After a bruising confirmation process, Alexis Herman was sworn in Friday as labor secretary, promising to support the right to form unions while recognizing the challenges facing employers.
“There’s an old saying that managers do things right and that leaders do the right thing,” Vice President Al Gore said at the Labor Department ceremony. “It is a distinct honor and wonderful privilege to be able to administer the oath of office to a woman who for her entire life has done both.”
The nation’s new labor secretary has won praise from business leaders for her efforts on behalf of free trade and support from union chiefs, who initially had backed another candidate for nomination.
She is a former civil rights activist who served in the Carter administration and a skilled political operative who was deputy to the late Ron Brown at the Democratic National Committee. As a former business owner, she knows what it takes to meet a payroll.
“Here in the labor department, I’m able to bring to bear my work on the inside and my work on the outside,” Herman said in an interview. “In this job, it all comes together, and that’s why I’m really excited.”
In private, the slight, soft-spoken woman in the labor secretary’s office overlooking the Capitol does not seem to match the Alexis Herman who earned the moniker “queen of schmooze” for her ability to work a room. But in public, that skill is obviously well played.
“I understand the importance of the labor movement for working Americans,” Herman said at her swearing-in ceremony Friday, after acknowledging several union presidents in attendance. “I respect and will protect the right of working Americans to organize and to bargain with their employers.
“I also built my own business, so I understand what it means to compete and to meet a payroll,” she added.
Herman said she would help welfare recipients find work and support training programs. Shoring up retirement security and ensuring safety and equality on the job also top her priorities.
But she declines to discuss the haggling over her nomination, which took four months to clear the Senate.
First, the GOP investigated whether Herman as director of the White House Office of Public Liaison under President Clinton used the post for political gain. Then, Republicans stalled the nomination until Clinton dropped plans to issue an executive order telling federal agencies to consider awarding construction contracts to unionized companies.
“I’m going to stay focused on the future,” Herman said.
Anyone who thought the frustrations of waiting for confirmation would discourage her knew nothing about the lessons Herman learned from her father.
They forgot that he sued to integrate the Democratic Party in Alabama and later became the state’s first black ward leader.
They never heard about the night he put a pistol in his young daughter’s hands and stepped out of the car to confront the Ku Klux Klan.
“He taught me that you have to face adversity. He taught me to stand by my principles,” Herman said in the interview. “He also taught me how to work within the system for change.”