Woman on a mission

Alexis Herman roars from the Department of Labor

Don’t let Alexis Herman’s small size and Southern gentility fool you. As the Teamsters and some members of the U.S. Senate can attest, she is a spirited leader who is always up for a challenge. Sworn in as the 23rd U.S. Secretary of Labor in May 1997 more than 100 days after President Clinton nominated her for the job, Herman underwent a harrowing confirmation ordeal that she says made her appreciate her job all the more.

Herman began her government career during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, where she served as director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau. In the ’80s she advised state and local governments and private corporations on labor and diversity issues as president of A.M. Herman & Associates, a consulting firm. Before joining the Clinton Cabinet, Herman was assistant to the president and director of the White House Public Liaison Office.

Said Clinton when he announced her appointment, “She is a leader who understands the needs of workers and understands the challenges they face as we approach the 21st century.”

How do you view your role and that of your department in terms of serving the nation?

Herman: I think that we have three important roles to play. First, to help prepare America’s workers to meet the challenges of the 21st century by investing in skills development. Second, I’m responsible for enforcing all of the nation’s pension laws and making sure your retirement funds are safe when you’re ready to retire. And third, in [an increasingly diverse workplace], effective enforcement of our anti-discrimination laws and making sure that workplaces are safe and healthy and people are treated with dignity and respect.

How has NAFTA impacted African American workers?

Herman: Opening up markets worldwide to create jobs here at home was a deliberate part of the president’s strategy. While NAFTA has been a big job booster and we’ve created more jobs at home, there are communities that haven’t shared in this job growth, particularly in the South where African Americans are more heavily concentrated and working in textiles and apparel.

How can that be remedied?

Herman: We have to be much more aggressive in giving workers the tools to manage the change in the global economy today. We have to invest in and train for other jobs that are being created. The fastest-growing occupations are in the service and high-tech industries.

What does your crystal ball say about the future for the minority workforce?

Herman: I believe America will be made up of many faces and races with no one majority group. It’s an opportunity and a challenge for us to capitalize on our diversity. We’re positioned to compete and win everywhere, from the global marketplace to the corner market, but we must be willing to work in nontraditional areas.

What have been your greatest accomplishments?

Herman: I’m very proud of settling the UPS strike, which I think reaffirmed faith in the collective bargaining process. Also, the investments we’re making in young workers to ensure they’re prepared to meet the challenges of the new millennium. We’ve reduced

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