There’s some bitter irony in the fact that the most compassionate Secretary of Labor in U.S. history—indeed, the “best friend” the Working Class ever had—and the least compassionate Secretary of Labor in history—indeed, the “worst enemy” the Working Class ever had—were both women.
Frances Perkins, the country’s first woman Labor Secretary (appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal cabinet), also has the distinction of having served as Labor Secretary longer than any person in history, from 1933 to 1945.
FDR loved her, the American worker loved her (she was instrumental in getting the watershed National Labor Relations Act—the Wagner Act—passed by Congress, in 1935), and Perkins clearly loved the American worker.
By contrast, Elaine Chao, George W. Bush’s Labor Secretary, was a witch. With an aristocrat’s conceit and utter contempt for working people—an amalgam of Imelda Marcos and Leona Helmsley (and dare we say Melania Trump?)—Ms. Chao may have been the most nakedly ambitious women to hit Washington D.C. in the post-War era. And that is saying something.
A quick look at Chao’s resume reveals a quintessential “climber,” a woman for whom Ambition is one of the four major food groups. Not the understandably “talent-oriented” ambition seen in my idols like Elizabeth Warren, Ann Richards, J.K. Rowling, Barbara Mikulski and Molly Ivins, but the naked, primordial ambition of a Lucretia Borgia. Or a female spider.
Just take a look at Chao’s astonishing ascendancy. She was a vice-president at Bank of America, an administrator in Reagan’s Department of Transportation, chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation (a Washington D.C. think tank), and very briefly, just long enough to sweeten her resume, Director of the Peace Corps.
Of course, along the way, Chao managed to do what many women “climbers” do; she married a man who could help her career—not only help it, but drop-kick the son of a bitch into the stratosphere. In her case, it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky.
No one’s trying to be snarky here. In truth, had Chao, as Labor Secretary, not been such a transparently anti-worker, pro-business gargoyle, none of these calculated steps up the ladder would have been worth showcasing. What would be the point? After all, aren’t narcissism, hyper-ambition and vomit-inducing displays of self-importance are all part of the landscape? Although it’s fair to say that Chao did tend to go overboard.
In an article dealing with Senator McConnell, the “New York Times” (May 14, 2014) described her as “an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there.” The article went on to say that she “had gold-colored coins minted with her name in bas-relief,” and had employed a person to carry them in a bag for her. Mother Teresa she ain’t.
Labor writer Dick Meister noted that Chao was so intent on furthering the interests of employers, you would think “she was Secretary of Commerce, not Secretary of Labor.” Chao opposed raising the minimum wage, she ignored violations of federal labor laws (safety statutes as well as wage and benefit statutes), she argued that the 170,000 members of the Homeland Security Dept. be denied union rights, even when the majority sought them.
Labor Secretaries are more than Cabinet “ornaments.” They have enormous influence, not only on the economy, but on the nation’s psyche. Given that workers, historically, have been at the mercy of their employers, it is the Secretary of Labor’s job to defend them—to represent the interests of workers in their relations with management. Alas, Elaine Chao was a management goon.
And now Trump gets to pick his own Labor Secretary.
With the White House, Supreme Court, House of Representatives and Senate all Republican dominated, it’s unlikely he will pick a good one. Which is to say, it won’t be one committed to the Working Class. Which is to say it could even be a mean one. Which is to say Rudy Giuliani.