U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez gave a full-throated defense of unions as the bedrock of the middle class Friday, and also called out Maryland's governor for withholding money the legislature wanted to send to schools.
Perez, a Democrat who served as Maryland labor secretary under former Gov. Martin O'Malley, told state educators gathered in Ocean City that they and their union are in the forefront of the fight against income inequality.
"In a nation where education is the engine of upward mobility, you are the pistons in that engine," Perez said in an address given in the tones of a campaign speech.
"Unions reduce income inequality. You improve retirement security. You improve the overall quality of life. You, in short, reinforce the very best of American values."
The teachers union has long been an ally of Perez, who earned its backing during his brief run for Maryland attorney general in 2006. As the Obama administration draws to a close, many Democrats are looking toward Perez as a potential candidate for statewide office in Maryland.
Perez spokeswoman Dori Henry said there is no campaign for any office underway.
The labor secretary sounded themes popular with the Maryland State Education Association during his remarks, criticizing the use of standardized test scores to punish teachers and criticizing the Republican field of presidential candidates for what he described as anti-union attitudes.
"When you screw with unions, you're screwing with the middle class and with the livelihood of millions of people," Perez said.
Perez also criticized Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for not releasing $68 million that state lawmakers had set aside to help school districts where costs are highest. Hogan decided to use some of the money to shore up the state's pension system instead, saying the state already was spending record amounts on schools and that it was irresponsible not to address the long-term stability of the pension system.
Perez called the legislation that established the cost-of-education funding formula "critical" to Maryland's future. He said school districts were "suffering" without that cash, an argument many elected Maryland Democrats had made.
"In Maryland, part of the unfinished business involves making sure that we have the proper investments in education," Perez said. "We may be one of the top states in the nation, but we're not just competing against the other 50 states. We're competing against the whole world."
A spokesman for Hogan declined to comment on Perez's remarks.
Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said Perez never spoke up when O'Malley did not give schools the maximum under the geographic aid formula.
"Where was he when O'Malley didn't fund [the formula] in six of the eight years that he was governor?" Cluster said.
Funding for education is expected to be a key area of disagreement between Hogan and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly when it convenes in January.