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Could the Greatest Neoliberal Sellout in Known Human History Be Good At His Job?

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Thomas E. Perez, during his nomination hearing to be Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.  April 29, 2009.  Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.
Thomas E. Perez, during his nomination hearing to be Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. April 29, 2009. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

Mike Elk has a good summary of Tom Perez and his management style. The idea that the greatest Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins was some sort of horrendous neoliberal was always laughable on the face of it, but the more we know about Perez, the better he looks as DNC chair, leaving aside the fact that Keith Ellison probably would be just as effective.

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.

This sounds like hopeless neoliberalism to me! What are some examples of his Big Corporate Donor style?

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.”

How can we trust this Big Money Plutocrat with his support from Neoliberal Obama and $Hillary?!?

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.”

Effective as Secretary of Labor and in the Civil Rights Division? Looks to me like the only chance for progressive polices is Jill Stein in 2020! What has Perez done to stand up to Big Vaxx and Big Internet? Answer me that neolib!

I will also note that I know people in Perez’s circle, including one person who worked very closely with him in the recent past. Everyone I talk to absolutely loves this man in a way that you do not see often in the political world. I’m not saying this is anything more than anecdata, but it’s been quite striking to me in these conversations.

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