Before she became the first female Labor secretary in 1933, Frances Perkins had seen firsthand the tragedy of Manhattan’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Locked in by their employer, 146 mostly young girls died when they couldn’t escape the burning building where they toiled in sweatshop labor. Later, as the New York industrial commissioner, Perkins held employers accountable for workplace safety and health, expanding factory investigations and championing other pro-worker laws, like unemployment insurance.
Now, imagine if Elaine Chao had been there instead. Rather than improved job safety legislation, Chao likely would have pushed laws forbidding workers to challenge employers for unsafe working conditions, fair pay or anything that would cost greedy employers a dime.
In fact, Chao, the nation’s current Labor secretary, once again has taken the side of Big Business against working people. As Congress debates whether and to what extent to approve the corporate financial dictatorship proposed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Chao yesterday said Congress must pass the bailout "quickly and cleanly."
Cleanly as in giving Paulson, a political appointee with no accountability, powers so sweeping even the president couldn’t override his decisions.
Quickly, as in making sure the Wall Street CEOs, whose greed outpaced their brains and created the current debacle, get away with golden parachutes and massive bonuses.
Fittingly, Chao was speaking to reporters at an event in posh Fairfield County, Conn., famous for its expensive houses and site of many hedge funds and other financial service companies. She also took the opportunity to dodge a question about whether she favored extending the unemployment insurance time frame, saying Congress already had extended it this year.
(Let’s see…Chao’s Labor Department reported yesterday there were 1,772 mass layoffs initiated in August, the most since September 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And two weeks ago, Chao’s Labor Department reported unemployment worsened from 5.7 percent to 6.1 percent, a figure that economist Jared Bernstein noted in Sunday’s FDL Book Salon is more like 10.7 percent when underemployment is factored in. But I digress. Why would rising unemployment have anything to do with a need to extend unemployment insurance?)
At the same time that Chao was carrying out her role as a Bush-Paulson puppet, a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing examining pay discrimination heard from Lilly Ledbetter. After years of working at an Alabama Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant, Ledbetter discovered she was being paid less than the lowest-paid man doing the same work.
But although a jury awarded her $3.8 million, Goodyear appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Bush-packed Supreme Court essentially said "tough luck," and Ledbetter now not only is out tens of thousands of dollars in income, but her Social Security and pension are smaller as well.
As Christy pointed out a few days ago:
Even worse for all of us, the Ledbetter decision has now been cited in hundreds of cases nationwide to justify disparate treatment based on race, gender, age, disability and other reasons to pay someone less or treat them differently because these cases have been jimmied into an analogous argument to what Lilly faced in her claim. The SCOTUS decision effectively undercut decades of precedent on equality in one, fell swoop in favor of companies who want to justify internal discrimination.
Now, let’s imagine Frances Perkins was our current Labor secretary. It’s a safe bet that rather than backing massive CEO pay bailouts while making the rounds in a wealthy New York bedroom community, Perkins would be in those Senate hearings.
Right next to Lilly Ledbetter.