Exploring the New World of Work

INTERVIEW - Health care and retraining workers are high on Labor Secretary Lynn Martin's agenda

SHE was up early this morning, doing dry wall. The other day it was arc welding. "It's too easy to become the Secretary of Labor rather than the Secretary of Labor," says Lynn Martin, who occupies the office.

"So a few months ago I said, 'I want to go out and do.' Every few weeks or so, I go to work." She wedges it into her endless day (up at 4:30 a.m., in the office until 8 p.m.) and says "It's private time." She has worked in a department store selling women's suits and blouses; done plumbing and pipe welding in Chicago; worked in a hospital assigning pre-and-post surgery beds; lifted heavy sacks of money ("huge things of checks") in a bank; and "did some sugar cane in Florida," one of the hottest, sweaties t jobs in America. A former high school teacher in Illinois, she has just put in a request to teach English literature.

But a "Brave New World" of work is what she's talking about as Secretary of Labor, with unemployment holding at 7.1 percent and old attitudes outmoded.

"There was a time, and it's not a time to diminish or demean, when job security was your union. Your union protected you. Your security was your company, you stayed with the company.... Maybe you worked there all your life. For women, it was your husband, mainly. It worked for [American workers] after World War II. It did. But it's not 1950 now. You cannot change the world out there at the gates. You can't. Chance for a 'miracle'

"But you can take some of those same skills that made that joy of life and ability to change that has been part of the American frame of mind and see that we are going to have this again. Times are tough right now, but I believe that we are looking at a chance literally for a miracle. We're at the chance for a kind of [labor-management] peace that 10 years ago no one could have thought of." That fact enables this country "to redirect our energies and intentions. Nothing can stop us."

In spite of the high unemployment and massive layoffs throughout the country, from General Motors to IBM, this Secretary of Labor is convinced that such unemployment is not the department's major issue.

Secretary Martin has said that "We have the work force, we have the best people out there, but we do have to retrain, we do have to do work on health care - these are the issues of today, and they are appropriate to the Department of Labor."

Doesn't unemployment dwarf even these important issues?

"No. No. The idea that there's 'an' issue, nothing else exists, is in fact part of [the problem]. If you're unemployed, you're worried about your health care." If you are laid off, she continues, you wonder whether you would be better able to find another job if you had better training or different skills. She links training, health care, jobs. "Not only are they connected, if you don't connect them, you do a terrible disservice to people," she says.

Martin, a former Congresswoman from Illinois's 16th district before an unsuccessful race for a Senate seat, served as co-chairman of the Bush-Quayle presidential campaign in 1988. She often quotes President Bush, who nominated her for the job over a year ago when former Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole resigned to head the American Red Cross.

Tall, energetic Lynn Martin took over the vast office at Labor, with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and added her own touches, including pink wing chairs, family pictures, borrowed art like the moody gold waterscape by Winslow Homer from the National Gallery - and a picture of Frances Perkins, the first Labor Secretary (under Franklin D. Roosevelt). Martin has two children by her first marriage and a commuting marriage to her husband, US District Judge Harry Leinenweber of Chicago, whom she married in 1987. They live in Rockford, Ill., where she first met President Bush through friends at a Chinese restaurant. 'Make it happen!'

She says, "Weeks ago, when the president announced in Atlanta this whole new re-look that's easiest to describe as 'one-stop shopping for jobs and jobs training and jobs information,' he leaped right over every bureaucracy and everything and said, 'Make it happen! Make it happen!' Now there are 64 jobs programs [in the federal system], did you know that?"

She continues: "How do we make sure that, if you lose your job, if you're feeling you want to be in a corner and lick your wounds, but [instead] you go out, how do you get access to things that start you off again?"You shouldn't have to be a federal government junkie to find out about these [jobs] programs, you know? These should be of service to people. And so we're going to make it happen," Martin says.

The perception today is that the current recession affects the white-collar middle class much more than previous ones, which affected mainly blue-collar workers. When the recession ends and the jobs come back, does this Secretary of Labor think all the white-collar jobs will come back, too?

"No. No more than all the blue-collar jobs. There'll be different kinds of jobs.... So white-collar people, who often have had slightly more education and can talk about it [more easily], in effect say, 'Hey, this is a different kind of recession.' I've got to tell you, if you were a blue-collar worker without your job, you thought the past ones were pretty bad, too. I think if you're out of work, you're out of work."

She stresses the ability to carry a pension from job to job, or to carry health insurance. That kind of transfer of ownership from job to job is going to be "the new definition of job security."

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