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Elaine Chao Discusses Bush's Labor Policies

Aired September 1, 2001 - 17:30   ET



Now, Robert Novak and Al Hunt.

AL HUNT, CO-HOST: I'm Al Hunt.

On this Labor Day weekend, Robert Novak and I will question the Bush administration's emissary to the working people of America.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: She is Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.


NOVAK (voice-over): Secretary Chao and President Bush will be at meetings in Detroit and Green Bay on Labor Day after attending a Steelworkers picnic in Pittsburgh last Sunday.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the reasons we're as strong as we are is because of the productivity based upon the hard-working American citizen. And I appreciate you for your work.

NOVAK: But the AFL-CIO's president celebrated Labor Day by releasing a poll showing Americans had a low opinion of corporate America and of the Republican administration.

JOHN SWEENEY, AFL-CIO PRESIDENT: They see bussiness being favored, in terms of many of the policies of the new administration; and they're concerned about how much of this impacts on their lives as workers, and also how it affects their family, as well.

NOVAK: The secretary of labor, however, gets higher grades from unions, especially the Teamsters.

JAMES P. HOFFA, TEAMSTERS PRESIDENT: She's been very open with us; we have an open door to her. I think she's going to be a good secretary of labor.

NOVAK: Elaine Chao served as deputy secretary of transportation, and later Peace Corps director in the first Bush administration. She next became CEO of United Way to salvage that scandal-torn institution. Ms. Chao was named secretary of labor after an embattled Linda Chavez asked that her nomination be withdrawn.


NOVAK: Madam Secretary, as we go into President Bush's first Labor Day weekend, he still has not had a meeting with the president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney. It's inconceivable that you wouldn't be talking to a business leader during that time. Does that confirm Mr. Sweeney's contention that the door is closed to labor, while it's open to big business in this administration?

ELAINE CHAO, U.S. SECRETARY OF LABOR: Absolutely not. You know, I work very hard. I keep open lines of communication and open access to this administration.

The White House has routinely met with labor leaders. In fact, I would say that the relationship between the White House and organized labor is going well. There are enlightened labor leaders such as James Hoffa, who appeared on your program previously, and also Doug McCarron, who know that their main responsibility is to provide jobs for their rank and file. And there are opportunities to work with this administration toward that goal.

This White House, as I mentioned, has worked very well with organized labor -- certain parts of organized labor -- on the national energy plan, for example. The Teamsters were very, very critical in ensuring passage of the national energy plan through the House. So there are opportunities to work together.

NOVAK: Mr. McCarron, of course, is the head of the carpenter's union, which is not part of the AFL-CIO anymore.

But, Ms. Chao, isn't what you're saying is that certain labor leaders are welcome in the White House and others aren't? And perhaps Mr. Sweeney -- are you saying Mr. Sweeney is such an ardent Democrat and opponent of Mr. Bush that there's an unwelcome sign in the White House for John Sweeney?

CHAO: Absolutely not. The president had actually spoken with Mr. Sweeney earlier this year, and the door is always open.

Obviously, we would like it to be a two-way street. There has to be an effort on the other side to want to work with us, and it's very hard to work with someone who is constantly throwing epithets or saying things that are very, very negative.

But we remain very open to working with organized labor. I myself have a very good working relationship with organized labor, and I'm very proud of that.

NOVAK: I'd like to put some figures up on the screen. The percentage of workers who are members of unions in 1985 was 18 percent; 1990, 16 percent; 1995, 14.9 percent; 2000, 14.5 percent. It keeps going down.

Are you making a calculation that maybe you're better off not dealing with the heavily Democratic members of organized labor, and dealing with the nearly 87 percent of the workers who don't belong to unions? CHAO: Well, the Department of Labor represents the entire workforce. I represent workers who are organized and unorganized. And that's the issue, that is the constituency that I'm concerned with. So we remain open to meeting all sorts of stakeholders.

And again, it's got to be a two-way street. There has to be some willingness on the part of the other side to want to work with us as well.

HUNT: Madam Secretary, you cited an instance in which labor and the administration worked together, the Teamsters have already joined one or two other isolated areas -- the steelworkers and import restrictions.

But on the major issues -- health care, Social Security, taxes, trade, Mexican trucking, workplace regulations -- isn't it true that you and the president on the one side are really in bitter opposition to the stands taken by labor leaders, including Jim Hoffa?

CHAO: Well, you know, I think, again, it's worthwhile mentioning that we are willing to work with anyone who share our philosophy and who want to work with us. I think it's very difficult to work with someone who doesn't want to work with you.

CHAO: And, obviously, we find that there are labor leaders who understand that there are opportunities on occasion to work with the administration. And we work very well with them, as you mentioned, on the steel issue, and there are a number of other issues. We are always open in terms of our community.

HUNT: But not on taxes or trade or any -- of Social Security or Medicare?

CHAO: I think it's kind of a misnomer to even think that somehow we are not open on those issues. I think it's clear that the other side is very partisan and that there's not an open dialogue. So there's got to be -- it's got to be a two-way street. And to think that the taxes is somehow an issue that the other side has a monopoly on, is a total misrepresentation as to what this administration is all about.

HUNT: Well, let me pick up on that. You had a meeting with John Sweeney four or five months ago, in which you all...

CHAO: I've had several.

HUNT: Oh, you have?

CHAO: It's a pretty regular contact.

HUNT: At one such meeting you all swapped stories about why there were difficulties in this relationship. And you told him that one of the problems that this administration had is that when he criticized the president on, as you put it, non-labor issues, like tax cuts, that created difficulties. What did you mean that tax cuts are a non-labor issue? CHAO: Well, have you ever gone on to AFL-CIO web site? It is full of insults and epithets toward this administration. So again, it's very hard to work with someone or a group that is so ideological opposed to this administration and who really does not seem to want to display any effort to work with this administration.

The tax cut is not, obviously, is not an issue that is only framed by the AFL-CIO. We had lots of issues. We are concerned about the tax cut as well. We're concerned that Americans get their tax dollars back. We are concerned about of putting more dollars back in the pockets of working Americans. That's a working-American issue itself. It's not a monopolistic issue that is totally garnered by the other side.

NOVAK: Madam Secretary, let's turn the labor leader you do have good relations with, Jim Hoffa, but...

CHAO: I like to think that I have good relations with all of them.


CHAO: You may disagree...

NOVAK: Particularly good.

CHAO: ... but I have.

NOVAK: Particularly good. But you have disagreements with Mr. Hoffa on the regulation and restrictions on Mexican trucks in the United States, and he says it's a safety factor. But would you say that it isn't really safety the Teamsters are worried about in trying to restrict those trucks, but protecting jobs of American truck drivers?

CHAO: I think the NAFTA agreement offers, actually, tremendous opportunity to American truckers. American truckers are productive, they're efficient, they are very, very able in what they do. And I think that there will be wonderful opportunities for them to go to Mexico. And, in fact, there will be lots of opportunities to merge with Mexican companies. But that is, again, a wonderful opportunity for them.

As for the argument that Mexican trucks are somehow unsafe here, you know, I think that that's perhaps a bit overblown.

NOVAK: Would you agree with Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, then, that the Teamsters are really practicing anti-Mexican, anti- Hispanic bias in trying to keep these trucks off our streets, would you agree with Senator Lott on that?

CHAO: Well, it's interesting to note that Canadian drivers appear to have no such criticism, and they're certainly not...

NOVAK: No such restrictions, you mean.

CHAO: Yes.

HUNT: Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle says he's going to bring a bill to increase the minimum wage up at the end of this month. Over the last 20 years, the minimum wage hasn't come close to keeping pace with inflation. These are the poorest workers, live below the poverty line.

Will your administration support a straight-out increase in the minimum wage?

CHAO: Well, the administration's expected to support the increase in the minimum wage. But the administration has also said on numerous occasions that we are very concerned about the impact, possible adverse impact on local economic growth.

Now, the Senate, I understand, is contemplating a proposal of about $1.50 over two years. This will be the largest increase in the history of the inception of this program. So I think that's going to be of concern, and that's going to be discussed this coming September.

HUNT: Madam Secretary, if it does go a $1.50, up to $6.50 an hour, those workers, 11 million Americans, would still all be below the poverty level, whether they're in Laredo, Texas, or Manhattan.

That really concerns you, that the people still would be making below the poverty level?

CHAO: Well, first of all, a lot of the industry today does not pay nearly minimum wage. People are paying whatever the market will bear. And in many urban areas, in many of the larger populated areas, the prevailing wage is already way above minimum wage.

What we're talking about is some flexibility for economic growth in the rural areas, where, perhaps, an increase in the minimum wage would have an adverse impact.

HUNT: Madam Secretary, we're going to take a break right now.

But we'll be back in just a moment to talk to Elaine Chao about the labor movement and ethics.


HUNT: Madam Secretary, the Teamsters Union have been under the monitoring of an independent review board because of their long record of cooperation in dealing with organized crime. They claim they have solved those problems and they should get rid of the independent review board. Do you agree with that?

CHAO: Well, I think if they have solved the problems, yes, then the independent review board should be eliminated.

HUNT: Do you think they've solved the problems?

CHAO: Well, there appears to be still some lingering reports about continuous violence. And so, we are very, again, very open to working with the Teamsters to ensure that these incidents do not occur again and that there's not a pattern.

I have absolute confidence in President Hoffa that he is trying his best to ensure that his union is going in the right direction. But so long as some of these incidents are still out there, we're going to have to maintain that for a little bit longer.

NOVAK: Another ethical question, the secretary-treasurer, Mr. Trumka, of the AFL-CIO -- the number-two person in the AFL-CIO -- took the Fifth Amendment in connection with the 1996 illegal swap of funds between the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO. Supposed to resign and take the Fifth Amendment; he's still in office. Should Mr. Trumka resign?

CHAO: Well, it is certainly very unusual for a top official of the AFL-CIO to invoke the Fifth Amendment, particularly when, in the past, when any high official has done so, they have automatically been terminated or left.

NOVAK: Should he resign?

CHAO: I think this issue is still working, and so let's see what happens. It's in the courts, and there are numerous cases associated with it. Let justice take its course.

HUNT: Madam Secretary, 10 years ago, one of your Republican predecessors, Elizabeth Dole, called ergonomics the most debilitating workplace-safety issue in America. Nothing has happened for 10 years, basically very little as far as regulations.

The Clinton administration put out something right before they left office; you all stopped it. And labor now says that you're about to put out regulations next month.

CHAO: Well, we didn't stop it; the Congress stopped it.

HUNT: That's right, but with your support.

CHAO: With a bipartisan effort.

HUNT: Mainly Republicans and with the support of the administration. And labor now says that you're about to put out a regulation that dilutes what was done last January 16 on ergonomics. Is that right?

CHAO: Well, I think it's helpful to look back on the history of this whole issue. First of all, I think few will dispute the fact that the final ergonomics rule was pushed out of the last administration in the waning days of its closure. It was promulgated on January 16.

In fact, it's an interesting note, we've had about 29 different regulations leave the Department of Labor in the last month alone. So there was a lot of activity going on.

But the final rule was promulgated on January 20. The Congress did not act to eviscerate the rule until March 20. And so, from that period onward, we have engaged upon a very active program of meetings and contracts with all stakeholders.

HUNT: But you're going to put something out now that...

CHAO: Well, let me finish. So I have met with well over -- I would say 60 different groups -- organized labor, businesses, small business, health care specialists, nonprofit executives, nonprofit organizations -- on this particular issue. I'm very concerned about muscular-skeletal injuries.

HUNT: Just tell us a little bit about what you're going to do though.

CHAO: I think it's important to understand the process, because also we have held three forums throughout the country -- one in the east coast, one in the west coast, one in the middle of the country. We have gathered valuable information on three essential questions. And I think these questions are important in terms of determining what government action is necessary.

One is, we have to define, if we are to regulate this, what is an ergonomic injury. That has not been mutually agreed upon yet. And there's no scientific agreement as to what is an ergonomic injury. So how can we regulate it if we don't understand it?

Second of all, we need to find out what happens if an ergonomic injury occurred at home and it's exacerbated at work? What is the role of the government, what is the role of business to take care of that?

And thirdly, what is the role of government? Is it to issue regulations? Is it to encourage compliance with voluntary guidelines?

As I have said, I have maintained a very open mind, and I hope that all stakeholders do as well. And I hope to have something out in September.

NOVAK: We'll have just a little more than a minute before we take another break.

Madam Secretary, the Department of Labor two years ago, in 1999, filed a civil suit in connection with the fleecing of the pension fund of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in which some private entities, controlled by the now -- the current Democratic National Chairman, Terry McAuliffe, prospered. I have tried for two years to find whether there was any progress, whether there were any developments. And the people my offices talked to at the Labor Department have stonewalled on that.

Can you tell us anything about whether any progress has been made in that suit after two years?

CHAO: Well, this is currently issue residing within the Pension- Welfare Benefits Administration, which is a part of the Department of Labor. It's a civil suit. And there are allegations of misuse of about several millions of dollars. CHAO: We have obviously the responsibility to ensure that there's financial integrity in our pension plans and that workers' interests are protected.

NOVAK: So this is still a live suit.

CHAO: So this is still a live suit, right.

NOVAK: I'd like to hear what's going on.

CHAO: There's litigation ongoing, and so I can't comment too much about that.

HUNT: Let me ask a final quick question. You have nominated Eugene Scalia to be the solicitor of labor. He's a person who has worked only for businesses, not for unions, in the past. And some say it looks like a payoff to his father, the Supreme Court justice who cast the deciding vote to make sure Bush was president.

CHAO: I think Gene Scalia has been terribly maligned. He is an outstanding labor lawyer. He's an outstanding person. He is well- known throughout Washington for his ability, for his intelligence and for his integrity. And I think to have the kinds of stories circulate about him has been terribly unfair to him.

If anything, I would say the opposite; that this is America and you're not judged by what your last name is. And it seems to me the other side is targeting him because of what his last name is.

HUNT: OK. Madam Secretary, we're going to take a break for a moment.

But when we come back, we will have "The Big Question" for Elaine Chao.


HUNT: "The Big Question": We live in a global economy. Many members of labor and the conservative movement have been very critical of worker conditions in China. Your family has some close business dealings with China.

CHAO: That's not true.

HUNT: Well, your dad's pretty close to Jiang Zemin, the president there.

CHAO: Well, that's a whole other issue, and that was very irresponsible, erroneous reporting. And if my last name were not Chao, it would never have...


HUNT: Have you spoken out on labor conditions in China?

CHAO: We have worked on child labor issues, and that is certainly one of my priorities.

NOVAK: Let me ask you this. I think we have a big country with a lot of problems in it.

CHAO: Yes.

NOVAK: Do you think it might not be a good idea to try to solve our own problems without trying to interfere in every other country in the world on their labor conditions?

CHAO: Well, America is a leader in fair labor standards and ensuring that workers are protected and that they work in safe environments. So I think we do have a bit of a responsibility. And where there are opportunities where we can help other countries lift the conditions of their working population, I think we have a responsibility ourself.

NOVAK: Elaine Chao, thank you very much.

CHAO: Thank you.

NOVAK: Al Hunt and I will be back with a comment after these messages.


HUNT: Bob, Elaine Chao did not offer any Labor Day peace pipe to John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president. And she said basically, "If you continue to play hard ball, we're going to play hard ball right back."

NOVAK: She is a feisty secretary of labor, and although she is wooing James Hoffa and the Teamsters, she didn't disagree with Trent Lott about a little anti-Hispanic feeling on the Mexican truck restrictions. She said, "Hey, there's no restrictions on Canada."

HUNT: Of course, Canadian truck drivers get paid a lot more.

But I'll tell you, she's also a charming woman. But, boy, did she bristle when the question of the Chinese connection came up and her father's ties with Jiang Zemin.

NOVAK: You know, being secretary of labor in a Republican administration is a little bit like being secretary of commerce in a Democratic administration, but Bill Daley did a very good job in that role in the last administration. And I think I was impressed by her attitude and her toughness and her tenacity.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt.

NOVAK: Coming up in one-half hour on "RELIABLE SOURCES": Is there any information in the Condit case the press doesn't find news- worthy? Plus, why out-going mayor Rudy Giuliani is still the one to watch in the New York race. And at 7:00 p.m., "CAPITAL GANG" on violence in the Middle East, the sinking economy and an introduction to Michael Powell, the new FCC chairman and son of the secretary of state.

HUNT: That's all for now. Thanks for joining us.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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