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The Labor Secretary Guessing Game

Tim Fernholz at The American Prospect reports today that union leaders are pleased as punch with Obama, particularly after he sided recently with workers protesting at a closed factory in Illinois. Jim Grossfeld, a labor consultant who's worked with several unions and congressional leaders, recently told me that "no one has ever been elected president who has as sophisticated an understanding of the labor movement as Barack Obama. ... He's a guy who's seen first-hand how collective bargaining can empower poor people in Chicago. That's huge."

This is all good news. And yet, a perplexing point remains in the Obama-on-labor discussion: Who should be secretary of labor? A handful of names keep coming up: Michigan's David Bonior and Governor Jennifer Granholm; Maria Echaveste, a former Clinton White House adviser; Linda Sanchez, a California Congresswoman; Linda Chavez-Thompson, former AFL-CIO vice president; and Mary Beth Maxwell, executive director of American Rights at Work. Other random names popped up in my interviews, including Richard Gephardt, Pennsylvania Congressman Bob Brady, and Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius has also been mentioned, but she recently said she isn't in the running

Of this large, diverse bunch, Maxwell seems to be getting the most news buzz. David Bonior, considered the consensus candidate among many union leaders for his decades of pro-labor efforts, has said he doesn't want the job--but would take it if offered--and is pushing Maxwell. (He even penned a letter to the AFL-CIO and SEIU advocating for her.) If selected, Maxwell would be the first openly gay Cabinet secretary, which has generated heavy coverage among gay and lesbian media outlets and support from groups like Human Rights Campaign.

But there is concern that Maxwell, who founded American Rights at Work in 2003, doesn't have the clout of Cabinet members, like Daschle and Geithner, and other presidential advisers already selected for roles critical to the economy. "If it were Maxwell, it would be a concession that there's nobody else out there. ... She is a very nice, competent person, but this isn't her league," one labor insider says. "I've heard people say she's a nice person, but I haven't heard people assess one way or the other what her ability to do the job is," adds Henry Bayer, head of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees in Chicago. Indeed, while they might not object to Maxwell's principles and goals, many labor leaders would prefer that someone with more stature and experience get the job. "We want the secretary of labor to be a strong voice in the administration," Bayer says, noting that he doesn't know Maxwell and would like someone like Schakowsky in the role. "You have some economic heavyweights in the administration who haven't necessarily been advocates for working Americans."

Labor doesn't seem to have a big-name frontrunner--or, at least, one its backing publicly. Instead, union leaders are focusing on their agenda and calling for Obama to seize an opportunity to address major work-place challenges. "What will really define Obama's relationship with the labor movement isn't, for example, who he names as labor secretary, but his leadership in passing the Employee Free Choice Act," Grossfeld says. "If he makes EFCA the priority it needs to be to get it passed, he'll have done more than any president since FDR to build the labor movement and, with it, the middle-class."

--Seyward Darby