In recent days, colleagues have asked me to write about the near-collapse of the economy. My first response was to decline – recognizing all too well that I, like most of our nation’s leaders, was not entirely clear about what was going on. I’ve always been a big believer that wisdom is about knowing when to keep your mouth shut (or fingers away from the keyboard). As Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is counted wise. When he shuts his lips, he is thought to be discerning.”
Although I must admit that I am still not completely clear about what all has occurred and has not occurred, I am more convinced than ever that we need a Secretary of Labor who cares about workers and who will at least try to address issues faced by workers. Unfortunately for the nation, we have a Secretary of Labor who is missing in action.
When the unemployment figures came out last week, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao issued a one-sentence statement: “Today’s employment report provides further evidence of the need for the House of Representatives to pass an economic rescue package today, before it adjourns, which will protect Main Street America and mitigate further job loss.” That’s it. That’s all she could muster on the subject.
The day before, she’d given a lengthy speech to the Chamber of Commerce decrying the “Europeanization” of the workplace and denigrating unions. Meanwhile, her Wage and Hour Administrator, Alexander Passantino, claims the division is doing a great job enforcing wage and hour laws. I’m sure the Education and Training Administrator says the agency is doing a great job there too. Throughout Chao’s speeches over the last year, she’s been claiming what a great job the Bush administration is doing for working people. Well, the emperor has no clothes.
In the midst of the economic meltdown, dramatically rising unemployment figures, military-style immigration raids in workplaces, employers stealing wages like there’s no tomorrow, young people unprepared for today’s jobs –- let alone tomorrow’s –- and assaults against unions and the right to organize at an all-time high, we need a Secretary of Labor who sees it as his or her job to protect workers. Even if she can’t do anything, she could at least reach out and talk with workers. The Secretary of Labor must be the preacher in the bully pulpit for better working conditions for all the nation’s workers.
Regardless of who wins the presidential election, we need a secretary of labor who thinks and acts like Frances Perkins.
Perkins was the secretary of labor appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 to help him address the economic crisis left by eight years of Coolidge and Hoover leadership. She came to Washington, D.C., with a mission – in her words, to serve God, FDR, and the working man. She came with a vision. She wanted to get people back to work, pass national standards for wage payment, and establish a social security system. She and her colleagues created the jobs programs that built many of our nation’s parks and bridges, she passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, the most comprehensive wage protection law in the nation, and she helped design the Social Security System.
Learning from Perkins’ lessons, here’s what the new secretary of labor should do:
First, advocate stopping the workplace immigration raids. When Perkins took over, the Department of Labor was responsible for workplace raids and she stopped them immediately. They were wrong then and they are wrong today. Although the Department of Homeland Security, not Labor, has jurisdiction for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Labor secretary should speak forcefully against this intimidation of workers that is a gross waste of taxpayer money.
Second, enforce the wage and hour laws in meaningful ways. Employers are stealing billions of dollars annually from the paychecks of millions of workers. Wage theft is a national crisis and the Department of Labor is asleep at the wheel. Just as an unregulated banking industry has brought forth catastrophe, unregulated workplaces have enabled employers to steal wages from workers on a mass scale. In 1941, Perkins had 1,500 investigators in the field visiting 12 percent of the country’s workplaces to ensure that employers were paying people legally. Today, with more than 10 times as many workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, there are half as many investigators. Employers know that the chances of getting caught stealing wages is minuscule and that if they are caught, the consequences are insignificant. The secretary must go after wage theft. What better economic stimulus for the society than workers getting the wages they are owed and spending them in their communities?
Third, lead the charge in supporting unemployed workers. Unemployment insurance should be available widely to workers, and job-creation strategies should be pursued aggressively, both through public incentives for private job creation and public jobs programs. Let’s create those green jobs everyone is talking about.
Fourth, commit to developing the 21st-century supports America’s workers need. Perkins focused on putting in place social security for America’s workers. Today we need a national health care program. Forty-seven million workers and their families without health care is not in the best interest of workers or the nation as a whole. The secretary of labor should play a role in guaranteeing health care to all Americans.
Fifth, support the fundamental rights of all workers to organize into unions of their choice. Although Perkins wasn’t the first choice of labor unions for secretary, she overcame their hesitations with her steadfast support for workers’ rights to organize in the workplace. Elaine Chao, in contrast, has used her public voice to attack the Employee Free Choice Act, the most significant labor law reform to come along in decades.
When the economy is in shambles, it is America’s workers who take the biggest hit. Perhaps in the coming weeks and months, we will all understand better what has happened to our economy. But as we move forward as a nation in addressing the crisis, we need a secretary of labor who knows workers, cares for their concerns, and speaks up for them. Our current secretary of labor is missing in action. We need to put the “labor” back in secretary of labor.[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Sojourners magazine blog God’s Politics.]