Since 1913, when the post was created, a total of eight women have served as Secretary of Labor. Of those eight (including current Secretary, Hilda Solis), only two served for two or more full terms. One was a Democrat, one was a Republican. One was a New Englander, one was born in Taiwan. One was a social crusader, one was a calculating bureaucrat. Both women—Frances Perkins and Elaine Chao—were graduates of Mount Holyoke College….73 years apart.
Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary from 1933 to 1945, was not only the first woman ever to be appointed to a U.S. Cabinet position, she is considered by many to have been the greatest Labor Secretary in history. Perkins was a social progressive, a labor reformer, an ardent feminist, and a born champion of the underdog.
While serving as Labor Secretary, Perkins helped implement many of the programs of the New Deal, including Social Security and portions of the National Industrial Recovery Act. She also initiated the establishment of the minimum wage, overtime laws, the template for the 40-hour week, unemployment insurance benefits, curtailment of child labor, and rules and regulations governing workplace safety.
As a young woman living in New York City, she witnessed the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March, 1911, where 146 garment workers, mainly women, died in a textile factory blaze. The fire, one of the most infamous industrial accidents in U.S. history, was said to have had a profound impact on Perkins.
Because the Triangle Shirtwaist management had a policy of keeping the facility’s exits and stairwells locked during business hours (out of fear that employees would walk out with pilfered linen), the women were basically trapped inside the building. The 146 victims either burned to death or died from jumping out windows on the 9th and 10th floors.
Elaine Chao, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Labor from 2001 to 2009 (the only Cabinet officer to remain for both of Bush’s terms), is a whole other story. If Frances Perkins was the kind of civil servant God had in mind when He said, “Let there be civil servants,” Chao was the diametrical opposite: the epitome of ambitious overreach and self-promotion.
Unlike Perkins, who headed the New York Consumers League and, later, the New York State Industrial Commission before becoming Labor Secretary, Chao was more interested in climbing the career ladder than dedicating herself to something as pedestrian as protecting consumers or improving the wages and conditions of working people.
One needs only inspect Chao’s career trajectory to see a classic example of shrewd, by-the-numbers ascendancy. After Mount Holyoke, Chao filled out her resume by earning a Harvard MBA, in 1979. She followed this with additional study at Dartmouth, Columbia and MIT.
In 1983, her preparation paid off. She was named a White House Fellow, a prestigious government internship. In 1986, utilizing her family’s shipping connections, she was appointed Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 1988, she was named chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, and a year later, in 1989, appointed Deputy Secretary of Transportation.
In 1991, she moved up the ladder, leaving the Transportation Department to become Director of the Peace Corps. She remained Peace Corps Director for only one year before landing a job as president and CEO of United Way. As Peace Corps Director, her chief accomplishment was expanding the operation to include Latvia and Estonia.
In 1996, she became a Distinguished Fellow of the Heritage Foundation (the conservative think tank in Washington D.C.), and in 2001, marking the pinnacle of her career, was appointed Labor Secretary. In 2009, she returned to the Heritage Foundation, where she remains today. Along the way (in 1993), Chao married U.S. Senate Minority Leader and Deputy Dawg look-alike, Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Chao’s record as Secretary of Labor was unremarkable, to say the least. Although she didn’t have the bad luck of being exposed by something as cataclysmic and career-ending as Hurricane Katrina, her years in the Cabinet were no more productive than Mike Brown’s tenure as head of FEMA.
While Labor Secretary, Chao not only earned a reputation as anti-organized labor and strongly pro-business—a perfect Bush appointee—but her Department was riddled by scandal. During her tenure, the General Accounting Office reported that the Wage and Hour Division had failed to investigate tens of thousands of charges filed by low and minimum wage workers, alleging that they’d been cheated out of pay. The charges had been more or less ignored.
Under Chao’s watch, mine safety measures were allowed to lapse. In 2008, the inspector general determined that mine safety regulators had failed to conduct federally required inspections of almost 15 per cent of the country’s 730 coal mines during the previous year. The number of worker deaths in mining accidents during that same period more than doubled.
Moreover, under Chao’s leadership, the Department of Labor was accused of having supplied Congress with “inaccurate and unreliable numbers,” (in other words, “lied”), understating the expense of contracting out its employees’ work to private firms.
And finally, in a fitting denouement, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported that Chao and others had campaigned for Republican candidates at taxpayers expense, a violation of the Hatch Act. Polished bureaucrat that she was (and with a ranking U.S. senator as husband), she avoided prosecution.
If the job of the Labor Secretary is to safeguard the rights and welfare of America’s workers, then Elaine Chao failed utterly. Clearly, she was no Frances Perkins, who was a hero to labor. But Chao didn’t aspire to be a hero to labor, and she certainly didn’t pick Frances Perkins as her role model. She picked Dick Cheney.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org