Upon his election as Democratic National Committee Chairman on February 25th, Tom Perez was met with protests by many on the left, who saw his victory over progressive-favorite Keith Ellison as a victory for the establishment.
“What the DNC chair’s race revealed is an unwillingness from many Democratic Party elites to allow anyone who isn’t in the club—especially anyone who backed Bernie Sanders—to control the levers of power in the party,” the Working Families Party wrote in an email to its tens of thousands of members this week.
Perez was criticized for backing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016, and refusing to support a ban on the DNC accepting donations from corporate lobbyists.
Despite being considered a groundbreaking Labor Secretary, the overwhelming majority of labor unions opposed his DNC chairmanship. Indeed, many progressives argued that without the support of corporate lobbyists voting in the DNC election, Perez would not have won the election.
Perez immediately attempted to assuage fears by pledging to be more inclusive. He appointed Rep. Ellison (D-MN) as Deputy Chair of the DNC. In an interview with the Minnesota Star Tribune, Perez said that he wanted to make Ellison “the face of the Democratic Party.”
While many may dismiss Perez’s appointment of Ellison as mere posturing, those who who know Perez say it’s genuine and indicative of something much deeper in Perez’s track record.
Supporters say that Perez’s appointment of Ellison follows the management style Perez has used throughout his career, as a board member of immigrant worker center CASA de Maryland, as the county councilman for the hippie enclave of Takoma Park in suburban Maryland, as the head of Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and, most recently, as the leader of the Department of Labor.
Many say that the low-key, bespectacled Buffalo native is poised to mend a fractured party, given his experiences turning around the conservative, Bush-era Civil Rights Division and achieving a record turnaround in employee morale at the Department of Labor, where he bent to progressive protests for the agency to do more for workers through executive action.
A deeper look at Perez’s career paints a picture of a leader who has gone out of his way to focus on inclusion and dialogue instead of infighting. People who know Perez portray him as a leader that is responsive to grassroots concerns, bringing ideas from the left into the Democratic center to reform policies or practices activists had long fought to change.
“Tom is not the type who likes to surround himself with ‘yes men.’ If there was a problem, Tom wanted to hear about it,” says Jordan Barab, who served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA under both Tom Perez and his predecessor Hilda Solis. “He knows that it doesn’t do any good to cover things up.”
Perez Responds to Picket Lines of Federal Contractors
Three executive orders issued at the Department of Labor during Perez’s time as Labor Secretary show how Perez helped turn grassroots activism into policy.
In 2014, the Obama Administration issued an executive order raising the wages of all federal contractors to $10.10 an hour. That same year, the Obama Administration issued “The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” executive order, which created a process for denying federal money to contractors who violated labor and safety laws.
Finally, in 2015, the administration issued another executive order for all federal contractors to give at least seven days of paid sick leave to all their workers.
However, it wasn’t easy to get the Administration to agree to issue these executive orders. For the first four years of the Obama presidency, Administration officials resisted labor’s pressure.
“They said it was illegal, they said we are gonna get attacked by the business interests,” says Joseph Geevarghese, the campaign director for Good Jobs Nation and Good Jobs Defenders.
A 2013 study by the labor-funded think tank Demos estimated that federal contractors employed nearly 2 million “low-wage” workers, defined as making less than $12 an hour or $24,000 a year. Labor groups pointed out that the federal government employed more low-wage workers than Wal-Mart or McDonald’s. Yet, they still found themselves frustrated when trying to get the Obama Administration to take executive action to fix the problem.
Groups like Good Jobs Nation and Change to Win began to organize workers at federal contractors to put pressure on the Administration. They even began to organize picket lines outside of federal buildings to draw attention to the problem. As co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Ellison quickly aligned himself with the movement and started attending picket lines.
“Mr. President, raise my people’s wages,” shouted Ellison at a rally for the group’s very first strike of federal contract workers during the Obama Administration in May 2013. Ellison would go on to attend dozens of picket lines in an attempt to ratchet up pressure on Obama to finally do something through executive action.
Instead of Perez shutting Ellison out, he invited him in.
“Once workers hit the streets and once people like Perez were in the Labor Department, people’s view changed,” says Geevarghese.
Nine months into office as Labor Secretary, Perez pleasantly surprised labor leaders when Obama announced in his January 2014 State of the Union that a new executive order would raise all federal contractor wages to $10.10 an hour.
“The Administration, and specifically Secretary Perez, worked closely with and listened closely with Mr. Ellison and the Progressive Caucus as we moved forward on initiatives [to help] federal contract workers and hold federal contractors accountable,” former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs Adri Jayaratne told Payday. “Tom always made sure that everyone’s voices were heard on every issue whether or not they were in agreement. He felt that was a responsibility he had to have.”
Many in labor are hoping that the Perez-Ellison relationship at the DNC will follow a similar pattern.
“The Perez-Ellison combination could be a dynamic duo. The truth is that those two worked together to get the most progressive federal labor policy done in decades,” says Geevarghese. “It was Ellison, who stood on the picket lines to call attention to the need to raise standards for contract workers, while it was Secretary Perez on the inside who listened to the workers, who met with these workers, listened to these workers, and helped craft those executive orders.”
Bureaucratic Lessons on Avoiding Purges & Civil War
In taking over the DNC, Perez is facing the biggest challenge of his career. As DNC Chair, he is inheriting a network of national, state, and local parties at a time of great divisions between left-wing and establishment Democrats. Many fear that a civil war could bog Democrats down in time-consuming fights at a moment when they need to be expanding their organizing reach to take back the House and Senate in 2018.
However, those who saw Perez’s ability to turn around previously fractured agencies think he’s game for the challenge.
“As bad as the situation may be at the DNC, it can’t possibly be as bad as it was at the [Department of Justice’s] Civil Rights Division,” says Sasha Samberg-Champion, an appellate lawyer who worked as a civil servant during Perez’s tenure at DOJ.
Under the Bush Administration, the Civil Rights Division had declined to prosecute cases of police brutality abuses and predatory lending, and did not enforce the Olmstead decision, which barred segregation of the disabled. When Perez took office, many expected Perez to clean house of the lawyers from the Bush Era.
Instead of engaging in a costly purge of Bush holdovers, Perez tried to figure out creative ways to get everyone engaged in fulfilling the Department’s core mission of enforcing civil rights law.
“He went out of his way to make sure everything was fair and everyone was rigorously listened to,” Samberg-Champion. “All the line attorneys were being listened to very closely. That was the culture he had.”
Samberg-Champion said that this culture did not just extend to Obama-era newcomers like himself, but also to Bush holdovers.
“Somehow, he was able to get people to get on the same page and do really meaningful work,” says Samberg-Champion. “The culture at that time was that we will find a way for you to contribute.”
Unprecedented Results for the Disabled at DOJ
Avoiding massive purges, Perez was able to keep the Department together and achieve results unprecedented for a democratic administration. In addition to these groundbreaking achievements, Perez oversaw implementation of the Matthew Shepard and James Bryd Jr. hate crime legislation.
However, Perez achieved one of his most significant breakthroughs in eliminating the segregation of the disabled. To do it, he had to take on America’s largest public-sector unions.
In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead vs. L.C. vs. E.C. that the State of Georgia could not forcibly institutionalize the disabled when medical professionals ruled that it would be better for them to live in community settings. During the Bush era, Olmstead went unenforced. However, when Perez took over in 2009, he went after states that continued to institutionalize the disabled against the wishes of medical professionals.
He sued states to change their policies and used the settlement policy to effect broader, sweeping treatment of the disabled. He even sued the administrations of Democratic governors in Illinois, New York, Oregon and Delaware.
“DOJ had not done this. This definitely upset some people,” says Alison Barkoff, who served as Perez’s Special Counsel on Olmstead Enforcement, a position in the Civil Rights division that he created.
To smooth over the transition, DOJ conducted community forums with stakeholders to figure out ways to achieve change with less resistance.
“What he really built there was real community engagement, really going out and engaging the community,” says Barkoff. “He would say that you need to set up community meetings, not just people who support that we are doing, but most importantly with people who have concerns.”
Perez made the case to public-sector unions that while defunding institutionalization may hurt their members it could also help their members by investing more heavily in community support programs.
“I think SEIU was hesitant at first, but now is definitely on board” says Barkoff.
Perez’s ability to bolster morale while achieving creative results on everything from disability policy to fair lending to criminal justice reform won him rare reviews at justice.
“When I was there, morale at the Civil Rights division was very, very high,” says Samberg-Champion. “Tom was the biggest cheerleader for people in the division. That’s how people knew him, both in meetings and in the vibe of the place. It was a very exciting place to be.”
Record Improvement in Morale at DOL
Perez’s legacy of improving morale was most noted during his time at the Department of Labor (DOL). When Perez took over at DOL, morale at the department was ranked 17th lowest of 19 federal agencies, according to U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.
Immediately upon taking power, Perez conducted town hall meetings with DOL employees. He toured the country, attempting to talk to as many of the agency’s 17,000 employees as possible. He studied the results of surveys, often calling low-level labor officials in to discuss them further.
Unlike many agency heads, who only hold town halls when they first come into office, Perez kept doing them continuously throughout his term.
“He was always focused on how we do get the maximum participation out of everyone,” says Barab.
The work paid off.
At the end of Perez’s term, morale had risen from 17th out of 19 agencies to tied for 6th overall.
“He’s open to allowing people to experiment with new ideas, and then share best practices throughout an organization,” says Chris Lu, who served as Perez’s Deputy Secretary of Labor. “He also understands that you can’t have a one-size-fits-all model in large organizations.”
Perez liked to use DOL forums to not just move the agency’s agenda forward, but also to help bolster the causes of advocacy groups by highlighting the stories of individual workers in the media.
“He is very much a listening leader,” says Ari Ne’eman, founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. “He was never an impersonal figure. In some departments that I have dealt with, the secretary is the figure in the background. Tom, as a leader, is someone who maintains a close relationship with the lives of the people his work impacts.”
Such close relationships with activists and the grassroots leads to a lack of defensiveness by Perez when asked to make major changes, according to some who have worked with him.
In 2014, when the Obama Administration issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10, the initial draft excluded a key group: disabled workers. Under the 14C exemption to the Fair Labor Standards, disabled workers employed in so-called “sheltered workshops” as part of job training programs, which receive federal funding, are allowed to be paid below the minimum wage.
Disability activists called on Perez to revise the rule to apply to the tens of thousands of disabled workers employed on these contracts.
“He was under the impression that they did not have the statutory authority to make the change,” says Ne’eman. “Then, we wrote a legal memo on how they could include disabled workers to make the change. We ran a grassroots campaign and Perez was a valuable voice inside the Administration on our side.”
Ultimately, within two weeks, Perez persuaded the White House to revise the executive order to include disabled workers.
A Big Pivot at DNC Under Perez
Many say that while Perez will likely be similarly responsive within the DNC, he is likely also to work alongside community groups to help build their movements.
Perez supporters say that out will be top-heavy press conferences featuring elected officials and in will be community forums and town halls featuring workers talking about their organizing strategies.
“Perez generally pursues a highly personalized relationship with progressive stakeholders and the constituencies with which he is dealing,” says Ne’eman. “I think with Perez you are going to see a DNC much more focused on people and policy.”
While Perez will likely try to collaborate with DNC staffers, as he did with Bush-era holdovers at the DOJ, those who know him say he won’t be afraid to eliminate those unwilling to experiment.
“He’s dynamic, energetic, listens well, and encourages people to take chances, even if there’s a chance of failure,” says Lu. “He’s also not afraid to make personnel changes in order to shake things up.”
“You have heard the phrase, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick,’” says Ne’eman. “That’s Tom Perez.”
Some labor activists say that the choice of Ellison gives Perez a deputy to help him reform the DNC in order to win in 2018.
“You need a combination of all the grassroots and the grasstops moving in unison. The truth is that leaders don’t lead, they follow,” says Geevarghese. “With Ellison as the deputy chair, he will get into the streets. He will help harness grassroots anger, and Perez will help move that within the Democratic Party.”
“So I think there is a model based on what happened at the second term [at DOL] and how the two of them worked in concert on the outside and inside to move federal labor policy. I think it’s a model for how we can transform the Democratic Party.”
Mike Elk is a Sidney award winner and a lifetime member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO, as an investigative reporter at In These Times Magazine, and has written for the New York Times. In 2015, Elk was illegally fired for union organizing at POLITICO and used his NLRB settlement to found Payday Report.
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