Who needs a Labor Secretary anyway?

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez (R), a Hispanic-American, speaks after being nominated as the next U.S. secretary of labor by President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington on March 18, 2013.

President Obama today tapped a new secretary of labor, Thomas Perez, of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

But we're not going to play alphabet soup with you. After all, can you truly name the previous labor secretary? The one prior? Here's our reminder of what the department actually does.

Let's pose the George Bailey question from "It's a Wonderful Life": what if the Labor Department were never born?

Clarence the guardian angel was unavailable at air time, but Georgetown historian Michael Kazin was. He says workers wouldn't be protected against bosses paying us less than we've earned. Or, stealing from the 401(k) kitty. Or working in unsafe conditions.

And we all take this for granted.

"Americans hate big government," Kazin says. "But they're often very happy to take what the government gives them."

Kazin says the department began as a nod to organized labor, in the Woodrow Wilson era.

"In gratitude to the support he was getting from Samuel Gompers and most of the labor movement in 1912," Kazin says, "Wilson decides to grant organized labor a longstanding desire of organized labor, which is to have their own department."

Of course employers and banks rely on the department's number-crunchers, especially employment stats.

Now every election year, the department's accused of playing politics with jobs numbers. But Pat O'Keefe, who worked at Labor in the Reagan years, says, impossible.

"Even if somebody were to try," says O'Keefe, now with the investment advisory CohnReznick. "It would be such a complex undertaking as probably to surpass even the most Machiavellian among us."

That's not to say the department can't improve.

Former labor secretary Ray Marshall, who served in the Clinton administration, wants better data on America's growing mismatch between jobs and job-seekers.

"We've got jobs going unfilled, we're told," Marshall says. "And we've got workers who want jobs. Now something's wrong if we're unable to organize ourselves to be able to have a better fit."

The Labor Department does have its haters. But historian Kazin at Georgetown doesn't think it would ever get eliminated, as some would like.

It's been around so long, it's earned its wings.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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