WASHINGTON - The fast-food workers who have been walking off the job in cities nationwide in a push for higher wages are heirs to the civil-rights demonstrators of a half-century ago, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview as Labor Day approaches. He said employers who warn the move to raise pay could cost jobs are offering a "false choice."
The striking workers, at chains such as McDonald's and Taco Bell, want their pay raised to $15 an hour, more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. In his State of the Union Address this year, President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage to $9 and tying it to inflation, but so far the proposals have gone nowhere in Congress.
"The strikes are fitting in that they would occur in such close proximity to the March on Washington," Perez said in his first newspaper interview since taking office last month. "It was a march for economic justice ... and one of their demands was better wages."
Perez, appearing on USA TODAY's Capital Download video newsmaker series, spoke favorably about a "living wage" bill - passed by the City Council in the District of Columbia and now on Mayor Vincent Gray's desk - that would require large retailers to pay workers $12.50 an hour, a 50% premium over the city's minimum wage. Wal-Mart, the target of the bill, warns it won't go ahead with plans to build three stores in D.C. if the measure becomes law.
"It's a false choice to say we either have job safety or job growth," Perez said. "It's a false choice to suggest that the only way for a business to survive is to make sure workers have low wages and little or no benefits. There are ample models across this country where we've demonstrated the contrary."
However, he declined to call on Gray to sign the bill, and he didn't mention Wal-Mart by name.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters last week that labor leaders were urging the Obama administration to make "tweaks" in the Affordable Care Act to fix "inadvertent holes" that, for instance, might encourage employers to keep employees' workweeks below 30 hours to avoid triggering its coverage provisions. The law's tax on the most expensive health care plans, including some won by unionized workers in negotiations, is another thorn for labor.
Trumka spoke Thursday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
Perez confirmed that the administration was listening to complaints about Obamacare from labor and others.
"A number of concerns of that nature have been brought to the administration's attention for a while, and we are certainly taking a look at those issues and will continue to do so," Perez said Thursday. "If there are any other consequences, unintended consequences," the administration wants "to figure out practical ways to address them."
Perez, 51, a Buffalo native and son of Dominican immigrants, was serving as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department when Obama nominated him as Labor secretary. The Senate confirmed him last month on a party-line vote.
He expressed concern about the state of American workers despite the economic recovery now officially in its fourth year.
"There are just way too many people suffering out there," he said. "The rungs between the ladder of opportunity for so many people are feeling further and further apart, and it's our job to bring those closer and closer together, so people can move up that ladder, because that's what America is all about."