(Thomas Perez is sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden as Secretary of Labor. Photo/AP Images )

Thomas Perez officially sworn in as Secretary of Labor – “I’ve lived the American Dream”

Thomas Perez, the son of Dominican immigrants who worked as a garbage collector as he attended some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, was formally sworn in as Secretary of Labor by Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

“We have gone from sweeping floors to Sotomayor,” said Perez, referring to Latina Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “but there’s still too many people for whom the rungs of the ladder feel farther and farther apart,” he said.

Perez, the only Latino cabinet member in Obama‘s second-term administration, said he would make it his top priority to reduce the skills gap among workers in the new economy and to work for gender equity as well as for workers and veterans with disabilities.

“The Department of Labor is the Department of Opportunity,” said Perez.

Perez was flanked by his wife of 25 years and his three children as he was sworn in by Biden.

“That’s been the hallmark of his life, giving people a shot,” said Vice President Biden about Perez, citing his work in bringing about the nation’s largest fair lending case and his tenure as Maryland Secretary of Labor. “It’s about equipping people,” Biden said.

The ceremony was attended by various Latino leaders who have worked and known Perez through his career.

“Many of us have waited a long time for this day – what an honor,” said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). “He fought for our right to vote and against voter suppression and battled anti-immigration laws – and took on Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” added Murguia, referring to some of the actions Perez took as Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.   Recently LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens) awarded Perez with an Outstanding Achievement Award “in recognition of his commitment to civil rights of all Americans.”

“Tom knows what it’s like to climb the ladder of opportunity” said President Obama of Perez at the time of his nomination.  “His story reminds us of this country’s promise,” Obama had said.

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Thomas Perez’ nomination was initially opposed by Republicans who thought he had been too partisan and combative during some of his positions. But Perez also had the support of GOP leaders who stressed his ability to work with in a bipartisan fashion.

Shortly after his swearing-in ceremony Wednesday, the Workforce Fairness Institute (WFI), a business organization which advocates for less labor and government interference on businesses, said that “every indication is that he (Perez) will endeavor to reward labor bosses intent on receiving payback for their political support of President Obama,” according to spokesperson Fred Wszolek.  WFI said that Perez will soon have to make a decision on the “persuader rule” which would mandate that employers disclose consultants and lawyers working with management on unionization issues, and they urged him to not take actions that would “kill jobs.”

But Perez struck a conciliatory message between business and labor, citing American business leaders such as Costco CEO Jim Sinegal, who decided to pay employees over $15 dollars an hour and give them benefits.

“No one who works a full-time job should live in poverty,” said Perez.

The newly-sworn Labor Secretary also called for the need for immigration reform.  “It’s an economic imperative, a law enforcement imperative and a moral imperative,” he said, saying it will also help reduce the deficit.

As Secretary of Labor, Perez is the highest-ranking Dominican in the community’s history.  “This is a monumental day for the 2 million Dominican Americans who call America home,” said Cid Wilson, a New Jersey-based Democratic activist and national Dominican-American leader. “He sets an example for many in the community that we can aspire to great heights -when given the educational opportunity.”

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