U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez discussed ways for businesses and the government to create a more prosperous national economy at the Ford School of Public Policy Monday evening.
Appointed by President Barack Obama, Perez has served as labor secretary since 2013 on Monday. Perez said the Obama administration has helped create a shared economic prosperity for all by encouraging businesses to make conscious decisions to benefit their workers.
Discussing national economic progress during the Obama administration, Perez noted that the unemployment rate is now at 4.9 percent and that the number of jobs has grown by 14 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Perez said this growth is in part due to businesses’ starting to realize how adequately providing for their workers, pleasing their shareholders and taking care of their customers are not trade-offs — successful businesses do all three, and gain revenue by treating their workers well.
“Businesses are seeing that investing in their workers is one of the best ways to grow the bottom line,” Perez said. “They’re embracing what Henry Ford embraced when he doubled the wages of people on the assembly line, understanding that better paid workers are more productive workers.”
Perez said businesses should not view raising wages and increasing benefits as charity, but rather a way to maximize the company’s overall growth.
He cited that Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, as an example of this attitude, saying that one of Immelt’s core values is treating his workers fairly, a virtue that lends itself to the recent growth of his company.
“Businesses are understanding that there is indeed something to be gained from what my mother taught me, which is ‘It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice,’ ” Perez said.
Perez also said empowering workers is an essential part of how competitive a business is, whether that is done through labor unions or other avenues.
Additionally, he suggested companies provide for workers is by implementing paid maternity leave for women and increasing diversity in the workforce.
“Diversity is key to our global competitiveness,” Perez said.
Perez also touched on wages, saying that during his tenure in the White House Cabinet, Perez said he has met many people who work full-time jobs and yet cannot provide for themselves and their family. Perez emphasized that there is still a long way to go until the United States reaches full economic prosperity.
“If you work a full-time job in America, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty, you shouldn’t have to rely on food stamps to feed your family,” Perez said. “We can do far better.”
Public Policy senior Julie Sarne who attended the event said hought Perez's message about businesses providing for their workers was especially important.
“I’m really interested in labor issues and how we can encourage businesses to grow and also help U.S. workers at the same time,” Sarne said.
During his lecture, Perez also spoke about statewide issues with economic prosperity, including the Flint water crisis and the resurgance of Detroit’s auto industry. Perez said the water crisis in Flint was avoidable, and occurred because the community was neglected by the government.
“In this most prosperous nation on the planet, zip codes should never ever determine destiny,” Perez said. “We can’t succeed in Flint if people can’t even drink the water.”
On a more positive note, Perez said Ford, Chrysler and General Motors have bounced back from dire economic situations and are experiencing profitability success comparable to World War II.
“What I love about Michigan is it’s a state of folks who understand the importance of resilience,” Perez said. “Every challenge here is met with a remarkable determination and resolve.”
After the event, Public Policy senior Tommy Hoyt said he enjoyed the chance to hear a cabinet-ranking member of the federal government speak.
“Perez is clearly a principle-driven man who is leading with a clear ideology of how he wants labor to be done in this country,” Hoyt said. “While he didn’t dwell on too many specifics and was often a cheerleader for the (Obama) administration, it was an overall worthwhile experience and I’m glad I heard him speak."
Throughout his entire lecture, Perez spoke passionately about how the United States as a whole succeeds only when everyone has the opportunity to succeed.
“The rising tide should indeed lift all boats and not just the yachts,” Perez said. “Everyone who works hard in America ought to get the chance to get ahead.”