Union leaders like Obama’s choice for labor secretary

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. -A top union leader who worked closely with Thomas Perez, President Obama's nominee to be the nation's next Secretary of Labor, says Perez can bring labor and progressive firms together, as Perez did in Maryland.

Creating such alliances is one reason Perez "was a great secretary" of Labor, Licensing and Regulation in Maryland, adds Fred D. Mason, Jr., president of the Maryland-D.C. AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for the state's unions.

"Plus, he understands workers' rights are human rights, and he's a human rights advocate," Mason adds of Perez, whom he worked with for years.

On March 18, Obama named Perez, now assistant attorney general for civil rights, to succeed Hilda Solis in the U.S. Labor Department's top job. Solis left on Jan. 5. Perez held the state labor post from 2006-2009, before the Justice Department post. He was in Justice's Civil Rights Division before, and was a Montgomery County, Md. councilman - its first Hispanic-named council member - from 2002-2006.

Mason said Perez was not only "very capable, but he understands federal, state, and local government" and forged "good relationships" with unions. Perez served under pro-worker Gov. Martin O'Malley, a potential 2016 Democratic presidential hopeful.

Perez also forged relationships with business, Mason said. He understands "you need to compromise" to get pro-worker measures through legislatures. Compromise has been notably lacking in the Nation's Capitol, at least as far as Congress' ruling Republicans are concerned.

One top initiative Perez and Mason worked on together was to convince the Maryland legislature to crack down on employers who misclassify workers as "independent contractors," depriving them of rights and benefits and the state of tax revenue. The other was to shift adult job training programs from the state Education Department - which concentrates on K-12 schools - to the Labor Department, and to fund them. Perez also revived budgets for state labor law enforcement, Mason said.

Perez "understands the American economy and the role businesses have in it," Mason explains. "But he insists workers have value and it should be respected." And Perez believes "it would be a mistake to put all businesses in an anti-worker box. Tom, because of his studied and deliberate approach to individual issues will identify employers who want to move forward and work with unions and workers, Mason says.

Jeff Buddle, a vice president of the Maryland Fire Fighters and president of IAFF Local 1664 in Montgomery County, agreed.

Perez "was a champion" of Fire Fighters and other protective service workers while on the county council, Buddle said. "He was always one of our biggest supporters, finding money not just for staffing, but for apparatus, too. I can't think of any instance where we were disappointed" by Perez' stands.

National union leaders also praised Obama's selection of Perez for the top Labor Department job.

"He can be a great Secretary of Labor, and we'll have his back" during Senate confirmation hearings and beyond, Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger said on March 18 during his union's legislative conference in D.C.

"At a time when our politics tilts so heavily towards corporations and the very wealthy, our country needs leaders like Perez to champion the cause of ordinarily working people," added AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.  He said Perez would be "a strong advocate" for workers, their protections, and their right to organize.

Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, cited Perez' civil rights work in lauding the nomination. Her organization advocates for and represents many low-income and minority-group member workers.

Perez is "a strong advocate for working Americans, particularly low-wage, and immigrant workers," she said. "This choice sends a clear message the administration is looking out for our nation's most vulnerable workers.

"Given Perez's credentials, we urge Congress to pursue a swift confirmation process so the agency can move forward with its agenda and implement critical policies, including the proposed rule extending minimum wage, overtime and other Fair Labor Standards Act rights to the 2.5 million caregivers working without labor protections in the United States.

"We know Tom Perez will continue to stand up for working people, putting their interests at the top of the agenda. We look forward to working together to ensure that the basic rights and safeguards of labor law are extended to all workers in this country and modernized to reflect the rapidly shifting nature of work in America."

But Southern Senate Republicans are already criticizing Perez' civil rights record, showing labor may have to mobilize to help him get the DOL job.

Photo: President Obama applauds after announcing he would nominate Thomas Perez (right) for labor secretary.   Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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