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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks By
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez,
Swearing-In Ceremony,
Great Hall, Frances Perkins Building,
Washington, DC,
September 4, 2013

[as prepared for delivery]

Muchísimas gracias por estar aquí. El Departamento de Trabajo es el departamento de la oportunidad. Y a medida que continuamos saliendo de la recesión, mi prioridad sera expandir oportunidades para invertir en los talentos de los trabajadores.

Debemos continuar trabajando duro para responder a la promesa de América: que todos y cada uno tengamos la oportunidad de llegar tan lejos como nos lleven nuestros sueños.

Thank you so much for coming. It is remarkably humbling to stand here before you today. Those who are here in person -- current colleagues, former colleagues, friends, and family — those who are here in spirit — my parents, Senator Kennedy, Dan Parr and others — I am so grateful for your presence.

To my good friend Seth Harris, thank you for agreeing to kick off this event... and for everything you have given to this department and our nation over the years.

Rabbi Saperstein is a religious leader, civil rights leader, human rights leader and a mentor. Thanks for pushing me to be a better citizen of the world.

Janet Murguia is a longtime friend and champion in the civil rights community. Her family is a reminder of the immigrant success story.

President Shalala has been my boss, my mentor, and is a leader, visionary and friend. Thank you for teaching me so much about so many things.

I'm grateful that so many Administration colleagues have been able to join us today — like White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and too many others to name, but I'm looking forward to working with all of you.

Thank you to all my other friends in elected office who are here, especially Ike Leggett, who gave me my start in politics.

To my family, let me say that I feel like Lou Gehrig today — truly the luckiest man on the face of the earth. My wife and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary a week ago; she is the anchor of our house, and she models behavior for our children day in and day out with her advocacy on behalf of people who are homeless.

My four siblings and their families are all here. 17 members of the next generation. Our parents taught us to work hard, aim high, love this country and always make sure the ladder of opportunity is always down for others. All my siblings are doctors, and they all give back in very meaningful ways.

I have many Dominican relatives in the audience, and I am honored by their presence. I would like to acknowledge the Dominican Ambassador, Anibal de Castro, and thank him for hosting a reception last night at his residence, where a portrait of my grandfather was presented. My grandfather was the Ambassador to the United States in the 1930s until he spoke out against the brutal dictator and was declared non grata. America welcomed him as it welcomed my father a few years later when he fled as well. My uncles and my father fell in love with this country, and served with distinction in the U.S. Army, part of the greatest generation. My father went to work at the VA hospital in Buffalo. Whenever I am able to help veterans, in this job or my previous job, I feel like I pay tribute to my father and my uncles.

Vice President Biden, I am so honored by your presence. I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and the people of Buffalo are a lot like the people of Scranton — hard working, humble, and loyal. Some of my family and friends are Democrats and some are Republicans. But these labels have been far less important than our shared values. We don't simply look out for number one. We recognize we are a community and we're all in this together. When we get kicked in the gut — and Buffalo has received its share of kicks — we suck it up, regroup, and re-emerge stronger. Country and community trump party, and idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive.

I learned what family and community were all about as a kid. I was 12 when my father died, and I had a remarkable community around me. I had five fathers of friends asking me to the father-son breakfasts. I had brothers and sisters helping me with homework. When I went to college, I had Pell grants and Perez grants. The government invested in me, and my siblings helped me, even though they did not have a lot of money. They helped me obtain the educational building blocks to climb the ladder of opportunity.

The Department of Labor is in the opportunity business. Through the laws and regulations we enforce, the grants we make, and the partnerships we forge, we expand access to opportunity for workers in so many ways.

I've been on the job for 43 days now. And on several occasions, people have asked me: "What do you think so far?" So I thought I'd tell you.

First, I was struck immediately by the quality of Department of Labor employees. Any organization is only as effective as its people. What's made this place work for 100 years, and what will make it even stronger in its second century, is the commitment of the people who work here. They have blown me away — with their expertise and their unwavering passion for the department's mission. They are not getting rich, but they all recognize that the non-monetary rewards of helping expand access to opportunity are indeed priceless.

Second, in my travels to date, it's clear there are a lot of people out there who need our help in so many ways.

In Las Vegas, I met a man named O'Mar. He and his wife had their own business, but it went belly up during the recession. They have two children, including one in college. Through the American Job Center, he was able to obtain his commercial driver's license and he's all set to start a better job with a trucking company. And I personally showed him how to sign up for the Health Insurance Marketplace on October 1st to obtain affordable health care for himself and his family.

In New Hampshire, I met Joe. He's serving our country in the Army National Guard. He has a wife and two kids. And now he wants to convert his experience as a medic into a nursing career. Thanks to Manchester Community College — and the Labor Department's investment in the college — he's in the process of upgrading his skills and getting the training he needs to make that happen.

At the end of the roundtable we held in New Hampshire, I asked everyone (as I always do): what's the one thing you would like me to convey to President Obama? What people like Joe and others consistently tell me is that these programs work, and we need more of these kinds of investments in people and their aspirations.

I have been really impressed by the creative partnerships I have observed in my travels, partnerships that build a whole greater than the sum of their individual parts. And sometimes the most effective partnerships are those between groups that in the past have locked horns, like management and labor.

For example, SEIU Local 1199, partnering with health care employers, has facilities in several states designed to train people as nurses, homecare workers, pharmacists and more. I met a student named Melissa at the New York center. You should've heard the emotion and pride in her voice when she told me that the program is allowing her to start a new job as a Licensed Practical Nurse. Again, this is labor and management working together hand-in glove, to prepare people for good jobs and meet the needs of a rapidly changing industry.

Let me share one more story that is seared in my mind. I met Alan White, a member of a steelworker local who suffers from silicosis. He's a few years younger than I am, but he can't walk more than a few blocks without shortness of breath. "As a new grandfather," he said, "I probably will not be able to run with my grandchild through the park as I had hoped." It reminded me that the issues we confront at the Labor Department are a matter of life and death. After years of inaction, I'm proud to say that, after extensive consultation with all stakeholders, including industry, we recently released a proposed new silica rule that will save lives. Alan's fear is that for him, the issue is being studied quite literally to death. He does not want that to happen to others.

I've spoken to a lot of employers who reject, as I do, the false choice between job creation and job safety. They know that cutting corners on safety is not only irresponsible... it's also a penny-wise, pound-foolish business strategy. They know that without common-sense regulations, we create a race to the bottom that undermines their competitiveness, and jeopardizes their most important asset — their human capital.

I am inspired by the resilience of the people I have met; by the innovative spirit of the CEOs, union leaders and community college Presidents I have gotten to know; and by the labor-management partnerships that grow our economy through win-win scenarios for workers and shareholders alike.

My final observation after a few weeks on the job is that many of our hopes for progress flow directly from the aspirations of generations preceding us. As President Obama spoke at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last week, I was struck by the timelessness of the issues. In 1963, they marched for voting rights; and today, notwithstanding so much progress, that struggle endures. In 1963, they marched for a higher minimum wage; and today, people continue to raise their collective voice for an honest day's pay for an honest day's work.

President Obama explained that the original marchers were seeking "jobs as well as justice." And, he said, "it's along this second dimension — of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil 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 of our people can reach?

I submit to you that I love this job because the U.S. Department of Labor can, must, does and will play a critical role in expanding opportunity by solidifying the critical building blocks of self-sufficiency and upward mobility.

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

First, we must invest in our workforce. The skills gap is an enormous barrier to opportunity, particularly in an increasingly sophisticated economy. Many partners have to be in the huddle, with the Labor Department playing quarterback and executing a game plan for a demand-driven workforce investment system that serves the needs of businesses and workers alike.

Second, we must do everything in our power to ensure a safe and level playing field for American workers. We do that by ensuring gender equity in the workplace through the work of our Women's Bureau and OFCCP. We do that by ensuring that people with disabilities and veterans have access to equal employment opportunity. We do that at OSHA and MSHA, where we've helped achieve record low fatality rates. We do that when EBSA secures hundreds of millions for Bernie Madoff's victims. We do that through Wage and Hour's enforcement work — a record $280 million in recovered back pay in 2012.

Leveling the playing field also benefits businesses. When we protect workers with sensible safety regulations, or when we address the fraud of worker misclassification, employers who play by the rules come out ahead.

Third, we have to fix our broken immigration system. It's an economic, law enforcement, and humanitarian imperative. Not only would we bring 11 million people out of the shadows... we would create economic growth, promote entrepreneurship, strengthen Social Security and help reduce the deficit.

Fourth, on every issue, we have to take partnerships to a new level. As the President said in his speech last Wednesday: "That's where courage comes from, when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another..."

That means we at the Labor Department must build stronger ties with all our stakeholders and also with other federal agencies — because people don't have DOL problems, or HHS problems, or HUD problems... they just have problems.

Same goes for partnerships with state and local governments and the private sector. As the former head of a state agency and a former county councilman, I know how federal programs work where the rubber meets the road. I know that if we're going to create opportunity for veterans and people with disabilities, we have to work seamlessly with our partners at the state and local levels.

Fifth, we must raise the minimum wage and pursue other policies that honor the dignity of work. Nobody who works a full time job should have to live in poverty. Here's another false choice — this idea that if workers earn more, somehow that's going to cripple the economy. History has shown that this is simply incorrect. When we raise the minimum wage, it doesn't just help working families; it helps the local small business whose customers now have more money to buy more goods and services.

No less a capitalist than Henry Ford understood this. In 1914, he doubled the wages of workers on his Dearborn, Michigan assembly line. This is what he said: "If we can distribute high wages, then that money is going to be spent and it will serve to make storekeepers and distributors and manufacturers and workers in other lines more prosperous and their prosperity will be reflected in our sales. Countrywide high wages spell countrywide prosperity." Henry Ford understood that his success depended on the ability of his employees to afford the very cars they were making.

To give you a more modern example, Costco is one of the nation's most successful retailers. Their longtime CEO Jim Sinegal believed that he could sell good products at competitive prices and pay his workers a living wage and benefits. Costco workers make a minimum of $15 to $20 per hour, plus benefits. Real wage, middle class jobs. If you invested in Costco stock 15 years ago, today your stock's value would have increased 350 percent.

So many business leaders I have spoken to recognize that you don't have to choose between shareholders and employees. That a fair wage means a productive workforce, which means a more profitable company. That when the middle-class is on the ropes, it affects the corporate bottom line. That business interests are consistent with the common good.

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If we're going to accomplish the goals I just described — to close the income gap and create broad-based opportunity — we have to do more to give young people the ability even to conceptualize success. What children see shapes their sense of the possible. But too many children today see their parents working harder and falling further behind, or unable to find work at all. That shapes their expectations and can have a damaging and lasting impact. I don't believe we can accept a nation where more and more children only have the capacity for modest dreams.

We have many challenges before us. But America has confronted challenges before, and met them every time. I come to work every day with an abiding optimism in our nation's future. The President's better bargain for the middle class is already paying dividends: 41 consecutive months of private sector job growth, 7.3 million jobs created, the auto industry coming back.

The Department of Labor, working with all of you, will continue to play a critical role in picking up the pace of recovery. We will help keep our nation's timeless compact with the American people: the idea that no matter who you are, or what you look like, or where you come from, or who you love, you can make it if you try. Si se puede.