job creators,” he said. “We built a number of partnerships with the business community.”
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said people in the labor movement were excited about Perez’s confirmation.
“We are sure that he will continue what he has done all through his life,” Saunders said. “That is to be an advocate for working families across this country.”
Perez is popular among Latino labor leaders, who say he has fought to protect the rights of immigrants.
While serving in Maryland, Perez was tough on employers who tried to withhold pay from immigrant workers. As an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, Perez filed a discrimination lawsuit against Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who has waged a relentless crackdown on immigrants in the country illegally.
“He’s got a history of representing immigrant workers,” said Mike Garcia, president of the California chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which represents janitors, security guards and other workers.
That especially matters in California, where some unions, including Garcia’s, are almost entirely composed of immigrants.
Garcia said previous labor secretaries under Republican presidents such as George W. Bush did not enforce labor violations in immigrant workplaces.
“It’s really the wild, wild West in a lot of these immigrant workplaces,” Garcia said, citing cases of wage theft and sexual abuse. “They turned a blind eye and let these abuses take place.”
As the AFL-CIO convention nears its conclusion Wednesday, labor leaders are turning their attention to some housekeeping matters that include election of officers and a resolution on healthcare that is expected to draw debate on the convention floor.
If passed, the resolution would be a formal criticism of Obama’s signature healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act. Union leaders have complained the new healthcare law imposes heavy penalties on some union healthcare plans.
Times staff writers Kate Linthicum and Ronald D. White contributed to this report.