For nearly a decade, organized labor has been demanding a secretary of labor with a voice in domestic policy, someone with a seat at the government's main policy table. With the nomination of Lynn Martin to the Cabinet post, the unions may get their wish but not their way.
Martin, a long-standing Bush ally who served five terms in the House as a Republican from Illinois, has won the consistent support of business groups most opposed to the legislative agenda of organized labor -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Organized labor has expressed skepticism about Martin's appointment, accusing her of showing little sensitivity to the needs of the nation's workers during her congressional career. Martin's nomination has the support of Illinois's two Democratic senators, including her November election rival, Paul Simon. Confirmation hearings have not been scheduled, but she is expected to win Senate approval easily.
As labor secretary, the 50-year-old Martin will preside over one of the government's biggest regulatory agencies, setting the basic workplace standards for 125 million Americans.
Among Martin's first decisions will be whether to continue two initiatives begun by her predecessor Elizabeth Hanford Dole. Dole resigned in November to become president of the American Red Cross.
The first is the "glass ceiling" initiative designed to break the barriers to top corporate management for women and minorities. The program, which is being designed by the department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, is effectively on hold until Martin arrives.
The other major initiative is an enforcement crackdown on child labor laws that Dole began last year with a series of highly publicized raids on fast-food restaurants and other businesses that tend to use young workers.
Although department officials expect Martin to continue the Dole initiatives, she has refused to comment on department programs until her confirmation hearings.
Another major issue facing Martin is stepped-up enforcement of federal pension laws and an ongoing study started by Dole two years ago to devise a way to make pensions portable so workers would not lose retirement credits as they shifted from one job to another over a lifetime. The government predicts the average worker entering the work force today will change jobs at least six times over his or her lifetime.
Another major enforcement area under Dole has been health and safety regulations. Under the Bush administration, the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has dramatically increased activity, with major new programs in the meatpacking and petrochemical industries and a general willingness to take on major corporations.
Congress, in an effort to raise more money to cut the federal budget deficit last year, approved a sevenfold increase in civil penalties for employers who violate federal health and safety laws. In the same budget reconcilation bill, Congress also approved a tenfold increase in penalties for child labor law violators and a fivefold increase in fines under the mine safety act, all of which the Labor Department administers.
Martin's biggest challenges from organized labor this year are apt to come in the legislative area, where the unions are expected to push for a broad reform of OSHA, similar to last year's update of federal environmental law through amendments to the Clean Air Act. The unions are particularly eager to enact criminal penalties for OSHA violators.
Labor also is expected to seek additional increases in the federal minimum wage. The last step of the increases approved by the last Congress goes into effect in April, taking the minimum to $4.25 an hour. Peggy Taylor, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, said the unions have yet to decide what they want to do about the minimum wage. "Discussions are underway as to what to do," she said.
Labor also will be pushing for a family and medical leave bill, which Bush vetoed last year, and legislation to ban the use of replacement workers in strikes. Martin voted for the leave bill last year over the objections of the White House. The replacement workers bill did not come up for a vote.
When Martin appears before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, the one department program she is not apt to be questioned about too closely is the Job Training Partnership Act, the biggest single item on the department's budget.
With strong bipartisan support from the White House and the Democratic congressional leadership, the Labor Department worked to tighten the focus of the government's major manpower training program. Critics argued that program sponsors were "creaming" from the pool of potential trainees to assure good placement results and therefore remain eligible for future training contracts. This, the critics argued, meant that sponsors often picked people who probably could have found a job and training on their own.
At the end of the last Congress, however, efforts to change the program came to a sudden, unexpected halt, according to department and congressional sources, when Simon blocked legislative amendments because there was too little money for Illinois. Simon is a member of the committee handling the confirmation.
When it comes to the job training program, a committee official said, "I don't know how deep that line of questioning will go."