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U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez inspires UAW delegates at opening of 2014 UAW National Community Action Program Conference

02/03/14

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U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, left, with UAW Washington Office Director Mary Beth Cahill, President Bob King and Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams, said raising the minimum wage will be a priority for the Obama administration this year. Photo by Jenny Sarabia.

By Joan Silvi and Vince Piscopo

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 1,500 active and retired UAW members gathered at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington on Sunday to begin the union’s 2014 National Community Action Program (CAP) Legislative Conference, which runs through Wednesday.

Delegates gathered to discuss political and legislative goals crucial to the UAW in 2014, prepare for upcoming elections, and meet with congressional representatives to discuss issues important to working families.

After an eloquent invocation from the Rev. Stephanie Nagley, delegates kicked off the busy week with an address from U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, the nation’s 26th labor secretary. Perez took office July 23, 2013. Perez brought delegates to their feet with a standing ovation during his speech.

Perez let the delegates know the Obama administration is on their side and that the administration is proud to work hand in hand with the UAW on not only advancing labor rights of workers but all issues of social justice.

“The UAW and all Americans have a tradition of moving forward and solving problems, no matter what the odds are,” said Perez. “That is the essence of the UAW. You understand that we’re all in this together and that we succeed only when we all succeed.”

Colleen Brogdan and Myra Gay were ready to get started at the opening
day of the 2014 UAW National Community Action Program (CAP) Conference in Washington. Photo by Jenny Sarabia.

Perez then acknowledged the vision of UAW President Bob King and how much it has meant not only for the UAW but for workers all over the world. “Bob King is the gold standard of leaders,” said Perez. “Not just labor leaders, but all leaders.”

Perez told delegates they are here to make the world a better place and “the UAW has always been a part of that movement,” said the labor secretary. He also acknowledged the progressive leadership roles women have taken within the UAW. “I am proud to see all the women in UAW leadership positions in the UAW all across the country,” said Perez.

Perez told the audience about his Dominican Republic heritage combined with his upbringing in Buffalo, N. Y., one that he said shaped his family and showed him how wise his hardworking father was even though he did not have a college degree. “My father was the wisest man I knew. The values I learned from him in Buffalo were about expanding opportunity, values that have always been with the UAW, and that’s why our president loves working with you,” he said.

Perez praised the UAW for advocating for income fairness and equality for all workers and not just UAW members, saying the fight to raise the minimum wage is one that is even more necessary in 2014. “Nobody who works a full-time job should have to live in poverty,” said Perez. He shared a grim statistic to illustrate the plight of many low-wage workers in the United States today. “One third of bank tellers are on some form of public assistance. We have a structure where the federal government is subsidizing the wages of low-wage workers,” said Perez. “Our minimum wage reflects our values as a nation.”

Perez urged delegates to continue working for income equality even though the number of new manufacturing jobs created has continued to increase for the past 46 consecutive months. “FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) called the minimum wage act the second most important bill after Social Security,” he said, emphasizing the importance of raising all incomes to further strengthen the improving economy for all and to reduce the still chronic level of unemployment for some in the U.S.

Perez also said collective bargaining and unionization of the workforce is the best ticket out of poverty, citing a 2013 statistic that the median weekly earnings of a union member was $950 while for nonunion members it was $750. “Collective bargaining is a critical component of making sure that everyone has access to opportunity both here and abroad,” he said. “UAW President Bob King recognizes that to increase union membership we need to build strategic partnerships around the world,” added Perez, stressing the importance of global alliances. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. That’s what the UAW always recognized,” he said.

Perez also touched on immigration reform and the battle that’s ahead in 2014, urging delegates to support the Obama administration through the tough discussions with lawmakers that are ahead. “I am tired of naysayers who only say what they are against,” he said about anti-Obama legislators who oppose the administration’s repeated initiatives for cooperation.

“We need to pick up the pace,” said Perez. “We will use every tool in our arsenal to accomplish that. We ARE the UAW!” he said as the delegates, rose to their feet in applause and appreciation.

President King thanked Perez for his remarks afterward, telling delegates “Tom speaks truth to power. He talks about unions to everyone, not just labor audiences. He’s a great fighter and a great friend, Tom Perez,” said King.

Benjamin Taylor
Benjamin Taylor: Government, management and labor must work together. Photo by Vince Piscopo.

Benjamin Taylor, the vice president of UAW Local 913, said he appreciated Perez’s comments about work councils. Before he hired in at KBI, a ball bearings manufacturer in Sandusky, Ohio, he had the opportunity to observe the process in Germany while employed at another company.

“I liked when he talked about working together – the government, business and unions – to do what’s best for the country,” said Taylor, a material handler and visual inspector. “That’s the only way it’s going to work.” Taylor, whose wife is a cancer survivor, also appreciated the secretary’s comments on strengthening the Family Medical Leave Act.

“I know how important that is from a personal perspective,” he added.

Taylor will be on the Hill on Tuesday to lobby for legislation that would address foreign ball bearing manufacturers that are selling below cost in an effort to control the market.

Leslie Hopper: Perez learned the value of organized labor from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Photo by Vince Piscopo.

Leslie Hopper, a former Local 1413 member in Huntsville, Ala., and the current Alabama State CAP chair, said UAW members’ hard work in re-electing President Obama allowed him to nominate a labor secretary who understands and appreciates organized labor. 

“Perez learned his values from Senator (Ted) Kennedy who believed the health of organized labor and the middle class go hand in hand,” Hopper said. “Wages and benefits rise and decline based on union membership and that’s why we must continue our fight for collective bargaining.” 

Sharon Masino: If you work a full-time job, you ought to be able to provide for your family. Photo by Vince Piscopo.

Sharon Masino, the president of Local 3170 in Atlantic City, N.J., said she knows people who have two jobs with no benefits and cannot make ends meet. She agreed with Perez, who told delegates that the Obama administration was ready to fight for a raise in the minimum wage.

“If you have a full-time job, you should be able to provide for your family,” the dealer at Harrah’s casino said. “If we didn’t have the benefits we had when my husband got sick, we would have lost everything we had.”

President King will give the conference keynote address Monday and Vice President Joe Biden will wrap up the conference with an address on Wednesday.

Delegates also will spend Tuesday on Capitol Hill visiting members of Congress to talk about issues facing workers this year.