Any discussion with an administration official will center on the administration's message; it's most interesting to look for differences of emphasis or framing. Fitting his positioning on the left of the administration's spectrum, during a Tuesday afternoon discussion of women's economic issues with five writers, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez repeatedly returned to his conversations with liberals frustrated with the Obama administration, counterposing the Labor Department's ability to make a difference in the lives of workers against that frustration. Obama administration moves like extending minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers and the planned expansion of overtime eligibility, he argued, are significant in the lives of millions. "Live in my world," he said, "and you'll see what a difference we can make." At the same time, he repeatedly pointed to the importance of movements in pushing for further change, discussed below the fold.
One key way the Obama administration could make a difference for women in some workplaces would be through an executive order banning federal contractors from retaliating against workers who share salary information, a component of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Asked whether such an executive order was planned, Perez would only say, with a slight smile, "I am very familiar with the issue you described," a line he repeated in response to a follow-up question. Clearly, the issue is being discussed even if President Obama has yet to make a decision.
As you would expect, Perez spoke at length about administration priorities like the Affordable Care Act, raising the minimum wage and improving worker skills and training. But while a lot of talk—from the president, for instance—about worker skills conveys that we should all be becoming engineers and computer programmers, in a discussion focusing on women's issues, Perez highlighted non-traditional jobs for women like manufacturing and trades work, focusing on jobs for which "you don't need a four-year degree; you do need more than a high school degree." Mothers in particular, he said, "get on and off the education super-highway," and benefit from expanded opportunities for training of this kind, whether a six-month school program that leads to a credential or on-the-job training such as apprenticeships, feeding from training to work to further training. The workers he cited were not engineers or computer programmers but an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers member and workers on various factory floors.
Opening up such opportunities for women requires work, though. "The informal grapevine, in my experience, has seldom worked to the benefit of applicants of color and women," Perez noted. "The jobs were given out at the labor halls all too frequently from men to men." Mothers also face barriers related to child care. To help women break into such fields, the Department of Labor this week announced $1.8 million in grants to connect women with apprenticeship programs and to help reduce barriers like child care.
Of course, skilled workers are only middle-class workers if they're paid decently, an aspect of the skills question too often ignored in American politics. Perez focused on the Labor Department's role in connecting skilled workers with employers who want to invest in workers, ones who, as he said, "have understood what Henry Ford understood 100 years ago," that businesses do better when workers have money to spend. But he also repeatedly emphasized the need for across-the-board improvements like extending wage and hour protections to home health care workers and raising the minimum wage for all workers, but especially tipped workers. Perez also emphasized the role of unions, noting that "you look at the history of this country, and when labor density was at a peak, the middle class was thriving."
While Republicans often try to take ownership of the concept of "opportunity," painting opportunity as becoming an entrepreneur, then a millionaire entrepreneur, then a billionaire entrepreneur, Perez put forward a contrasting view of opportunity. In this view, the Department of Labor is the Department of Opportunity. "We make sure people have access to basic opportunity—the opportunity to work in a safe workplace and get paid for the work you do." It's an important reframing, from the Republican ideal of the opportunity for a few to be wealthy to a broader, more Democratic and democratic ideal of everyone's work being rewarded at least with basic safety and comfort. But that contrast also once again highlights the limits of what a presidential administration contending with a party as extremist as today's Republican Party can accomplish.
Funding to get women into apprenticeships and get them the reliable child care they need to finish those apprenticeships is a good thing. Getting home care workers minimum wage and overtime is a great thing. Raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers is a great thing—for federal contract workers. But without congressional action, it affects a limited number of people. And executive orders that the president hasn't signed, like the Paycheck Fairness retaliation measure or a federal contractor version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, highlight the limits of what Obama is willing to do, at least in the face of the inevitable Republican claims (and inevitable echoes from the Broderite or Fournierist punditry) that he's overstepping, seizing more power than a president should. Does it make a difference that Barack Obama and Thomas Perez are in office planning to expand overtime eligibility in place of George Bush and Elaine Chao trying to limit it? Absolutely. But to get to the vision of opportunity Perez raised, we need a more Democratic Congress and a bolder Democratic Party.