WASHINGTON – With a bruising confirmation battle long behind him and a ceremonial swearing-in just ended, Snyder native Thomas E. Perez on Wednesday vowed to put job creation first as he takes full charge of the Department of Labor.
“I love this job, because the Department of Labor can, must, will, does play a critical role in expanding opportunity,” Perez, who officially became labor secretary July 22, said to a crowd of 800 that gathered to see him place a hand on a Bible held by his son, Rafael, and take the oath of office from Vice President Biden.
“Boiled down to its essence, the Department of Labor is the department of opportunity,” he added. “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.”
To hear Biden tell it, Perez is just the man for the task.
“I am absolutely confident that you are going to do an enormously important job here, and do it in a way that will make everyone proud,” Biden told Perez.
Perez praised his hometown while vowing to fight for jobs, worker rights and workplace safety.
Saying he was proud of his Buffalo roots, Perez added: “It’s the City of Good Neighbors, where people take care of each other rather than looking out for No. 1, where it’s about building a community for everyone.”
Perez said he has spent his first weeks on the job traveling the country and meeting with workers, employers and educators to discuss his plans for the department.
Formerly assistant attorney general for civil rights and labor secretary in Maryland, Perez won Senate confirmation in July after a months-long confirmation process in which Republicans tried to brand him as a liberal ideologue.
In an interview last week, Perez, 51, made clear that he plans on being anything but that as he confronts what he says is the Labor Department’s No. 1 issue: “Jobs, jobs and jobs.”
“I’m looking forward to working with everyone in the same way that I worked in Maryland and throughout my life, working together to find common ground – because job creation should never be a partisan issue,” he said. “We’re all in this together. Democrats have lost jobs. Republicans have lost jobs. We’re all Americans, and we all need and are entitled to have those ladders of opportunity.”
As labor secretary, Perez runs a sprawling department that oversees everything from job training to union organizing to workplace safety.
And while promising a strong focus on all those areas, Perez said in the interview that modernizing the nation’s workforce-training programs will be a top priority.
“The most frequent feedback I hear from employers now is that I have openings, but too many people are walking in the door who don’t have the skills to compete for those jobs,” he said. “And we can, at the Department of Labor, be the quarterback in a nimble workforce development system that’s responsive to the needs of employers and enables workers to move up that ladder of opportunity by getting the skills they need to succeed.”
The government hasn’t paid enough attention in the past to creating a “demand-driven” workforce-training system, Perez said. But that’s just what he intends to do, working with Congress to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act and within the department to make sure that federal job-training programs are targeted to the jobs the economy is producing.
“If an organization has a great program to train widget-makers, but there’s no demand for widget makers and no employer is hiring a widget maker, then why are you wasting your money?” he asked.
Meanwhile, Perez vowed to be tough in enforcing the nation’s labor and workplace safety laws.
“Nobody should ever enter a workplace understanding that every day I enter is another day or two off the end of my life,” he said.
Perez also vowed to be aggressive in pushing for higher wages.
“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,” he told the crowd at the Labor Department.
Such talk has prompted labor leaders to praise Perez – while causing some business leaders to voice concerns.
“I think Tom Perez is going to make an outstanding labor secretary,” said Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “All we want him to do is to enforce the law and protect workers’ rights. That’s the charge that he has. And I have every reason to believe, given his history and what he’s done in his previous positions, that he will do that.”
But Randel K. Johnson, senior vice president for labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he’s concerned that Perez may push too far for regulations that make it easier for workers to join unions.
“We’re concerned, we’re watching, and we’re going to do what we can. But we hope to be very cooperative and have a good relationship, also,” Johnson said.
Perez is the first permanent Cabinet secretary from the Buffalo area since the late Rep. Jack F. Kemp, R-Hamburg, who served as secretary of housing and urban development from 1989 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush. Maria Cino, a Republican political operative from Western New York, served briefly as interim transportation secretary under President George W. Bush.
Perez’s parents were immigrants from the Dominican Republic who settled in Snyder after his father, a doctor, got a job at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Perez’s father died when he was 12, leaving his mother and a strong support network of family friends to raise five children – four of whom became doctors while the other became a lawyer who’s now the labor secretary.
“I’m just so proud, and so happy for the country,” said Dr. Jose G. Perez-Brache, a doctor at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. “He’s going to get things done. Whether you’re Democrat, Republican, independent, tea party, he’s going to get things done for you.”
Perez, who graduated from Canisius High School, left Buffalo to attend Brown University and then Harvard Law School, relying on Pell grants and “Perez grants” from his brothers to get by, he said.
He later served at the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration and as an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. After his tenure as Maryland’s secretary of labor, licensing and regulation, he worked on President Obama’s transition team.
Emotionally, though, he has never left Buffalo.
“Buffalo will always be near and dear to my heart,” he said in the interview. “It’s my home.”
And as he looked forward to his new job, Perez recalled the man he calls his surrogate father, the late Guy Colangelo, who helped raise him after his father died – and who could have benefitted from the kind of job-training programs Perez is now pushing.
“When I think about the job of the secretary of labor, I think about people like my surrogate father, who had a 10th-grade education, lived in Buffalo, was a Teamster and when some of the jobs dried up, he ended up going from low-wage job to low-wage job,” Perez said. “He lost his home, at times felt like he may have lost his dignity. And it’s what motivates me every day to succeed.”
Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez has set these goals in office:
• Developing “a demand-driven workforce investment system” that modernizes job training.
• Ensuring “a safe and level playing field for American workers.”
• Gaining passage and implementation of immigration reform.
• Building better ties with businesses, labor unions, other federal agencies, and state and local governments.
• Raising the minimum wage and pushing for other policies “that honor the dignity of work.”