The Magazine

The Last One Standing

Bush's Labor secretary is the only survivor of the original cabinet.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December left only one cabinet member who's held her position since the beginning of the Bush administration--Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Her longevity is due in part to her fierce loyalty to the president, which has raised the ire of some in the labor movement accustomed to less assertive Republican secretaries. But beyond personal allegiance, Chao can boast tangible results from her effort to reform decades-old regulations in dire need of modernization. Add to that a fiscal conservatism dutifully applied to the department's own bureaucracy, and it's no wonder this secretary is still "serving at the pleasure of the president."

Chao, wife of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, was nominated by President Bush on January 11, 2001, after his original choice, Linda Chavez, came under fire over allegations that she had employed an illegal immigrant. At the time, Chao received praise from several major unions, including the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Association of Machinists. Even the AFL-CIO--which had immediately objected to Chavez--indicated a willingness to work with Chao. Her conservative views were no secret, but she knew many union presidents well: As president and CEO of United Way (1992-1996), she had worked closely with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and then CWA president Morton Bahr. As deputy administrator at the U.S. Maritime Administration (1986-1988), she had worked with Seafarers International Union president Mike Sacco. A day after her nomination, a Washington Post headline read, "Chao Knows Her Way Around Labor; Union Leaders Welcome a Solid Conservative."

Traditionally the Labor Department has served as the liaison between the unions--specifically, the AFL-CIO, which represents 54 unions and approximately 10 million workers--and the administration. When Chao took office, this changed in two fundamental ways.

First, she saw herself as an ambassador for working people, not just unionized workers, and she saw her chief mission as the advancement of Bush's economic agenda. She also realized that the decline of organized labor necessitated a new approach: In 2005, unionized workers constituted some 12.5 percent of the workforce, and only 7.8 percent of the private-sector workforce, down from an estimated 35 percent of the overall workforce in the mid-1950s and 16.8 percent of the private-sector workforce in 1983, the first year comparable union data are available.

Second, Chao and the department decided to work directly with any union that wanted to discuss an issue with them. As Deputy Secretary Steve Law explains, Chao adopted an "open door policy." Unions no longer had to filter their concerns through the AFL-CIO.

Bill Samuel, national legislative director of the AFL-CIO, notes that Chao hasn't followed in the footsteps of her predecessors. He cites comfortable working relationships with previous Republican labor secretaries including Elizabeth Dole, under George H.W. Bush, who he says championed stronger ergonomic standards and mediated the Pittston coal strike, and Bill Brock, under Ronald Reagan, who worked closely with labor on the modernization of labor laws.

The first order of business for Chao was to hire a qualified staff dedicated to advancing the president's message and vision. Law, who previously served as chief of staff from 2001 to 2003 and just announced he is leaving later this month, describes how she chose a team "with a basic philosophical viewpoint," in addition to expertise in labor and proven management skills. Low turnover among her department heads has made for continuity in policy.

An immigrant herself, Chao says she identifies strongly with the American dream. She left Taiwan with her mother and siblings at the age of eight to join her father, who had settled in America three years before. Arriving without knowing a word of English, she learned to adjust, following the lead of parents who had "tremendous faith in the promise of America" and the rewards of hard work. Some twenty years later, she was a White House fellow during the Reagan administration. From there she earned an M.B.A. at Harvard, then worked in the private sector for two years, and went on to a succession of jobs in the public and nonprofit sectors: deputy administrator of the Federal Maritime Administration, chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, deputy transportation secretary, director of the Peace Corps, and president and CEO of United Way.