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Sunday, 25 February 2018
Labor Secretary on Big Business & Power of the Press
Monday, 20 June 2016

In a speech that focused largely on the Verizon strike and the new overtime rule, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez also managed to salute the power of the press.


Speaking Wednesday morning to the 2016 CWA Legislative-Political conference near Capitol Hill, Perez noted that his involvement in helping bring the 45-day Verizon strike to an end last month wasn’t “the first time I have spent a fair amount of time with CWA.”

While serving on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland more than a decade ago, he said, CWA activists approached him about writing a letter to Comcast to ask the cable giant to remain neutral in the union’s organizing drive.

"I thought about it for a nanosecond and I said, ‘of course,’” Perez said, recalling his days growing up in the “good union town” of Buffalo, N.Y., and having a Teamster as a surrogate father after his dad died.

“So I was happy to do that,” Perez said. “I wrote the letter to Comcast, along with a colleague of mine, and this may come as a surprise to you, but they did not remain neutral in that campaign. Not only did they not remain neutral, when the dispute went to the NLRB, I was on vacation one August and I got a call from my assistant. She was very flustered.”

She told him that he’d been subpoenaed by Comcast in the labor dispute. “What should we do?” she asked nervously.

“I said, ‘Get me the number of the reporter from The Washington Post.’”

The next day or so in the Metro section was a story about Comcast subpoenaing Perez and another county commissioner, and their reply, that they wouldn’t be bullied by the company.

“And they withdrew the subpoenas,” Perez said triumphantly.

The company wasn't finished with Perez, though. Executives found out he was a University of Maryland fan and invited him to the company’s box at the Comcast Center. “I can get my own tickets to Maryland games,” he told them.

He described that series of events as his first CWA “foxhole,” with the most recent being the Verizon strike involving 40,000 CWA and IBEW members in the northeast.

Workers had been on the picket lines for more than four weeks when Perez called both union’s presidents and Verizon’s CEO and asked if they would meet with him at the Department of Labor.

Over the next 13 days, negotiating teams effectively set up camp at the DOL.

“We had some good days and some bad days, but we were all in that room together,” Perez said. “What I will never forget is the passion, the commitment and the spirit of constructive engagement.”

He described the final result, with many issues resolved in the union’s favor a “win-win” for both sides. For CWA and IBEW, the victory includes 1,300 new East Coast call center jobs, reversal of several outsourcing initiatives and raises totaling 10.9 percent over four years.

Introducing Perez at the conference, CWA President Chris Shelton said the labor secretary’s outreach was what “began to break the logjam of the Verizon negotiations.”

“I cannot over emphasize how essential he was to helping us reach an agreement. How gracious he and his staff were, when they literally opened up his offices to us and the company,” Shelton said. “Tom stuck with us into the wee hours of the night. He was effective. He was smart. He was open. He was creative. He was tough and he was honest.”

Perez said he wanted CWA members to know how “exceedingly well represented” they were by CWA’s leaders, negotiators and lawyers during the talks.

“Collective bargaining is sometimes messy but I’ll tell you, collective bargaining to me is one of the most important forces that has brought us the middle class in this country.”

The marathon bargaining inside the DOL wasn’t the only major work going on at the time, Perez said, citing the department’s May 18 announcement of changes that will make millions more Americans eligible for overtime.

The problem with the rule as it stood was that the companies were too easily able to classify workers as “management,” working them 60 or 70 hours a week with no overtime.

He explained that “the threshold that separated overtime-eligible workers from overtime-exempt workers,” hadn’t been indexed for inflation. “So if we just go back to when Gerald Ford was president, and we indexed that threshold that was there in 1975 to today, the threshold would be something like $58,000 a year.”

In reality, without the new rule, the threshold is “$23,000 and change,” he said. Further making a mess of things was a George W. Bush-era regulation that “took all the leverage from workers and gave it to employers. So what happened, you can now work 70 hours a week, 99 percent of your time is stocking shelves, one percent is management, and under that new ‘duties test’ you are a manager.”

The changes, which go into effect Dec. 1, will help more than 13 million people by either raising their wages or giving them time that they might otherwise be spending working unpaid hours.

“Middle-class jobs deserve a middle-class wage,” Perez said. “There is no freedom in working for free, my friends.”

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