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Lynn Martin : The Secretary of Labor Tries to Look on the Bright Side

March 15, 1992|Jefferson Morley | Jefferson Morley is a former associate editor of the New Republic and Washington editor of the Nation. He interviewed Lynn Martin in her office

WASHINGTON — Lynn Martin is cheerful, but then again she has to be. She is secretary of labor while American workers endure the worst recession in a decade. Her job is to advance the interests of working people while reporting to a President whose highest economic priority remains reducing taxes paid by capitalists.

In person, Martin has the down-to-earth style of a high-school homeroom teacher--which she once was. Sitting in her huge corner office, with a view of the Capitol, Martin also exudes the caution of a career politician--which she also is. She defuses philosophical and ideological questions with implacable niceness. She dwells with genuine enthusiasm on the most innocuous issues facing the Labor Department. In temperament and syntax, Martin resembles no one as much as her boss, George Bush.

Martin, a lifelong Republican loyalist, was born Dec. 26, 1939, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois in 1960. She taught in Rockford, Ill., then entered county and state politics. Martin has two grown daughters and is married to U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber.

In 1980, she was elected to the U.S. Congress, representing a district in northern Illinois. She served five terms, and was well respected by her colleagues, ultimately being elected vice chair of the House Republican Caucus. Then, in 1990, Martin was persuaded by the GOP leadership to run for the Senate against Paul Simon, the heavily favored Democratic incumbent. After she lost, President Bush appointed her the 21st secretary of labor.

Martin brushes aside mounting criticism from union leaders, noting that unions represent only 15% of the work force. She defends the Bush Administration's opposition to mandated family leave and civil-rights legislation, despite the fact that she voted for such legislation while serving in Congress. Words like "collective bargaining" seem to disturb Martin's upbeat assessment of the future of American workers. To Martin, such terms are relics of an almost by-gone era. She insists the real agenda for American workers lies in job training, in pension portability and her well-publicized campaign against the "glass ceiling" that limits opportunities for women.

The notion that labor and capital might have different interests seems to strike Martin as old-fashioned. In fact, Martin hopes to advance the lot of U.S. workers without disturbing the corporate managers, lawyers and lobbyists who dominate the Bush Administration. It is testimony to Martin's success in redefining the role of the labor secretary that she has not emerged as a more controversial figure while unemployment soars.

Question: Does the secretary of labor have any special responsibility at a time when a lot of people are out of work?

Answer: Sure, on three different levels. The first is most obvious. The Department of Labor has, as part of its mission, unemployment and making sure that unemployment--the benefits that accrue from unemployment get to people. We now will have 52 or 59 weeks of extended unemployment benefits. (It was) basically done quickly and without the usual demagoguery.

For instance, in the tax bill, one of the parts that I happen to like the most is that first-time-home-buying program. It goes right to an industry that has led this nation out of recession in different times. Secondly, it goes right to jobs that you can provide training for. It additionally provides opportunity for first-time home buyers.

On the third part, is that if jobs are difficult, then it's even more important to talk about those jobs that are available, what's required for them and to be able to provide ways for men and women to prepare themselves for those jobs, to have a system that gives the individual worker the kind of flexibility he or she needs to have a better chance to get that second, third, fourth, fifth job.

Q: In the fall, the unemployment extension was controversial. Congress was pushing for the extension. The Administration was resisting it or asking for different forms of funding. Why was it so much easier the second time around to get that extension of jobless benefits?

A: The President understood fully what it meant, and directed me to make sure that's how it happened. . . . Although there were some that, I think, might have been looking for political advantage, I'm pleased to say, across-the-board for Democrats as well as Republicans, that people were put first.

Q: You've also had your differences with the union leaders who you just came back from visiting. Lane Kirkland from the AFL-CIO was quoted as criticizing your "blithe optimism" that the trade agreement with Mexico wouldn't cost U.S. jobs.

A: The (labor unions), too, have an agenda. You're never going to hear me faulting that. Sometimes, their agenda isn't America's agenda, though . . . .

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