Elaine Chao

Excerpts from a Monitor breakfast on labor policy.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao spent her early years playing with her sisters in the red clay of Taiwan.

In 1961, when she was 8 years old, Secretary Chao traveled with her mother and sisters to this country aboard a freighter, entering the United States through the port of Los Angeles to rejoin her dad who was already here. The family settled in Queens.

From there, Chao won a place at Mount Holyoke College and earned her MBA at the Harvard Business School.

She has served as Deputy Administrator of the Federal Maritime Administration, Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, Deputy Secretary of Transportation, Peace Corp Director, and President and CEO of the United Way of America.

She is married to Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Here are excerpts from her remarks:

On the 2 million jobs lost in the US since January 2001:

"Economies have their own cycles. Management of the economy is not totally within anyone's control.... The president is very focused on the economy." He has "a deep understanding of the human impact" of unemployment.

On whether the lost jobs can be regained by the 2004 election:

"The economy is growing, but not at a rate any one of us would like ... cutting [the president's tax cut] package means cutting back on job creation."

On her relations with the AFL-CIO:

"I am always so frustrated when I am asked that. We really tried to reach out to organized labor and the leaders of the federation. It is a two-way street. I can't make them work with me if they don't want to." There is "not an open mind on the other side. Some of the most vitriolic attacks on the administration" come from AFL-CIO. "I can't force them to work with me if they don't want to." ...We have "good relations with different parts of the federation, but at the umbrella group [it is] very difficult."

On US companies that take jobs overseas:

"I believe companies are part of a community and have a responsibility not only to the bottom line but to the community. To be good corporate citizens. That's part of our core values." It is "very sad when they go overseas and evade those responsibilities." But solutions to this problem "are very difficult to enforce."

On the changing workplace:

"The clear line that used to exist between labor and management does not exist" [any longer]. The work place is not the inflexible, adversarial [place] that it has been portrayed in the past."

On her approach:

"I am not pro-business or pro-union. I'm pro-worker. I'm for the 11 percent [of workers] who are organized and the 89 percent who are not."

On pension issues:

"PBGC [Pension benefit Guarantee Corporation] is underfunded...I don't think people should be worried about it ...while it is in a deficit situation, there is still $25 billion in assets ....it will not jeopardize any payments. But certain reforms do need to be made."

On the impact of Tuesday's Supreme Court decision holding states could be sued for violating employees' right to take time off for family emergencies:

"There is a great deal of confusion about family medical leave ... [employers and employees] find it increasingly difficult to understand and apply." The court decision "is a clarification as to the rights of workers."

On role of unions in the future:

"There will always be organized labor. [There will] always be a need for workers to come together as an organized force to represent their interests." They "will increase their strength if they are relevant." Unions "have to work on a value added collaborative effort with employers."

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