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Staffers' Good-Riddance Party for Chao a Labor of Love

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

During these last few days of the Bush administration, you might expect gatherings where career staffers bid a fond farewell to the political appointees they've worked closely with for years.

Labor Department staffers held such an affair last week, a going-away event for the top appointee there. But rather than a fond farewell, it was a good-riddance party to cheer the departure of Secretary Elaine Chao.

Alexander Bastani, president of Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employees, set the tone for the occasion by leading the crowd in a serenade to the secretary: "Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, goodbye."

"Sisters and brothers, we are 11 days away," he said to cheers from about 100 of his members Friday night at Clyde's of Gallery Place. "Eleven days away from freedom."

The bar was open and the wait staff circulated with cocktail party nibbles. The setting was the restaurant's Piedmont Room, a plush chamber with cherry wood paneling on the walls and ceiling. The room is decorated with silver trays and trophies, a slew of horse-race paintings and a life-size statue of a jockey riding a racehorse. You can't miss the three large (albeit phony) palm trees.

Of course, no party is complete without a cake. This bash featured a yellow one with white icing and the words "Ciao to Chao" on top. That, explained Eleanor Lauderdale, vice president of the local, "symbolizes the end of tyranny at the Department of Labor."

The most surprising thing about the cake was the ability of Everett Horton, a waiter, to carry six plates of it on his outstretched arm at one time. "I dropped a lot of cakes" while learning, he said, "but it's second nature now."

Also notable is the way union leaders respond differently to agency heads. It's not an ideological thing where all Republican appointees are bad folks in the eyes of Democratic union bosses. During a union holiday party before Christmas with Department of Housing and Urban Development workers, the attitude exhibited toward that agency's leadership was much more positive than the brickbats thrown at Chao.

Labor leaders said the Baltimore law firm Snider & Associates paid for the $6,000 affair. A Snider advertisement on the back page of the local's newsletter notes the firm's representation of federal employees and says "Local 12 trusts us . . . So should you!"

Chao's shop brushed off the event like Jay-Z flicking dirt off his shoulder.

"While a disgruntled few may have been griping at happy hour, most of the department's 15,000-plus career employees have been enthusiastically achieving record pro-worker results under Secretary Chao's leadership," said Jennifer Coxe, the deputy assistant secretary of public affairs.

For example, she said, Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration is reporting the lowest fatality, illness and injury rates in history, and there were fewer deaths in mines last year than ever before.

Chao's PR doesn't persuade union leaders.

"I don't buy it," John Gage, AFGE national president, said in an interview yesterday. "She has deliberately walked away from regulation after regulation that was put there to look out for the safety of workers."

Putting a historical spin on it, Bastani said, "we all thought Raymond Donovan [President Ronald Reagan's labor secretary] was the worst secretary of labor ever," but "Elaine Chao blew him out of the water."

The union is glad to see her go because its members say she favored business so much that it has been difficult for them to carry out Labor's mission. The mission statement says in part that the agency "fosters and promotes the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions."

But that hasn't been the case under Chao, the labor leaders complained. Lauderdale cited the case of Ira Wainless, a senior industrial hygienist at the department. In 2002, he drafted a bulletin warning auto mechanics that brake linings were "a substantial source of exposure" to asbestos, a carcinogen.

The warning was finally published four years later, after Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) pushed for it, but not before the document was watered down -- the "substantial source of exposure" had become "potential exposure" to asbestos. Wainless was threatened with suspension because his bulletin did not mention an industry-financed study, but his boss relented when an account of his travails appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

Because of situations like that, Mark Roth, AFGE's general counsel, said the department has been a terrible place to work for the career workforce that has believed in the mission and carrying out the policies in a neutral manner."

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com

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