US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (Photo courtesy of Flickr/ryanjreilly)
Los Angeles—In a Tuesday interview, US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez promised effective enforcement of federal employment law, celebrated US unions’ increased collaboration with non-union non-profits, and defended the administration’s appearances at events with Walmart. “The right to organize is a big part of what needs to happen, in my judgment,” Perez told The Nation, “as we grow the middle class and recover from the worst recession of our lifetime.”
Perez was interviewed after addressing the AFL-CIO on the third day of its quadrennial convention, which was also marked by passage of resolutions on trade and immigration, and behind-the-scenes maneuvering over Obamacare.
Perez: “We’re Working With Everyone”
Perez, who was confirmed by the US Senate in July, told The Nation his department has “made use of every tool in our arsenal” to “make sure that we are protecting workers and lifting wages and encouraging best practices, and that’s what we’re gonna continue to do.” He called the likelihood of federal labor law reform in Obama’s second term “unclear,” saying that the president’s current domestic focus was immigration reform: “It’s an economic imperative. It’s a law enforcement imperative. It’s a humanitarian imperative.”
Asked about potentially imminent Department of Labor rule change—first proposed in 2011—extending employment protections to many currently excluded domestic workers, Perez said he couldn’t comment while the regulation remained under review at the Office of Management and Budget, except to say it addressed “an issue of concern”: “to make sure that people who are working in a very important industry, in an industry where there’s a serious worker shortage both today and projected into the future, are paid the wages that they’re owed.”
“The American workplace has evolved,” Perez told The Nation. “The old paradigm were the large multi-story factories. Today the workplace could be the home.” Looking beyond the “companionship” exception change now at OMB, Perez said that while “every case is fact-specific…. it’s important to take a look at how the evolving definition of a workplace implicates the federal government’s ability to protect workers” when it comes to wages and safety.
Perez’s address to convention delegates touted the recent, long-awaited issuance of a proposed OSHA rule tightening regulation of silica dust. Noting that, “The gold standard of labor secretaries [Frances Perkins] warned of the dangers of silica” as early as 1930, Perez told the story of a silicosis-afflicted union member who told him, “If I walk a half a mile, I’ve got to sleep thirteen hours.” “The issue has been studied and studied and studied,” Perez told the crowd that workers' "fear is that, in his case, the issue will be studied quite literally to death. I don’t want that to happen.” Asked afterwards when the remaining steps for the silica rule could be completed, Perez told The Nation, “You know, whenever you try to give a precise date, you always end up being wrong.”