Alexis Herman: Out Of One Fire And Into Another

Now, the Labor Secretary will feel the heat from unions and business

For four months, Alexis M. Herman was as embattled as any Cabinet nominee can be. First, there was organized labor's decision to back former Senator Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) for Labor Secretary. Then, Republicans accused Herman of using her White House job as head of public liaison to raise money for Clinton's reelection. Finally, GOP lawmakers stalled her confirmation until Clinton backed off on an executive order that would have directed federal agencies to consider using union contracts in construction.

The future is not likely to be any calmer than the recent past. While labor eventually came to her aid during her confirmation battle, union leaders will be watching her first 100 days closely. The reason: Herman, 49, is unusually pro-business for a Labor Secretary in a Democratic Administration. She has made a career of building bridges to Corporate America, from her days helping women and minorities get white-collar jobs at such big outfits as Coca-Cola Co. and Delta Air Lines Inc. to her role as liaison with company execs for the White House.

Now, Herman could find herself in a squeeze between labor and business on a number of contentious issues. First out of the box is a business-backed bill allowing companies to give workers a choice between paid overtime or time off. Another is a Democratic bill that would require companies with 25 or more employees to give workers unpaid leave to care for sick relatives (the threshold is now 50 employees). Then there's the struggle over whether to cover workfare recipients under federal labor protections such as minimum-wage and workplace-safety laws. The stickiest fight could be over legislation to allow the President to negotiate trade deals without congressional meddling.

For now, Herman won't show her hand on these issues--postponing the day when she must take political heat. But the ex-social worker maintains that, in a city of ideologues, she hopes to defuse tensions. "I want to use the good relationships I have with both labor and business to find common ground," she says. "I want to be a constructive force on issues that serve as a divide."

SOFT-SPOKEN. Privately, however, neither business nor labor leaders believe she will be able to bridge that chasm. There's little chance, for instance, that she can find a middle ground on "fast track" trade authority, which the unions adamantly oppose because they think foreign trade agreements lead to job losses here at home. And although Herman says she wants a big role in finding a compromise on the "comp time" bill, both sides are dug in deep now. Labor argues that the bill would let business coerce workers into accepting time off rather than money. "More power to her if she can" make the two sides see eye to eye, scoffs one labor official.

Labor was also initially skeptical about the clout of Herman's predecessor, Robert B. Reich. But the former academic surprised unions by becoming an outspoken advocate for their cause, angering not only business but also Clinton's economic team. If Herman is to prove influential, she'll have to do it her way--as a soft-spoken operator. Case in point: Soon after Clinton took office, Herman, in a whirlwind of phone calls and meetings with corporate executives, quietly won support for the President's economic plan, which included a hike in the corporate tax rate. "Alexis has had a history of people underestimating her," says Joan Baggett, a labor official and former Clinton White House political director. "She has a light touch, but she is very thorough."

For now, Herman has chosen agenda items that skirt controversy. She wants to help low-skilled workers, welfare mothers, and dropouts get well-paying jobs. She says she intends to meet with businesses, churches, schools, and federal agencies to figure out where the jobs are, what skills are needed, and how to get people employed. One focus will be the new federally funded National Skill Standards Board, which will come up with a list of skills that individuals need to succeed in 16 economic sectors. She also would like to expand the department's school-to-work apprenticeship program for noncollege-bound students.

To the relief of business, Herman says she intends to expand a program that reduces federal safety inspections and penalties for businesses that have good safety records and voluntarily comply with safety laws. "We recognize that employers have a lot of say in helping us solve many of the [workplace-safety] problems," she says.

Business groups aren't all smiles, however. They worry that an African-American woman in the Labor post--one who has spent a good deal of her career promoting the hiring of women and minorities in corporate jobs--could well step up the enforcement of affirmative-action laws for federal contractors. Still, they marvel at the relations she developed in the White House. More important, she's not Reich, who once recommended imposing a training tax on companies and ending some tax breaks for corporations that shifted jobs overseas.

"It's doubtful that Alexis Herman would engage in such shameless grandstanding for left-wing notions," says Bruce Josten, senior vice-president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Indeed, Bert C. Roberts Jr., chairman of MCI Communications Corp., says that during her stint as Clinton's corporate-outreach aide, Herman was able to "permit the views of business to reach the White House."

"INVALUABLE." Such sentiments make labor nervous. But they're crossing their fingers, saying her close relations with Clinton, intimacy with White House power politics, friendship with pro-labor Jesse Jackson, and early work experience helping unions train workers in the South could make Herman a formidable ally. "There's an experience with labor that's invaluable," says Arlene Gilliam, a top aide to AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. "And we are fortunate that she does have the ear of the President."

The question now is just what she'll whisper in Bill Clinton's ear. Both sides will be watching to see whether Herman can use her low-key style to become a high-powered player in the coming clashes between business and labor.

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