Role in UPS Strike Lifts Herman's Low Profile

Labor secretary will use new status to push agenda - especially narrowing wage gap between rich and poor.

Before United Parcel Service workers walked out on strike most Americans had probably never heard of Alexis Herman.

But during the last two weeks, Secretary of Labor Herman has been the most visible government official in the country. She was arguably a major force behind the strike's relatively quick settlement - and her newly enhanced stature may help her push for labor-related goals. Goals that seemed barely reachable 100 days ago, when she was mired in the midst of a torturous confirmation process.

"She is now a symbol of that [UPS strike] problem being solved," says David Dreyer, a partner in TSD, a Washington-based communications firm. "This was a remarkable performance as a Labor secretary, it is exactly what a nation depends on a Labor secretary to do."

"Now she's got herself a chip in the big game," observes Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

"It was not long enough a strike to disrupt the economy in a major way, and [the administration's] position in the strike basically aided labor. So the president has helped himself with labor while not hurting himself with voters," Professor Schier says.

The turn of events leaves Herman strategically positioned to crusade for the goals she identified when arriving at the Department of Labor. These include an increase in job training for low-skill workers, getting welfare participants to work, better security for pensions, and mediate an agreement between labor and management that would allow workers to forfeit overtime pay in exchange for time off.

But closing the wage gap, particularly for minority, women, and lowest level income earners may be her top priority.

Lifting incomes

Analysts say while the healthy economy has provided the country with a long and sturdy recovery, it has not lifted all incomes, particularly those at the bottom of the economy.

"A labor secretary has a unique role in policies that bring more people into the economic recovery. Her credentials for leading that discussion have been burnished," says Mr. Dreyer.

In the wake of the UPS resolution, Herman is expected to begin to capitalize on her higher profile. Tomorrow will be Alexis Herman Day in Mobile, Ala., where Herman's father was politically active teacher during her childhood. She attended segregated parochial schools there.

One indicator of her new place in the arena of public opinion: C-Span plans to carry some of the Alabama festivities live.

Beginnings

After graduating from Xavier College in New Orleans, Herman became a social worker and moved on to direct the National Minority Women's Employment Program seven years later. At 29, she ran the Women's Bureau in Jimmy Carter's Labor Department, making corporate contacts in an effort aimed at improving labor opportunities for women from the boardroom to the factory floor.

In the late '80s, she worked with Ron Brown, playing a key role in bringing the Democratic party out of the ashes, rebuilding the Democratic National Committee which helped launch the democrats victory in the 1992 election cycle.

As director of the White House office of public liaison, Herman organized more than a dozen of the controversial coffees critics complain amount to selling the office of the presidency. They were heavily scrutinized in this summer's Senate hearings investigating campaign finance irregularities.

"She entered office under a cloud - the White House coffees," says Shier. "This is an impressive early achievement that will help dispel that cloud."

Herman, the highest ranking black woman in the administration, sets off for Seattle next week with her new leverage, promoting her welfare-to-work program. Her busy schedule calls for trips to two cities a day to push her agenda, culminating in a Labor Day speech in Washington.

The new-found respect that has been created also comes with a new-found curiosity from labor and corporate America. For most executives, Herman's views on key issues are still an unknown.

"It's really early to tell what her tenure is going to be," says Joe David, a spokesman for the US Chamber of Commerce.

According to Steven Hilton, her former chief of staff at the White House, now a lawyer at Akin-Gump in Washington, her quiet way of doing business may still be misunderstood.

"Because of that, she is underestimated and I think she has learned to play the game in such a way that her detractors end up eating crow because of her abilities. She is a brilliant woman," he says.

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