The Magnolia Mediator

Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman speaks out on the changing dynamics of the 21st century workplace

You know the headlines: THE Year 2000 started with a bang. The first week of February marked the longest economic expansion in history-107 months and counting. That milestone followed fast on the heels of a January that saw 387,000 new jobs created-the biggest single-month jump in more than two years. General unemployment dropped to 4%-the lowest in 40 years-and even African American unemployment declined to around 8% from double digits.

Now, what do all those statistics mean to you? A financially secure future in an ever-changing workplace, if Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman has anything to do with it. The diminutive Mobile, Alabama, native may walk-and talk-softly, but she has earned the respect of some the biggest corporations and unions in the country. Those who know her, and have worked for and with her, point to the Xavier University graduate’s ability to focus on an issue, put together a strategy and get those needed to push the agenda forward to buy into it-with Southern gentility, of course.

She is perhaps best known for her tenure as deputy chairperson of the Democratic National Committee when the late Ron Brown served as its chairman. Her nomination and confirmation as labor secretary were the object of some contention in Washington, D.C., political circles due to allegations of influence-peddling. Though an investigation into whether she took a cash bribe or solicited illegal campaign donations while she was a White House aide in the Clinton administration (allegations she consistently denied) turned up nothing, it ultimately took over 100 days for her to be approved.

Since being named labor secretary in 1997, Herman has spearheaded a number of weighty initiatives aimed at addressing various areas of concern in the American workplace. Among them is the Youth Opportunity Movement, the Labor Department’s $1 billion community investment plan to train at-risk youth for the workforce while working through their communities to build partnerships among them and government, private-sector businesses and not-for-profit, community- and faith-based organizations. Established in the summer of 1999, the YO Movement is a direct result of the Work Force Investment Act of 1998, which was enacted to “consolidate, coordinate and improve employment, training, literacy and vocational rehabilitation programs in the United States.”

Creating policy isn’t all that has characterized Herman’s reign as Madam Secretary. While “steel magnolia” is often used to characterize Southern women of strong conviction and purpose, the term would be an apt description of Herman’s determination-and not her personality. Her strong suit is as a mediator. Just ask the Teamsters and UPS, between whom she successfully mediated a strike, or ask the labor ministers of nations around the globe.

With the workplace evolving from a manufacturing base to an information and service base (see “The Future is Now,” February 2000), black enterprise recently spoke with the secretary in Washington about the changing landscape and to get a perspective on what workers must do to prepare themselves going into the new century.

What should people do to prepare themselves for working in what’s been termed the New

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