Donald Trump's big swamp drain has dredged up Elaine Chao, a right-wing ideologue who was George W. Bush's secretary of labor. Tapped by Trump for transportation secretary, Chao is a consummate Washington insider who was the only member of Bush's cabinet to serve throughout his entire eight-year presidency. Chao is also married to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
I was at the AFL-CIO during Chao's entire tenure, and witnessed first-hand the havoc her policies wrought on workers and unions. Political at every turn, she saw her role as labor secretary as cooperating with corporations, rolling back overtime protections, weakening enforcement of wage and hour laws, and pursuing labor organizations—especially those that had supported Democrats. John Sweeney, then AFL-CIO President, called her the most anti-labor labor secretary he had ever seen.
If you ask many labor leaders what they most remember about Chao, they'll tell you about the time she brought a thick dossier detailing union-related corruption to the 2003 AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting, and then read it aloud to the nation's top labor leaders. She singled out the International Association of Machinists, spotlighting investigations that the union itself had flagged for the Department of Labor.
Chao also successfully urged Bush to issue a back-to-work order in a West Coast ports lock-out that ground shipping to a halt. It was the first time in 30 years a president had invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to end a labor dispute.
Chao's tenure, however, ultimately did more damage to average workers than to labor leaders and unions. She rolled back workers' overtime protections, allowing employers to reclassify rank-and-file workers as “team leaders” or “professionals,” so they wouldn’t qualify for overtime pay after they’d worked more than 40 hours in a week. Under Chao's overtime “fix,” many restaurant and retail workers who spent most of the day ringing up customers were suddenly “executives” exempt from overtime. The Economic Policy Institute later estimated that Chao's rules robbed as many as six million workers of overtime pay.
The Obama administration's Labor Department has since issued new rules on overtime that would repair much of Chao's damage. By raising the salary threshold under which workers must receive overtime pay to $47,000, the Obama Labor Department sought to restore overtime rights to millions of those “managers” whom Chao had excluded. A Texas federal judge has since ruled that the DOL didn't have the proper authority to raise the overtime salary threshold, and the Obama administration has fought back with its own lawsuit. Ironically, Chao's Labor Department also raised the salary threshold for overtime, using the same rule-making authority rejected by the Texas judge. Chao, however, set the bar so low that it helped few exempted workers.
Workers were also no safer on the job after Chao's tenure. One of her first actions was to champion Congress' roll-back of an ergonomics rule aimed at reducing repetitive-motion injuries, like those suffered by poultry workers on wickedly fast disassembly lines. The rule had been in the works since the presidency of Bush's father, and Bill Clinton issued the rule in his final months in office. Instead, Chao's Labor Department issued ergonomics “guidelines” with little worker protection.
The Labor Department is responsible for mine health and safety, and yet it put forward no meaningful mine rules or regulations until after the 2006 Sago mine explosion that trapped a dozen West Virginia mineworkers in a methane-filled passageway. All but one died. Wilbur Ross, Trump's pick for Commerce Secretary, owned the mine at the time and had little to fear from Chao's Mine Safety and Health Administration, even though before the explosion, workers at Sago had been injured three times as often as workers in similar mines.
Indeed, most damaging to workers was what Chao did not do as Secretary of Labor. The Labor Department is supposed to enforce the rules that protect workers, such as those guaranteeing a minimum wage. Chao's Labor Department was a cop that refused to lift a finger to enforce the law. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a blistering report in early 2009 that detailed the multiple ways that Chao's Wage and Hour Division had left low-wage workers vulnerable to wage theft and abuse. The report found that under Chao, the Labor Department had failed to investigate workers' reports that they had been denied minimum wage, overtime pay and even their last paycheck. It even cited a report of child labor that Chao's department had never investigated.
As secretary of transportation, Chao will have enormous influence over how a Trump administration impacts average people's lives. She will oversee enforcement of the rules that govern our nation's roads and airways, and will determine whether corporations' needs take precedence over public safety. She will weigh in on decisions about whether new infrastructure is built by unionized workers, and will be in charge of policing new technologies, like self-driving 18-wheeler trucks. If the labor movement's experience is any guide, it may be time to start depending on your bicycle. As transportation secretary, Chao is likely to stick closely to a right-wing ideology that will have her bowing to big business' needs at every turn.