Alexis Herman, the 23rd U.S. Secretary of Labor, was the first African American to lead that department and the lone Black woman in the Clinton cabinet. When the president announced her appointment in December 1996, he said, “She is a leader who understands the needs of workers and understands the challenges they face as we approach the 21st century.” Prior to the appointment—and eventual confirmation—Herman was assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. Her official portrait was hung in the Department of Labor building.
Herman was part of the transition planning team during the 2000 election recount in Florida when it appeared that Al Gore would be the 43rd president. She had served as the deputy director of President Clinton’s transition office and sources close to the then White House (administration) said she was in line for a prominent post in the Gore administration.
The daughter of Alex Herman, a politician and Gloria Caponis, a schoolteacher, Alexis Margaret Herman was born in Mobile, Alabama on July 16, 1947 where she earned her high school diploma at the Heart of Mary Catholic High School in 1965. After attending Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin and Spring Hill College in Mobile briefly, Herman settled in at Xavier University, New Orleans, Louisiana where in 1969, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology.
After graduating from college, she became actively involved in efforts to desegregate high schools in Mobile and developing employment training opportunities for young people. Herman also worked as a social worker for Catholic Charities and other agencies advocating equality for women in employment. At 29, she began her career in government as the director of the Women’s Bureau in the Labor Department during the Carter administration. That was her first position that required Senate confirmation; she was easily confirmed. There she was instrumental in getting Delta Airlines and Coco-Cola to hire female professionals.
In 1981 after administrations changed in Washington, D.C., Herman founded the consulting firm of A.M. Herman & Associates which advised state and local governments on labor markets. She also guided corporations on human resources issues related to training, mentoring and reducing turnover.
While serving as president of her own firm, she remained active in Democratic Party politics eventually serving as chief of staff and vice president of the Democratic National Committee. She was responsible for organizing the Democratic National Convention under Chairman Ron Brown which was held in Madison Square Garden, New York City in 1992 where Barbara Jordan gave the keynote address.
Herman re-entered government service in the Clinton White House responsible for the administration’s relations with interest groups. Then at the beginning of President Clinton’s second administration, Herman became the Secretary of Labor where she remained until the president’s second term ended in 2001. She faced many controversies and weathered many storms during her tenure at the head of the labor department. Many labor leaders did not support her however, she continued to fight for minority and women’s rights in the labor market. In 1997, she successfully handled the UPS management and Teamsters Union workers’ negotiation ending a ten-day old strike declaring, “our faith in the collective bargaining process has been reaffirmed.”
In 1998, the Brotherhood Crusade honored Herman as the Walter Bremond Pioneer of African American Achievement Award referring to her as “our community treasure” stating, “We recognize all that she has meant to us as a people for holding the mantle of excellence high, as she served her family, her community, her people and her nation. It is with great joy and admiration that we hold her up as a model for all to see and acknowledge.”
Some of her major accomplishments as Secretary of Labor include getting the nation’s unemployment rate to a 30-year record low of 3.9 percent; maintaining low unemployment among Blacks and Latinos; and updating many of the labor department’s programs into a more efficient and reliable system. During her labor department tenure, Herman also focused on three specific goals: a prepared workforce, a secure workforce and a quality workplace.
One of the “bumps in the road” for Herman was an allegation that she solicited illegal campaign funds while working as a White House aide. The investigation was turned over to an independent counsel and it dragged on for years. President Clinton testified on her behalf and it was a welcome relief when in April 2000, the national media issued a headline stating, “Independent Counsel: No indictment of Labor Secretary Alexis Herman.” Herman reportedly issued the following statement, “I am gratified personally and for my family that the independent counsel has terminated his investigation. These allegations have been false from the very beginning.”
Since leaving government and returning to the private sector, Herman has been lecturing throughout the nation. She is a member of Washington Speakers Bureau that sets up her speaking engagements, which she uses to speak about her entrepreneurial ventures and her experiences in government service, especially as Secretary of Labor. Back in her hometown, “The Birmingham Times,” in its “Living History” column, titled, “Alexis Herman, a success in government and business,” wrote “from her life experiences in the South to her post in Washington, D. C., and perches in-between, Herman is more than qualified to speak on maintaining diversity.”
Herman now sits on the several national boards that allow her to continue her lifetime advocacy including the Coco-Cola Company Task Force, the Toyota Advisory Board on Diversity, Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Prudential. She is also the Chairwoman and CEO of New Ventures, Inc. and is actively involved in the National Urban League, the Ron Brown Foundation and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
As evidence of her career and accomplishments, Herman said, “Behind every successful person, there is a success network.” Building success has been about learning from those who paved the way and share their knowledge. “I think mentors are something you have to have for a lifetime if you’re going to continue to grow and learn.”
Alexis Herman is married to the distinguished Dr. Charles Franklin.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.