When Alexis Herman nudged both sides into settling the UPS strike, she belatedly, if unwittingly, shoved back at critics who resisted her nomination as labor secretary eight months ago.
Republicans, business and labor activists alike tossed Herman credit this week for helping to end the 15-day strike.
“She did a very credible job,” Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, said Wednesday. “There were some misgivings on the Republican side, but I think everyone is reassured.”
AFL-CIO chief of staff Gerry Shea echoed, “She did a lot of the heavy lifting here and was superb at it.” And on the other side, U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesman Joe Davis agreed: “She was very constructive.”
The strike talks were the first real test of Herman’s mettle since her protracted and bruising four-month confirmation, in which pro-business Republicans stalled on Senate hearings and organized labor backed someone else as its first choice.
While the personal stakes were high, they were not a motivating factor as Herman dug in her heels, prodding the United Parcel Service and Teamsters back to the negotiating table, a top aide said.
“We never got to the point of ‘What if this falls apart?’ Some of us tried, telling her, ‘You’re going to have to explain it to people,’ but she wouldn’t entertain it,” said the aide, who was with Herman throughout and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Success was her best revenge, said Shea. “She deserves a little bit of ‘I told you so.’ But it’s not her style.” The AFL-CIO, like Sen. Edward Kennedy, senior Democrat on the Senate Labor Committee, initially preferred former Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., for the job, believing that Herman lacked clout to raise the department’s profile.
Any doubt disappeared last weekend, when Herman closeted herself - for four days and three sleepless nights - in a Washington hotel with the parties until they got a deal. “She took it seriously and showed immense respect for the concerns of working people. She really earned her stripes,” Shea said.
Kennedy, D-Mass., issued a statement saying Herman made all the difference at a critical point in the strike. She “has proven once again to have a very effective negotiating style. … She gets very high marks from both sides.”
Speaking for small businesses, the chamber’s Davis similarly credited Herman with facilitating dialogue between UPS and its striking workers. But he was not ready to give her unconditional approval.
“We haven’t yet had a lot of opportunity to hear from her on other labor issues” such as workplace-safety rules and reform of the National Labor Relations Board, Davis said.
As for Herman, she reveled behind closed doors in a standing ovation from her staff before leaving on a truncated vacation.
Pulling gag gifts of deodorant and “Static Guard” spray from a brown paper lunch bag, Herman told her exhausted employees Tuesday that she knew people murmured about the personal and professional risks had she failed.
“I didn’t see a risk. My job is to do all I could to get people back to work,” said Herman. Gesturing to her gift sack, she added with a chuckle: “But if it had not worked out, I would have been left holding the empty bag.”