Chao Time

Dishing Up the American Dream

The office of Edward Kennedy, who presided over Chao's hearing, didn't receive so much as a phone call of protest from any union, according to the senator's spokesperson. Mainstream labor denounced Chavez because of the danger she posed to the minimum wage, affirmative action, and other government protections. Like anyone vying to take over an agency overseeing 125 million workers, Chavez protested that she would fully and fairly enforce existing labor laws. Bullshit, the unions said. They planned to orchestrate a filibuster to block her nomination. But Chao, who pussyfooted around questions about minimum wage, affirmative action, workplace protection, and health care during her hearing, got the benefit of the doubt.

What doubt? True, Chao, unlike Chavez, has almost no labor background (a fact that worries nobody), nor has she been as forthcoming with her views. Therefore, some argue, there's not enough to judge her on. But her opposition to affirmative action—with her own success as the primary example of why it's not necessary—is well documented; the federal government, which she would represent, is the biggest affirmative action employer in the nation. She sits on four corporate boards: Northwest Airlines, Clorox, C.R. Bard, Columbia/HCA Healthcare. As a member of the staunchly conservative Heritage Foundation, she has argued that the greatest regulator of the free market is the free market itself. To her, the instability experienced by globalization-era workers is not a burden, it's "autonomy." In one interview a couple of years back, she declared, "Levi Strauss is going bankrupt, basically, because they pride themselves on being the most worker-enlightened corporation in America."

In a way, it really doesn't matter who the labor secretary is. Anyone would ultimately be a mouthpiece and mule for the Bush agenda, the project of privileging profit over the poor. But in another sense, it does. It matters that Linda Chavez was such a despicable figure, a common enemy for the disunited left. The many-faceted myth of Chao, on the other hand, has bewitched potential critics—minorities, women, unions—and caused them to roll over. With Chao as its spokesperson, the new administration is selling the American dream. The final price may be higher than buyers realize.

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