Battle brewing over likely Labor pick

President Obama could set off a contentious confirmation battle if he moves ahead with reported plans to nominate Thomas Perez for his Labor secretary.

Even though the nomination hasn’t been officially announced, Republican senators will be itching to grill Perez over his support for Obama administration policies that they argue hurt businesses and favor unions.

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Obama’s last secretary of Labor, former Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), saw her confirmation delayed for weeks after questions were raised about her support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made union organizing easier.

Labor unions have said they would back Perez for the post, and are girding for another difficult fight in the Senate.

“We certainly hope that his confirmation would be quick, but for some Senate Republicans, they have a tendency to hold up nominations at the Labor Department and the [National Labor Relations Board],” said Tim Schlittner, spokesman at the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). “There is no guarantee that this will be a swift confirmation.” 

Before serving as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Perez was secretary of Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. As the state’s Labor secretary under Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), Perez supported increasing wages for workers, often over the opposition of business leaders in the state.

“He could be tough but he was fair,” said Jeffrie Zellmer, vice president of government and community affairs for the Maryland Retailers Association. 

As Maryland’s Labor secretary, Perez won plaudits for aggressively investigating foreclosure scams, but was also active on several measures that were key to unions.

He supported a “living wage” for some state contractors and fought against employers misclassifying their employees as “independent contractors,” which can lead to fewer worker protections, according to unions.

Zellmer and Kathleen Snyder, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, also described Perez as a supporter of a minimum-wage increase in the state, which many business groups oppose.

“I’m sure it will be one of the questions asked repeatedly of him,” Snyder said, referring to a potential confirmation hearing for Perez.

Both Zellmer and Snyder said that although they have disagreed with Perez at times, he kept an open-door policy and listened to industry concerns. 

“We will not always win with Tom but we will have a fair hearing,” said Snyder, who wrote a letter of support for Perez’s nomination to the Justice Department. “I never saw him as an adversary. I did see him as someone who had a different political leaning than me.”

“His door was always open. I never had a problem with him,” said Zellmer, who also supported Perez’s Justice nomination. 

Other business groups said Obama’s choice for Labor secretary wouldn’t matter much because pro-union policies are so entrenched in the administration.

“We fully assume that the policies of the Labor Department will continue no matter what, so it’s besides the point of who they pick to run the place. They can’t get any more pro-labor,” said Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute.

Other trade associations are keeping their powder dry for now.

Representatives for several business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, declined to comment.

“We don’t want to speculate on who the president might nominate to head the Department of Labor,” said Blair Latoff Holmes, the Chamber spokeswoman.

Several press reports have said that Perez will be Obama’s nominee for Labor secretary, and unions have expressed strong support for the choice.

“We think he has a stellar record on labor and civil rights issues,” said Chuck Loveless, director of federal government relations for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “There is going to be strong support for Tom Perez not only from unions but also the civil rights groups, as well as other progressive organizations.”

Along with his record as Maryland’s Labor secretary, Loveless also praised actions that Perez took at Justice, such as leading the charge against voter identification laws and investigating police brutality and discrimination cases.

Perez has a long career in law and public service. As the first Latino elected to Montgomery County Council, Perez also served as a special counsel to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and has spent 12 years as a career attorney in Justice’s Civil Rights Division. 

Nevertheless, Perez’s confirmation hearing could put the administration’s labor policies on trial. Solis was questioned about the Employee Free Choice Act and her position at American Rights at Work, a labor advocacy group that supported the failed bill.

That helped lead to her confirmation being delayed for weeks. The Service Employees International Union would later campaign for her confirmation, blasting Senate Republicans in the process. 

One GOP senator has raised objections to Perez’s potential nomination. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has said Perez should face “tough questions” over his involvement in Justice’s decision to sit out whistleblower legal challenges against the city of St. Paul, Minn., after the city agreed to drop a Supreme Court appeal in a housing discrimination lawsuit.

Further, an inspector general report released Tuesday that was critical of the Voting Section of Justice’s Civil Rights Division could hinder Perez’s confirmation.

Schlittner, with the UFCW, said labor would lobby hard for Perez to be seated at the department if his confirmation was delayed.

“If Senate Republicans pull the same shenanigans they did in 2009 with his nomination, I imagine unions would campaign for his confirmation, ours included,” Schlittner said.

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