Sharon Block is the Executive Director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program. She formerly served in the Obama Administration as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Labor and Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor.
Two months ago, I walked out of the Frances Perkins Building in Washington and helped turn off the lights on the Obama Administration’s Department of Labor. As the head of the Department’s policy office and Senior Counselor to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, I left proud of what we had accomplished to expand opportunity for American workers. I was also acutely aware that much remained to be done.
My life and the condition of our country has changed a great deal during these past two months. I am thrilled to be embarking on a new professional journey here at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and honored to have the opportunity to work with Professors Richard Freeman and Ben Sachs, the program’s faculty directors. I am humbled by the responsibility of taking over the program that my remarkable predecessor, Elaine Bernard, so successfully built over the past 30 years and by the magnitude of the challenges facing American workers today.
I come to the Labor and Worklife Program committed to continuing its core mission: to take advantage of the unique Harvard University community to bring rigorous, creative and serious problem-solving efforts to meet today’s challenges and prepare for the opportunities of tomorrow. A key component of my commitment is to continue the proud tradition of the Harvard Trade Union Program. I believe that it is more important than ever, as the labor movement faces unprecedented challenges, that a new generation of leaders benefit from the unparalleled training that the HTUP has provided for 75 years.
I will look to our amazing network of alumni and faculty to help me ensure that HTUP addresses the most urgent needs of its participants, such as how union officers and officials can lead organizations undergoing significant change; grow membership that reflects the diversity of the workforce; understand the profound changes in the U.S. and global economy; and build coalitions with organizations that have shared goals and values.
The overwhelming majority of today’s workforce, however, may never have the opportunity to join a union, even though we know that many would like to have the power and dignity that comes from collective bargaining. But that does not mean that they cannot have a voice at work, greater agency in their own economic life, and a role in shaping the economic life of the country. Considering the needs of these workers is also a key part of the Labor and Worklife Program’s core mission.
I have seen firsthand the remarkable energy and innovative spirit among worker advocacy organizations, worker centers, unions, academics, state and local government officials, and employers exploring new forms of worker representation and voice. I look forward to sharing in this exploration with the Labor and Worklife Program community and building on work that I started while at the Department of Labor and the White House to identify, study, and amplify the most promising of these new models.
I am an optimist by nature – many of you know I always keep a bottle of champagne in my refrigerator because I believe a reason to celebrate will always be right around the corner. I am convinced that there is much we can do together to advance efforts to expand opportunity and economic security for workers here and around the world. I look forward to continuing old relationships and developing new ones in my new home. I hope that all of you will share your ideas for how we can collaborate and support each other’s work.
Keep in touch – email, follow me on Twitter, write, call – whatever works for you. And when you are in Boston, please stop by; we’ll find reasons to celebrate.