In the end, Linda Chavez undid her own nomination through her disingenuousness. Bush’s first nominee as Labor Secretary withdrew after a storm of publicity about her relationship with a Guatemalan woman who was illegally in the United States and doing chores at Chavez’s home while living with Chavez and being given money by her.
Chavez apparently broke federal laws in her actions, but if providing a room and money to Marta Mercado had really been a humanitarian act and not a way of getting housework done on the cheap, Chavez might have survived a tough fight. But she was not upfront about her past with members of the Bush transition team, and they essentially abandoned her.
Chavez was right to decry the “politics of personal destruction,” which focuses on finding personal shortcomings and minor legal violations to undermine political figures, but she was a hypocrite in the extreme in her invocation of that charge. Few people have engaged in such political blood sport with as much energy as Chavez, who blasted Clinton’s 1993 nominee Zoë Baird for having employed an immigrant; who engaged in barely concealed race-baiting and gay-baiting against her 1986 Maryland Senate race opponent, Barbara Mikulski; and who regularly attacked even the most modest and established regulations of the economy, like the minimum wage, as “Marxist.”
The real reason that Linda Chavez should have been defeated–or withdrawn, or never nominated–is that she was unfit for the job by virtue of her steadfast and ardent opposition to the laws that she would have been charged with enforcing.
She held various Democratic policy jobs in the early 1970s before taking a job as an assistant to American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker in 1977. As part of a small but influential labor network of hawkish Social Democrats, she shared Shanker’s opposition to most affirmative action, and she recruited conservatives such as William Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Robert Bork to write for the teachers’ magazine. In the years since, she has continued to fight against affirmative action. But the Labor Secretary is responsible for monitoring affirmative action compliance by federal contractors, who employ about 22 percent of the civilian labor force.
Chavez opposed increasing the minimum wage even when it was at a postwar record low, opposed family and medical leave, derided the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, opposed measures to eliminate inequitable pay distinctions and endorsed employer discrimination against workers who refuse overtime. And she has attacked efforts of workers, such as doctors, to organize unions.
Chavez tried to cloak herself in humanitarian robes as she withdrew, pulling together personal testimonials of individuals, especially poor immigrants, whom she had helped, but as Labor Secretary, with the policies she advocated, she would have done immense damage to millions of workers, especially poor immigrants, minorities and women. This appears to be the essence of “compassionate conservatism”–handouts for a few individuals, the boot for the vast majority.
Unfortunately, Chavez’s departure, however welcome, is only a minor victory. By appointing her, Bush made it clear that his administration will be vigorously antilabor. As unions have strengthened their political operations in the past three election cycles, Republican and conservative efforts to undermine unions have escalated.
Despite the dramatic 1998 failure in California of the “paycheck protection” initiative, which would have required prior written approval of union political expenditures by each member, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney has already signaled that the Bush administration will push for similar federal legislation. There are fears that Bush may either temporarily suspend or even try to overturn new ergonomics regulations for better-designed workplaces, just implemented after a ten-year battle, and that his administration may try to revive the 1996 political fundraising scandal involving former Teamsters leaders as a tool to attack the Democrats and the AFL-CIO, especially secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka. (The presence of two current Teamsters officials on the Bush labor transition team–the only unionists on a list of corporations, trade groups and antilabor law firms–gives weight to these worries.)
Republicans in Congress have also made it clear that they want to overturn current federal regulations requiring overtime pay for more than forty hours of work in a week, to open the door to now-outlawed company-controlled “unions” (through the TEAM Act), to weaken enforcement of workplace health and safety regulations, and to give employers greater latitude in classifying workers as independent contractors, making it easier for employers to abuse and underpay workers, who are in turn denied the right to organize. The latter two initiatives were pet projects of former Missouri Representative James Talent, who was widely mentioned as a possible replacement for Chavez.
It seems, from the names mentioned, that the next Bush choice as Labor Secretary might be easier to get approved by the Senate but will be no more sympathetic to the needs of workers or the legitimate role of unions in American society. The fight over Chavez, which the AFL-CIO was preparing to launch just as she pulled out, is only the beginning of what promises to be intense combat in the years to come.