Skip to page content
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
Bookmark and Share

Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks By
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez,
AFSCME 41st International Convention,
Chicago, Illinois,
July 16, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good morning! Good morning bold, brave and determined brothers and sisters of AFSCME. I'm so honored to join you today. Wow, it was worth coming to Chicago just to listen to Lee Saunders. I haven't heard Lee so excited since last week when some basketball player decided to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers — I just don't remember his name... I think there was an article or two about it in the newspaper.

Lee, thank you for your dynamic leadership, for your unyielding devotion to empowering working people across our country. I'm proud to call you my friend and ally in that struggle. Thank you Secretary-Treasurer Reyes for your incredible leadership and thanks to everyone here for the work you do every day to make this union and your communities strong. Is Maryland in the house? I know Glen Middleton is here — he and I have been in a few foxholes together over the years. Thank you Glen.

I've now spent about 25 years in government service. I was a career attorney in the Justice Department for a decade. I was an elected official at the county level. I ran a state agency. I've worked shoulder-to-shoulder throughout my career with proud and dedicated AFSCME members. I know firsthand about the sacrifices you make, about your devotion to public service, about your contribution to the common good.

And that's why I'm fighting so hard for all of you. That's why President Obama is fighting so hard for all of you. We know that public employees — and the labor movement more broadly — are the linchpin of the American middle class. We know that it's you — our nurses, corrections officers, home care workers, EMTs, child care providers, sanitation workers and more — that keep America strong.

We are working every day for an opportunity agenda that gives everyone — no matter where you come from, no matter what language you speak at home, no matter what zip code you live in — the chance to reach your highest and best dreams. That's really what our country has always been all about. That's the basic bargain that's always defined us: if you work hard and take responsibility, you can succeed in America.

That's why we're fighting for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour — because no one who works full-time in the wealthiest nation on earth should have to raise their family in poverty.

That's why we're updating the nation's overtime rules — because if you work more you should be paid more.

That's why we're leaning in on issues that are vital to working families but have been absent from the national agenda for too long — affordable and accessible child care and elder care; paid leave and sick leave; pre-k education and workplace flexibility. Because no one should be docked wages because their child got a fever. Because no one should have to choose between the job they need and the family they love.

That's why we have pushed so hard to do something about our broken immigration system — to reunite families, to stop the exploitation of undocumented workers and to create a path to citizenship for hard-working men and women who pay their taxes and play by the rules. As if we needed more evidence that our system needs to be fixed, the current situation on the border provides more glaring and disturbing evidence every day. This is historically a bipartisan issue with a broad coalition of support. Law enforcement, the faith community, labor unions like AFSCME and business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — they all believe we need to bring the immigration system into the 21st century.

Creating opportunity for all also means making sure we're helping workers get the skills and training they need to succeed in 21st century jobs. Last week, the House of Representatives sent to the President the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act, which will strengthen our workforce system and the partnerships that sustain it. This bill was the product of a compromise between Democrats and Republicans in both chambers — proof positive that we really can choose progress over partisanship and move the nation forward.

The Labor Department, which I've been proud to lead for almost a year now, is essential to the execution of the president's opportunity agenda. In fact, since I was confirmed, I've called the Department of Labor the Department of Opportunity. And opportunity for us means, among many other things, vigilance about worker protection and strategic use of our enforcement authorities. We work to ensure that workers are safe on the job, that no one has to give their life for their livelihood. We work every day to safeguard workers' pensions, benefits and retirement security. And we are investing in a stronger Wage and Hour Division, to make sure that workers get the pay that is rightfully theirs.

Since the beginning of 2009, our investigations have resulted in over a billion dollars in back wages for more than 1.2 million workers in nearly 146,000 cases nationwide. That includes a remarkable case in Puerto Rico last year, where we recovered $35 million in back wages for nearly 5,000 corrections officers, one of the largest settlements in Wage and Hour's history. And it was because these officers were represented by a strong union — because they were members ofServidores Públicos Unidos/AFSCME Local 3500 — that they knew their rights and were able to bring their claim to us. Without that voice at work, without that partnership, too many workers just get cheated.

Perhaps no group of workers has faced greater barriers to opportunity than the two million men and women — but they're mostly women — who support their families by providing essential, compassionate health care in people's homes.

These folks do heroic work for seniors and people with disabilities. They bathe them. They help them shave and get dressed. They prepare their meals and change their bedpans. They monitor their blood pressure and help them with their physical therapy.

Laura Reyes can tell you from first-hand experience — it's demanding, draining, taxing work. But I can't think of too many jobs more important, especially in an aging society where more people understandably prefer living with dignity in their own homes to institutional care.

And yet until recently, despite their heroic work, home care workers could legally be paid less than the minimum wage and without overtime. A decades-old exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act designated them as "companions", which meant their employers could pay them as little as they wanted. I heard about one woman in Delaware who left her home care job to go work in fast food because the pay was better. No wonder 40 percent of home care workers are on food stamps — they didn't even have the right to the dignity of a family-sustaining wage and economic self-sufficiency.

One of our proudest Labor Department accomplishments over the last year was the completion of a new home care rule that brings these workers into the full protection of our employment laws. Because home care workers aren't "companions" any more than our teachers are babysitters or our police officers are volunteers on the neighborhood watch. They are skilled professionals, and they deserve to be treated like it.

But for home care workers to get the full fair treatment they deserve — good wages, decent benefits and workplace protections — they also need a union to be the wind at their back. That's why they are organizing at such a steady clip. But two weeks ago, the Supreme Court unleashed a powerful headwind in the form of its 5-4 decision in Harris v. Quinn.

This decision is bad for workers, bad for consumers and bad for the public interest. It will make it harder for home care workers to get a fair shake on the job. It will mean fewer people benefit from the professional development and training opportunities that AFSCME so capably provides. It means it will be harder to build that pipeline of skilled home care workers whose services are in growing demand. It will make it harder for states and cities to ensure that the elderly and people with disabilities get the best possible care. It also means we'll have to work that much harder together to find ways to lift up and protect home care workers.

But as you well know, the Court's decision is par for the course these days. What we've seen in recent years, over and over again, is mindless scapegoating of public employees.

What we saw in Ohio and Wisconsin in 2011, and elsewhere around the country since then, is that the ideologues on the other side brook no compromise. They are unyielding in their hostility. They don't want to weaken public employee unions; they want to eliminate them. They don't want to wring out a few concessions, compromising in good faith and giving you a little less here and there; no, they want to legislate you right out of existence.

But we stand with you. You have my word that this Labor Department and this administration are steadfast in our support of your collective bargaining rights. Because we know that your work makes America work, that you are central to the civic life of the nation. When you're under the gun, it's a raw deal for every one of us who depends on you every single day of the year. The bottom line is: We can't have strong communities without strong public services. And we can't have strong public services without respect and economic security for our public servants.

More broadly speaking, we know that a strong labor movement is one of our most powerful forces for economic justice, upward mobility and broad-based opportunity. In short, a vibrant labor movement has always meant a vibrant middle class.

It just stands to reason: when workers have a strong voice and a seat at the table, they are able to negotiate for better pay, benefits and working conditions — for their fair share of the value they help create. But when someone muzzles that voice and pulls that seat out from under you... that's when you see stagnant wages even as productivity and corporate profits continue to hit record heights. That's when workers get a smaller and smaller slice of the pie that they helped bake.

I'm glad I'm here on Organizing Day. Because one of the best ways to deliver greater economic justice is to organize the unorganized. When emergency medical services workers unionize and join AFSCME, that's good for them and good for our communities. AFSCME knows how to do this — you proved it by setting a strong goal of 50,000 new members... and then nearly doubling it; you proved it in Vermont, labor's biggest organizing win last year. But you've got to keep it up and do more of it. And if you need a friend to help explain to the public why it's so important, I'll gladly volunteer for the job.

*********************

We have a lot of challenges to stare down together. There's a lot of good news out there — the economy added an impressive 288,000 new jobs last month, as we've emerged from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes. At the same time, there's the sobering fact that public sector employment, as you well know, is going in the wrong direction, having lost half a million jobs since the end of the recession. This is the first economic recovery in American history where government jobs haven't rebounded at the same rate as private sector employment.

We have a long way to go to address income inequality, wage stagnation and long-term unemployment — to restore the basic bargain that says, simply, how far you get depends on how hard you work. In essence, we have more work to do to restore the American middle class.

But I come to you today with an unrelenting sense of optimism, a belief that we can overcome these challenges and emerge stronger than ever. Because our values are aligned with the values of a majority of Americans. Throughout the country, we see grass roots momentum gathering in favor of a higher minimum wage, equal pay, paid sick days, paid leave, sensible immigration reform and more.

I'm optimistic because of you. Brothers and sisters of AFSCME, you aren't back on your heels or shrinking from the challenges... you are organizing — 1000 of your volunteer organizers signing up new members one by one! Organizing in the proud tradition of the March on Washington and standing on the shoulders of the Memphis Sanitation Workers.

I'm optimistic because we're on the right side of history, because the story of America is one of ever-expanding access to opportunity. It won't be easy and it won't happen overnight. Yesterday in Washington, I attended a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and it's worth remembering: that historic, landmark law signed by President Johnson in 1964 was first introduced in 1948.

The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, as Dr. King said. But it doesn't bend on its own. It bends because of the power and the exertion of a million and a half members of this extraordinary union. It bends only because people like you insist on it. It bends because the labor movement and its allies are restless and relentless, because the men and women of AFSCME will not settle for anything less than dignity and opportunity for every working man and woman in America.

With the energy and the passion and the fight in this room, we will create a nation that lives out its creed of opportunity for all. We will put the American Dream within reach of everyone willing to work for it. With working people leading the way and this Administration standing with you, we will get there — I know it. Thank you very much.