Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly said that Monday was the 100th anniversary of Labor Day. The first recognized Labor Day parade occurred in 1882, and the federal holiday began in 1894. This version has been updated.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who was confirmed in July after strong Republican resistance, spoke with The Washington Post on Friday. Below are excerpts from the discussion, which covered topics such as the “living-wage” movement, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and sagging union membership.
Q: What are some of the major issues that you’ll have to address in your new role?
A: It starts with jobs, jobs, jobs. The economy is slowly but steadily growing — 41 consecutive months of job growth, there have been 7.3 million jobs created in the last 41 months. But there’s more work we can do and must do to pick up the pace. That’s why the president has been traveling the country, talking about the “better bargain for the middle class.”
Q: Since you can’t pass laws, what can you do to address these issues?
A: We can do quite a bit. We invest in skills. The Department of Labor is really the quarterback in a workforce-development system that enables businesses to get access to skilled employees and allows workers to get access to middle-class jobs.
I’ve traveled the country in my short time here on the job, talking to CEOs. The thing I hear most frequently from CEOs is: “I’m prepared to expand my workforce. I want to hire. One of my biggest challenges is I’m not seeing enough people with the right skills.”
That’s where the Department of Labor can make a difference.
Q: Specifically, what Labor Department programs can help with that?
A: We administer a number of training programs that are targeted toward veterans and all people who are unemployed, training programs that enable people to [improve their skills] and get access to jobs of the future. That is an enormously helpful way that we can meet the demand that employers have for new workers and provide upward-mobility opportunities for people.
Q: In your Labor Day speech, you talked about civil rights and labor rights being intertwined. What does that mean?
A: We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. That was a march for civil rights and labor rights. People wanted the end of school segregation, marchers wanted access to public accommodations, and marchers also wanted economic justice — including the need for a federal minimum wage that enabled people to earn a decent living. So these challenges are inextricably intertwined, and the Department of Labor is really the “department of opportunity.” Through the laws we enforce, we expand opportunity — the opportunity to earn a decent living, the opportunity to climb up the ladder of success and the opportunity to work in a safe environment and that you get paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work.
Q: You’ve been pushing for a higher minimum wage, but some economists say there are winners and losers to that approach.
A: The living-wage strikes that we’ve seen recently and the March on Washington really stand for the proposition that nobody who works a 40-hour week should have to live in poverty. Time and time again, after the minimum wage has been raised, those sky-is-falling predictions have been disproved.
I categorically reject this notion that you have to have a false choice — that the only way to create jobs in America is to create low-wage jobs with little or no benefits. It’s not that you either create low-wage jobs with no benefits or create no jobs at all.
We’ve seen instances where unions and employers and workers have come together around a common vision of a workplace in which everybody can succeed and shareholders can get an excellent return on their investment.
Q: Union numbers have been declining. Why do you think that’s happening, and what do you think you should do about the trend?
A: I think what we have to see, and what we are seeing, is an acute understanding within the labor movement that we have to tackle tomorrow’s challenges. It’s not us versus them, labor versus management. We’re all in this together and our collective job is to figure out how we bring jobs back to the United States and how we expand access to opportunities to everyone, working in partnership.
I’ve been remarkably impressed with the [job-training] partnerships I’ve observed in a number of cities between unions and businesses. In Nevada, I traveled to the Culinary Academy, which is a joint venture between the largest employers in Nevada and labor unions. I watched as people were being trained for jobs that pay a living wage. If you’re a housekeeper in a hotel in Nevada, you’re getting a living wage and health benefits. I saw a number of housekeepers who wanted to be cooks, and they were in training programs.
In New York City, the partnership between [the Service Employees International Union] and the health-care industry — I think it’s helping the health-care industry deliver better-quality health care, and it’s helping workers get access to living-wage jobs and benefit from the dignity of work. I’m bullish about the future.
Q: How can you help shape immigration policy from your position?
A: The Department of Labor is one of a number of federal agencies that play an important role in carrying out our nation’s immigration laws. Our nation’s immigration system is broken, and the president has said that repeatedly. What we need is comprehensive reform. It’s not only a law-enforcement imperative, it’s an economic imperative. If we want to create jobs or grow the coffers of the United States Treasury or extend solvency of the Social Security system, pass immigration reform.
Q: What does reform need to look like in order to achieve that growth?
A: The president has set out a number of important principles that include ensuring border security, ensuring a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who are living in the shadows, and making sure we crack down on unscrupulous employers who abuse workers for their own gain. I think these are principles that enjoy bipartisan support, and I’m confident that at the end of the day, comprehensive reform will become the law of the land if the “common-sense coalition” prevails.
Q: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has described you as a “committed ideologue.” How do you respond to that?
A: Talk to the people who know me best. I’m proud of the work that I did in Maryland [as head of the state’s labor department] with a wide array of stakeholders including business leaders, labor unions, community-based organizations, faith leaders — we worked together because we understood that we’re not going to fight yesterday’s battles, we’re all in this together. . . .
I was very proud of the support I had in the business community, the support from Democrats and Republicans alike, including the former chair of the Republican National Committee and the former chair of the Maryland Republican Party. They recognized that my approach has always been to build consensus, gather all the stakeholders and recognize that idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive.