What have you always wondered about the economy? Tell us

Who needs a Labor Secretary anyway?

Scott Tong Mar 18, 2013

Who needs a Labor Secretary anyway?

Scott Tong Mar 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.

Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.