Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Elaine Chao Is No Frances Perkins
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We should be outraged, but hardly surprised, that President Bush's secretary of labor is as anti-labor as her boss.

Elaine Chao, in fact, is probably the most anti-labor secretary of labor ever. Although the law defines her job as furthering the interests of "the wage earners of the United States," she spends her time furthering the interests of employers. You'd think she was secretary of commerce.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce certainly is quite pleased with her. Chamber Vice President Randel Johnson praises Chao for supporting "the limited role of government" and "free-market principles."

No praise, however, from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and other labor leaders. They rightly condemn Chao for failing to meet her legal obligations to working people.

Despite her position, Chao rarely has any contact with labor representatives, but plenty of contact with anti-labor business people. She's done nothing to try to combat the pitifully lax enforcement and open employer violation of the federal laws that are supposed to guarantee union rights to workers, but has put in place regulations making it even easier for employers to circumvent the laws -- and drawn plaudits from them for doing so.

The Labor Department is charged with helping create jobs, yet despite the claims of Chao and Bush to the contrary, the administration's record on job creation is the worst since the Depression administration of another notably anti-labor Republican, Herbert Hoover.

Chao has recently been spending much of her time speaking before conservative groups on behalf of Bush's decidedly worker-unfriendly proposals for revamping the Social Security system. And she has warned unions not to use their pension funds to oppose Bush's proposal or to hire or fire service providers mainly on the basis of their position on the proposal.

Unfortunately there's more. Much more. Chao opposes any increase in the pitifully inadequate federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. She opposes affirmative action. She argued that the 170,000 members of the Homeland Security Department should be denied union rights "so we can better protect Americans."

She supported canceling the Labor Department regulations -- 10 years in the making -- that were designed to protect workers from the repetitive motion injuries that hurt and cripple more than two million of them annually and withdrew more than 20 other proposed safety regulations. She slashed the budget for enforcement of the remaining regulations and virtually all other department functions aimed at helping workers.

Chao meanwhile is attempting to impose financial disclosure regulations on unions that would require them to spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars to track and report their expenditures in great, unprecedented and clearly unnecessary detail. Those are the regulations first suggested in 1992 by former Republican leader Newt Gingrich as a way to "weaken our opponents and encourage our allies."

Chao desecrates the legacy of the one of the country's greatest leaders - Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve as secretary of labor, the first woman to serve in any cabinet post and without doubt the greatest secretary in the Labor Department's 92-year history.

Perkins, who had been a social worker in Chicago and industrial relations official for the state of New York, served from 1933 to 1945 as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first and only labor secretary. She did perhaps more for working people and ordinary Americans generally than any other single leader in modern U.S. history aside from FDR himself.

It was Perkins who first proposed to Roosevelt the Social Security Act that Chao and Bush are now attempting to severely undermine and its old age and unemployment insurance programs. She first proposed laws prohibiting child labor and, among FDR's other major New Deal measures, those requiring employers to pay a minimum wage and keep their basic workweek to no more than 40 hours.

Perkins was a major proponent of the National Labor Relations Act that granted workers the legal right to unionization and of the public works projects that put many jobless Americans to work during the Great Depression building or rebuilding bridges, highways, schools and other badly needed facilities.

Perkins insisted that union leaders serve in major Labor Department posts and otherwise have a significant voice in the department's decision-making - recognizing, she said, that they were concerned with "the welfare of working people generally," and not just their members.

She clearly was, as historian Marjory Potts says, one of those whose "understanding of what it meant to be a worker without protection influenced the most revolutionary social legislation in our history."

The programs Perkins fought for, notes former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, "were not merely milestones of the time, but were rather milestones for all time."

Appropriately, the Labor Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C., are in the Frances Perkins Building. But how disgracefully inappropriate it is that Elaine Chao is the secretary of labor who now presides over the building.

Copyright (c) 2005 Dick Meister