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Perez Says, ‘Empowered Labor Movement’ Vital to Economic Security

“The labor movement,” Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez told delegates to the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles this morning, “is one of the greatest forces for middle-class economic security."

An economy that grows from the middle out can only be achieved if we continue to have a dynamic and empowered labor movement in America.

Perez also promised that the Obama administration’s Department of Labor will protect the rights of workers to join unions and collectively bargain, enforce the nation's wage and hour laws—including prevailing wage protections for construction workers—ensure safe workplaces and provide opportunities for workers to acquire the skills “to compete for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs.”

He said, “We can only have strong unions when we protect the right to collectively bargain” and the “direct relationship between the health of the middle class and the health of the labor movement is not speculation. It is historical fact.” But, he said:

We are not going to restore the American middle class if workers fear for jobs if they organize, if they face harassment and delays that make their legal rights a hollow promise. Workers' right to join together and form a union to improve their lives remains essential to a thriving middle class, and together we must defend that right….Strong unions reduce inequality and build the middle class.

To loud cheers, Perez said that right must extend “to the millions of people who work in the public sector, which has been an important stepping stone to the middle class for so many.”

The men and women who teach our kids, patrol our streets and put out our fires are too often getting a raw deal....When public employees are under the gun, it doesn't just hurt them and their families. It hurts all of us who depend on them every single day of the year.

He said one of the Labor Department’s top priorities will be “fair and aggressive enforcement of our wage and hour law,s” including “cracking down on Davis–Bacon violators, so that construction workers and contractors can receive the local prevailing wage instead of being undercut and undermined.” He said the Labor Department is now debarring egregious offenders who don't play by the rules.

Perez also said that he will use the department’s regulatory authority to ensure that workers, including but not limited to home health workers, receive full  protection of the wage and hour laws.

Perez told the convention delegates that the Obama administration is combating the unfair, illegal practice of misclassifying employers as independent contractors.

Some people call the practice ‘misclassification.’ I call it what it is: workplace fraud. Workplace fraud has three victims: the worker of course; the employers who do the right thing but find themselves undermined by an un-level playing field; and the government, which gets cheated out of unpaid taxes.

In pledging to ensure workplaces are safe and to enforce and strengthen the nation’s workplace safety laws, Perez said, “No worker should have to choose between their job and their health.”

I firmly believe it is a false choice to suggest that we can have job creation or job safety, but not both. I have spoken to many responsible business owners who recognize that their workers are their most precious resource, and that cutting corners on safety is penny-wise, pound-foolish.

Perez likened the Department of Labor to the “quarterback of our workforce development system with a lot of teammates in the huddle,” to develop skills training and apprenticeship programs, “that create win-win opportunities for employers and workers alike.”

And by the way, for the best possible example of effective apprenticeship partnerships look no further than the Building Trades, leveraging $750 million a year in private-sector money to provide state-of-the-art training that helps so many people find good work.

He also reiterated the Obama administration’s support for increasing the federal minimum wage, saying, “It’s not just the right thing to do for working people, it’s the smart thing to do to grow our economy.”

Don't believe the naysayers who claim a higher minimum wage stifles job growth. In fact, when you put more money in the pockets of working families, they don't stash it in offshore bank accounts; they spend it at the corner store and the local business. A higher minimum wage equals purchasing power and consumer demand, which equals jobs and economic growth.

Perez said that last month’s jobs report signified 42 straight months of job growth, “encouraging news, but we must do better, and President Obama knows that….We need to pick up the pace of this recovery. And that's why the president is fighting so hard.”

He wants to invest in education, skills development and human capital, so our people have the tools to succeed in a 21st century economy. He wants to invest in infrastructure—because rebuilding our roads and bridges creates good construction jobs, makes our businesses more competitive and facilitates growth across the economy. He wants to give a shot in the arm to manufacturing and bring those jobs back to our shores, because we prosper in America when we make things in America.

He said that one of the most important components to achieving economic recovery is “faith in the power of innovative partnerships, the idea that different stakeholders working together can build a whole greater than the sum of its individual parts.” 

He asked:

That's the theme of this convention, right? We are stronger when everyone who cares about the rights of workers stands together….If there’s one thing I know about the AFL-CIO, it’s that you’re ready to work. You’ll be there, and I’ll be there with you.

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