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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,
Building and Construction Trades Department
2014 National Legislative Conference,
Washington, D.C.,
March 10, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Introduction

Good morning my brothers and sisters! Thank you, Sean, for that generous introduction and more importantly for your tireless, extraordinary leadership. Thank you Brent and thanks to all the General Presidents of the Trades for the passion and fearlessness you all bring every day to the fight for working families. I am proud to call you friends and allies in the struggle to restore America's middle class.

That struggle is something that's part of my DNA. I grew up in Buffalo, New York, the youngest of five children in an immigrant family. Buffalo is a gritty place sustained by the values we all care about — hard work and humility; loyalty to country and community; resilience in the face of adversity. My dad died when I was 12, but I had a village of people looking after me. A friend's father took me under his wing — he became like a surrogate dad to me. He had maybe a 10th grade education, but he was the wisest man I've ever known. He was a Teamster, and when he got laid off I saw the way the union served as a lifeline that helped him through the toughest of possible times.

I am proud to work for an administration that understands places like Buffalo. Every day, when President Obama wakes up and his feet hit the floor, he's thinking about ways that he can make this economy stronger... ways he can create more pathways to the middle class... ways he can help more people climb ladders of opportunity.

Now, I know that the Building Trades and the Obama Administration won't agree on every single thing every single day. But I think that at the end of the day, our values are aligned and our overarching goals are the same.

We both believe in the American promise of opportunity for all. We all believe that your future shouldn't depend on your zip code or the circumstances of your birth. How far you get should depend on how hard you work.

Because we believe in opportunity, the president and I will always fight for the right of workers to join a union and bargain for their share of the value they've helped create. There is a direct correlation, throughout American history, between the health of the labor movement and the strength of the middle class. Construction jobs are good jobs because you have made them good jobs — through your organizing, through your investment in training and strategic partnerships with contractors, through your unfailing commitment to high-quality work.

Now, I don't want to get in trouble like the president did by seeming to denigrate art historians, but I believe that there is a bright future in this country for people who want to work with their hands. We prosper in America when we build things and make things in America.

Skills/Apprenticeship

Absolutely essential to the opportunity agenda is ensuring that our people have the skills to succeed in 21st century jobs. This is one of the administration's very highest priorities. Our goal is job-driven training. Everything we do in this area should face a basic test: does it help ready-to-work Americans move into ready-to-be filled jobs?

Perhaps no training program or strategy does that as effectively as apprenticeships... and no one knows apprenticeships like the Building Trades. You've been doing it for over 60 years, developing world-class curriculum, utilizing cutting-edge technology, never compromising on quality, leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars of private sector dollars a year to build state-of-the-art, industry-driven programs.

No one has done more to ensure the sustainability of apprenticeships over the years. Your results are undeniable. Your programs are among the highest in apprenticeship completion rates. And upon completing the most rigorous training, BCTD journeymen earn wages and benefits that can support a family and a build a future.

BCTD programs are leading the way in providing opportunities for underrepresented populations. Helmets to Hardhats and UA's Veterans in Piping Program are just two shining examples, demonstrating that the best way to honor our veterans is to help them find jobs when they separate from the service. A month ago at an event at the Labor Department, a single mom named Katie Sanicky spoke movingly about the difference Iron Workers apprenticeship training made in her life after returning from her second tour in Iraq. Brent, you and the Building Trades were with us in full force that day, as the First Lady announced a commitment from the construction industry to hire more than 100,000 veterans over the next five years.

You know and I know that BCTD apprenticeships are the gold standard, but we've got to tell the story far and wide. That's why I co-hosted a summit at the White House in December on labor-management partnership — and asked Brent to come talk about the remarkable work the Building Trades have done with Disney over several years. Brent and the Disney executive highlighted the way BCTD's joint apprenticeship committee is shaping curriculum to fit Disney's near and long-term development plans. This Orlando partnership is an extraordinary success story, driving good jobs and empowering the entire community for decades.

And just last week, I had the pleasure of seeing firsthand the way apprenticeship programs change lives. I visited the training facility at the San Francisco Joint Electrical Training Trust, a partnership between IBEW Local 6 and the local electrical contractors association. One student named Anthony talked about how becoming a journeyman was a "golden ticket" to the middle class. A golden ticket to the middle class -- that's what it's all about right there. And in other encouraging news from that visit, I personally helped an apprentice pull wire from a central panel to a transformer and managed not to electrocute myself... probably because the transformer wasn't energized.

To be honest, while you have been in the apprenticeship vanguard, we haven't always done enough as a federal government to elevate apprenticeships. But that's beginning to change. The president highlighted them in the State of the Union, talking about how they "set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life." And now, he's putting money where his mouth is. The 2015 budget calls for a four-year, $2 billion investment to double the number of apprenticeships in America over the next five years by expanding programs that already work and creating new programs to meet workforce demands in growing industries. And the president is also proposing a $3 million increase in funding for the Labor Department's Office of Apprenticeship.

Last week, I took a redeye back to DC to make sure I was at the White House for the latest meeting of the Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship, which has done such outstanding work thanks to the leadership of Ken Rigmaiden among others. I feel like it's a new day when it comes to apprenticeships, and I'm excited about the opportunity to inspire a new generation about this kind of work. As we do, we intend to build from the strength of the Building Trades, creating high-quality programs that use your work as a model.

WHD Enforcement

Now when we talk about an agenda of opportunity for all, we all know that has to include a protection and enforcement element, ensuring workers get what's rightfully theirs.

That's where the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division comes in. Senior department leaders will be here this afternoon to talk more about this, but I want to let you know we have a rock-solid commitment to tough Davis-Bacon enforcement, cracking down on violators so that construction workers and contractors can enjoy a level playing field and receive the local prevailing wage instead of being undercut and undermined. In fiscal year 2013, Wage and Hour concluded over 1,700 DBRA investigations resulting in $27.9 million in back wages for more than 11,000 workers. That's four times as many Davis-Bacon investigations as the department did in 2008.

As Maryland's Secretary of Labor, I worked hard to combat the unfair, illegal practice of categorizing workers as independent contractors. This is commonly known as "misclassification", but frankly I've never loved that terminology — it sounds like an innocuous clerical mistake. I call it what it is: "workplace fraud". It rips off workers; it cheats employers who play by the rules; and it undermines the treasury. As U.S. Secretary of Labor, I will continue to be vigilant about this, hoping to build on our record of finding more than $8.7 million in back wages last year for over 7,700 workers who were "misclassified" as independent contractors or otherwise not treated as employees.

One of the first things President Obama did was to reinvest in DOL and rebuild our capacity to get back into the enforcement business. We hired 300 new investigators and we trained them well. We deployed our resources strategically and we got concrete results — $280 million in back wages for workers in 2012, the highest ever in the history of the Wage and Hour Division. But there is so much more to do and the president knows it — which is why the 2015 budget proposes resources for 300 more investigators. More cops on the beat means more money in the pockets of working people.

Worker Safety/Silica

Now, if opportunity means nothing else, it must mean the right and the ability to come home safe and sound at the end of a hard day's work.

Falls are the leading cause of on-the-job death for construction workers. For the last two years, OSHA has been working with NIOSH and CPWR on a Construction Fall Prevention Awareness Campaign. As we prepare for a third year of the campaign, one of the key planned activities is a national stand down where employers and their workers will stop work and talk about falls and how to prevent them. We will formally announce the stand down next week and hope that everyone in the construction industry will participate.

Also next week, OSHA launches regulatory hearings on a proposed standard to protect workers — especially construction workers — from silica exposure. Every year, many exposed workers not only lose their ability not just to work, but to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis, as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases, and kidney disease.

We've known about the dangers of this dust for as long as any of us have been alive. Secretary Frances Perkins, the matriarch of the Labor Department, warned about it as long ago as 1930. Last summer, I met a foundry worker from my hometown of Buffalo named Alan White. He's a few years younger than me, but his doctor has told him that he will die from exposure to silica in the workplace. Alan told me that if he walks a half a mile, he has to sleep thirteen hours. He is already too disabled to talk on a cell phone and he knows that he'll never be able to run in the park with his new grandchild. Sadly, it will come too late for Alan, but we can save lives if we stop studying this issue and finally do something about it.

Conclusion

My brothers and sisters, the nation has come a long way since the depths of the Great Recession. On Friday, my department reported that February was the 48th consecutive month of private sector job growth, with 8.7 million jobs created over that time.

Now I don't want to put a happy face on what's still a lot of hurt for a lot of people. We're not out of the woods yet. The economy is growing again, but we have a lot of work to do.

I can promise you this: I will lead the fight every day to make sure more electricians and pipefitters, more ironworkers and boilermakers, more teamsters and plumbers, more sheet metal workers and operating engineers enjoy greater opportunity and economic security.

The president and I will not rest until we make good on the promise of opportunity for all, until every working family has the chance to get ahead, until a middle-class life is within reach of everyone willing to work for it.

As we recommit to those goals, we will lean on the sturdy shoulders of the Building Trades, who have done so much for decades and decades to make the economy robust and the nation strong. Thank you for your extraordinary work to build communities and change lives every single day. I can't wait to work with you more in the months and years to come.