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.