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U.S. Dept. of Labor Secretary to Alaskans: Send Strong Signal to the Nation on Workers Rights

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For the past few days, U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has been visiting Alaska. Yesterday, while in Fairbanks, he stopped by Gulliver’s Books and Second Story Cafe, where owners afford employees a starting pay of $11 per hour. Then he accompanied Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) to the Fairbanks Pipeline Training Center to take part in a graduation ceremony for veterans who had completed a welding class.

Today, he’ll be back in Washington D.C., hopping on a red eye flight back to the capital to be on hand when the president signs a bipartisan bill reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act. Both of Alaska’s senators and Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) supported the measure. But before Perez left, he made one final stop in Anchorage, to address labor groups at the new campaign offices on 1st Avenue. The new hub will serve as a place to coordinate different campaign efforts, like the initiative to increase the minimum wage and the referendum vote on Anchorage Ordinance 37 (AO37).

“Our very existence as unions has been put to the test and threatened,” Alaska AFL-CIO president Vince Beltrami told the crowd during his introduction. “We have been identified as the number one target in the country for “Right to Work” legislation. And AO37… essentially was the first shot across the bow that we’ve seen in Alaska, that’s really coming after workers’ rights and the ability to collectively bargain.”

While Beltrami spoke, Perez took it upon himself to pick up a sign seen in countless front yards, dotting Anchorage, over recent months. He placed the red and black sign, with white lettering spelling out a simple message: “We proudly support Anchorage city workers,” on a ledge adjacent to the podium. The crowd of a hundred or so cheered wildly.

Perez is the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, born and raised in Buffalo, New York. He told onlookers that it was that upbringing, and his father’s service in the U.S. Army, that called him to public service and inspired his devotion to the labor movement.

“I’m a strong supporter of the union movement because I’ve read history,” he said. “And you look at the health of the middle class and you look at the health of the labor movement and they go hand in hand. They fit like a glove. America has always been at its best when we have had strong labor unions, a strong labor movement, the right to collective bargaining. That’s when America is at its best.”

He made sure to tout Alaska’s union membership specifically, noting that Alaska is second only to his home state of New York in terms of union representation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23.1 percent of Alaskan workers are union members — well above the national average of just 11.3 percent of employed wage and salary earners. Accordingly, he addressed the current attempt to curb union power in the state’s largest city.

I hope you will send a strong signal about this effort to take Ohio and Wisconsin to scale. And you know, folks are watching this. Not just here in Alaska but across the country. Because people want to continue this frontal assault on collective bargaining. And so you have a real opportunity here in Alaska to say to the rest of the country: No.

Perez said that that “strong signal” should include the November ballot initiative to increase the state’s minimum wage. Beltrami noted that Alaska had boasted the highest minimum wage of any state for four decades, but now was on pace to drop to nineteenth by September. “We have so many people in this state and in this country who are working a full time job and living in poverty,” he said, before raising his voice and adding sharply: “Nobody who works a full time job should have to live in poverty. Nobody.”

Especially, said Perez, when it comes to veterans. According to numbers from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, Alaska’s unemployment rate for veterans is above the national average, at 6.4 percent as of May. Many more are working low wage jobs. “I have met so many veterans across this country who are struggling; who are working minimum wage jobs,” Perez charged. “It’s so many veterans who gave so much to this country and are now living from paycheck to paycheck, making choices between a gallon of milk and a gallon of gas. That’s not who we are as a nation. I refuse to allow America to enter another Gilded Age.”

He implored those gathered to keep working toward an increase in the state minimum wage, and promised to keep working on the national level. Perez drew attention to proposed federal legislation aimed at increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, put forth by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-California). That bill, however, has stalled in Congress.

Perez said that the nation was suffering from a “consumption-deprived recovery,” where employees make too little to make the purchases that stimulate economic growth. He said that a big part of the solution would be an end to taxpayers subsidizing the very successful corporations who continue to pay low wages to their employees.

“It’s about making a statement to our children,” he said. “That when you work hard and play by the rules you can earn a decent living, you can have a roof over your head, you can have health care security, you can go on vacation once in a while, you can have a nest egg and have some retirement security. That’s the basic bargain for the middle class.”