For Alexis Herman, a Proving Ground
By Kevin Merida
Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman spent the early part of yesterday soaking up adulation from supporters who were happy she had proved her early doubters wrong.
After announcing a settlement of the UPS strike shortly after midnight, Herman grabbed a few hours of sleep. Then, at 7 a.m., she began a round of TV and radio interviews to explain her role in helping resolve the nation's largest strike in two decades.
Later, after a breakfast of grits and eggs at the Labor Department's sixth-floor cafeteria, she went to the daily morning meeting of her top assistants and was greeted with a standing ovation. Next stop was a coffee-and-doughnut thank-you reception for about 35 employees who had played key roles in the 15-day United Parcel Service-Teamsters union drama.
One employee had crafted a makeshift banner bearing a Herman quote that summed up her approach to the talks: "I Never Entertained Failure as an Option."
Labor sources yesterday lauded Herman for playing the classic role of mediator during the negotiations keeping both sides talking, even when things got heated.
"I wasn't trying to be subtle," Herman said yesterday on NBC's "Today" show. "I was trying to be very direct. I moved in with them."
It was hard to overstate the sense of triumph that Herman and those who work closely with her felt after the settlement.
"It was a defining moment," said a top aide. "All weekend, she had said, `I've got to do it.' If she had lost, what would everyone have been saying today?"
Union officials who had been sharply critical of her nomination earlier this year were now singing her praises.
"She was not our first choice," acknowledged Gerry Shea, a top assistant to AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. Ironically, one of labor's concerns, said Shea, had been that Herman was "not somebody who has done this sort of thing," meaning helping to resolve contentious labor-management disputes.
But Shea rated her performance in the UPS-Teamsters negotiations "at least a 9, if not a 9.5."
Shea said that those who have watched Herman "both publicly and privately, as we have, are extremely impressed by her presence. There's a grace that she has. It's the key to why she is so good at the interpersonal stuff."
Teamsters President Ron Carey said yesterday that Herman's role wasn't in "framing the issues or in working through the issues," but rather in keeping the parties together. He said she did a "good job of that."
For Herman, the UPS strike was an opportunity to demonstrate her acumen at resolving a high-profile dispute. She had already been through a punishing confirmation fight, with Republicans questioning whether she had improperly used her previous position as White House director of public liaison. Organized-labor officials had questioned whether she was even the right choice for the job. Many in the movement privately grumbled that President Clinton had let them down.
In mediating the UPS dispute, Herman demonstrated some of the same skills that earlier made her known in Democratic Party circles as "the queen of smooth." As White House director of public liaison, one of her favorite techniques was to arrange informal dinner parties to smooth relations with key constituents or sell controversial administration initiatives.
In the UPS-Teamsters dispute, she impressed some on both sides with the way she immersed herself in the technical aspects of their issues such as the weight limits of UPS packages. But she also used her personal charm to keep people talking.
Herman's meetings with the two sides began Monday, Aug. 11, when she asked Teamsters President Carey and UPS Chairman James P. Kelly to come to her office separately. Each side had two hours to state its case.
"She wanted to know, was there a way to frame the issues so that each would come back to the table," said a top Herman aide. On Tuesday morning, she met with AFL-CIO chief Sweeney, who was leaving town and wanted to check her progress. She picked his brain for advice, and Sweeney was impressed at how quickly she had understood what was at stake in the strike. He later commented to Shea: "Thank God, she is such a phenomenally quick study."
But at that point, she still had not gotten both sides to come back to the table. That would not occur until Wednesday.
On Thursday, the talks moved into the Hyatt hotel on Capitol Hill, near Teamsters headquarters and not far from the Labor Department. Herman brokered this arrangement. She thought the negotiators needed a change of venue.
The Hyatt would become Negotiation Central for the next few days. The Labor Department set up a press operation and a floating staff room there. And Herman found herself canceling her trip back home to Mobile, Ala., where she was to be feted at "Alexis Herman Day."
During the standoff at the Hyatt, she played the roles of listener and interpreter and translator the person who could tell one side what the other side was thinking.
She wasn't anticipating a long negotiating process. Her chief economist, Ed Montgomery, who was there throughout, didn't even bring a change of clothes when he arrived at the Hyatt on Thursday. It wasn't until Saturday that a fresh shirt was brought to him. And on Saturday, Herman herself finally left the hotel for a long walk.
By then, Herman knew that the two sides were close. Up until then, she had been keeping the White House informed primarily through including Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles and domestic policy adviser Bruce Lindsey.
But on Saturday night and Sunday morning, Herman had conversations with Clinton that led to a tactical change in direction. Clinton decided to give the parties a rhetorical push. His theory, which Herman shared, was that the two sides were 95 percent in agreement and simply needed a little shove.
The president gave that shove Sunday night, when he told reporters: "It's my gut feeling they'll settle. . . . Right now, the Teamsters have public sentiment on their side, but that will turn."
William Dickens, a labor economist with the Brookings Institution, said it was the kind of role administrations have often played historically. But many people forget this.
"They were putting a little pressure here and there, but not intervening in a heavy-handed way," Dickens said.
"That's the norm."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company