US Labor Secretary: ‘The American Workplace Has Evolved’

US Labor Secretary: ‘The American Workplace Has Evolved’

US Labor Secretary: ‘The American Workplace Has Evolved’

The Nation asks Secretary Perez about forthcoming regulations, changing work and Obama administration appearances with Walmart.


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.”

Asked whether the DOL could revisit a proposed-and-withdrawn regulatory move restricting teenage employees’ assignment to certain farm jobs, Perez referred The Nation to the regulatory agenda list published twice a year (such a change is not on the most recent list), and said the DOL was “continuing to hear from people in the child labor context.” He called compliance with child labor laws “a basic covenant that we have with workers and their children.”

Perez is the former board president of CASA de Maryland, a nonprofit membership organization advocating for immigrants and low-wage workers. He told The Nation that what he’d found “remarkable” at the current AFL-CIO convention was the “acute recognition of the critical importance of these non-profit partners in building a vibrant middle class, and the community of interest that exists between the labor movement and these non-profits.”

Perez also told delegates that while the word “misclassification”— claiming workers are independent contractors who actually are employees—“sounds like a paperwork error,” in reality, “it’s fraud. It’s cheating.” “If you quack like an employee,” he told The Nation, “and act like an employee, and dress like an employee, and are controlled [like] an employee, you can put all of the labels in the world on that person, but chances are you’re an employee.”

Asked about organizing efforts by Walmart employees, and the recent firings of twenty workers who had participated in a June strike, Perez said he hadn’t “studied the situation in sufficient detail,” and thus wasn’t, “really comfortable opining about the specifics of a particular action.” Members of the Obama administration have repeatedly appeared with or praised the retail giant, most recently when Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker took part in a Walmart US Manufacturing Summit in Orlando the same afternoon that fired Walmart workers were mounting civil disobedience in Washington. Asked whether such appearances send a signal about Walmart as an employer, Perez answered, “Well, we’re working with everyone on the issue of growing this economy, and we’re working with employers large, medium and small to bring jobs back to the US.”

Perez added that the late Senator Ted Kennedy, whom he served as a special counsel, had taught him “that idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive,” teaming up with Republicans to pass hate crime and healthcare bills. “I think it’s important to bring a wide array of shareholders to the table,” said Perez, “to engage in a meaningful way in how we grow a vibrant middle class.”

Interviewed Tuesday evening, United Food & Commercial Workers President Joe Hansen, whose union is backing non-union organizing efforts at Walmart, called the White House’s public events with the retail giant “a sore spot.” While “we still want to work with this president” on many issues, said Hansen, “it could flare up somewhere along the line. Or it could be embarrassing to him, or to me…I don’t know what his thought is on Walmart. It worries me.”

Trade, Immigration, and Obamacare

Along with hosting Perez, AFL-CIO delegates Tuesday heard from economist Joe Stiglitz; formally elected current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other officers—all unopposed—and approved eight resolutions on topics including trade, immigration and global labor standards.

Introducing a resolution urging a “new approach to trade and globalization,” United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard told delegates that his union’s membership ranks—currently 850,000—would be over 1.2 million if not for “these rotten trade policies.” Kicking off a series of delegate speeches backing the resolution and slamming the secrecy and the content of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal currently being negotiated by the Obama Administration, Gerard added, “We need to stand up and fight back.” Gerard told The Nation last week that the federation has “a good relationship with the administration. Do we always get things the way we want them? No, but we always get a chance to have our voice heard, which is different from what we get under Republicans.” Gerard said it was “too early to try and blame the labor movement” for not averting corporate-friendly provisions in TPP proposals, and that “the fact of the matter is that we’re going to fight that.”

Asked Monday about DOL regulations and executive orders sought by labor that hasn’t yet become law, and trade deal language opposed by unions that may, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders told The Nation, “Well, clearly we have had success in dealing with the Administration on some issues and we have not agreed on every issue. But one thing for certain is that at least we have an open door so we can talk about the issues that confront working families…and we’re aggressive in pushing our agenda.” Saunders said that disappointments did not “give a reason to say that the relationship is sour, or the relationship is bad.” He added, “When there’s a disagreement, we’ll agree to disagree, but that’s not going to stop us from moving our own agenda.”

Fourteen years after a convention that was defined by the AFL-CIO’s dramatic shift to support a path to citizenship, this year’s convention approved an immigration reform resolution Tuesday with no dissent from the floor. “Immigrant workers ought to be able to breathe free,” Coalition of Black Trade Unionists President Terry Melvin said in one of a thirty-minute string of supportive speeches. “Free to come out of the shadows and to be full members of our society, not in fifteen or twenty years, but now.” Trumka pronounced the voice vote unanimous.

The only signs of disagreement on immigration policy Tuesday came from the left. A resolution introduced by the Alameda Labor Council would have gone further than the one submitted by the AFL-CIO Executive Committee, including committing the federation to reject “electronic employment verification systems” like e-Verify, whose use the AFL-CIO conditionally supports. Rather than sending the Alameda resolution to the floor for its own vote, the AFL-CIO Resolutions Committee declared it “subsumed” by the final version of the Executive Committee resolution on the topic; according to the AFL-CIO, that move followed the addition of more language on immigration reform to the Executive Committee’s version.

Speaking from the floor, Alameda Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Josie Camacho urged support for the AFL-CIO leadership’s resolution, but also echoed themes from the one her council had proposed, condemning “the terrorism of e-Verify” as well as immigration enforcement programs funded by taxes which “the undocumented have to pay to hang themselves.” Camacho told The Nation that she planned to follow up with members of the Resolution Committee “to better understand what had happened” to her council’s resolution, but said “the fight is not there. The fight is really, ‘How do we have an impact on what’s going on in DC?’” She added that she had been “inspired” this week to see the AFL-CIO shift “from its traditional way of looking at workers,” to, “a much broader vision.” The Alameda Labor Council also joined two other regional labor federations in submitting a proposed resolution calling for defense budget cuts; Camacho said she received a text message Tuesday afternoon, which “said they were not going to be addressing it.”

Disagreement from the floor is possible today, when delegates will consider a recently drafted resolution expressing discontent over the Affordable Care Act’s impact on current union members’ insurance plans. Laborers’ International Union of North America President Terence O’Sullivan told reporters mid-day Tuesday that he would personally speak from the floor Wednesday on the resolution, which he believed “doesn’t go far enough” because it did not threaten to support repealing the ACA if issues were not addressed. O’Sullivan said he had not yet decided whether he would propose rejecting or amending the resolution.

Asked about the impact of repeal on currently uninsured non-union workers, O’Sullivan told The Nation, that while there were “positive aspects to the act,” “the men and women that I represent, it could have a devastating impact on our ability to provide health insurance to them and their families. So in my capacity as general president of the Laborers…that’s my major concern.” O’Sullivan added that under LIUNA union contracts, 25 to 30 percent of hourly health contributions currently go towards “cost-shifting for those who don’t have insurance.” He called expecting LIUNA members to also pay a new ACA Transitional Reinsurance Program tax “repulsive to us” and “bullshit.”

UFCW’s Hansen told The Nation that there was “a lot of anger about ACA. But anger isn’t going to get anything done.” He added, “Let’s try to figure out what the right fixes are, and if they can be done by executive order. There’s a difference of opinion on that right now with the White House, although they’re listening.” Hansen said that House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has “been wonderful” in meetings with labor leaders on the issue, while so far he’s, “not quite sure [Senate majority leader] Harry [Reid] understands all of the implications of it.” Given that Obama is the president of the United States, said Hansen, “It doesn’t look like threatening him is going to get a good response.”

Like White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, Secretary Perez raised the Obamacare controversy in his speech to the AFL-CIO, telling delegates that while “challenges remain—as should be expected when working through a challenge as big as this—we are committed to continuing to sit down in good faith to work through solutions.” “I’ve seen this president,” he told the labor federation at the close of his address. “He’s here for you.”

Read Josh Eidelson on Walmart employees’ plan to strike on Black Friday.

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