I graduated from high school in 1981. The beginning of the 1980s was the beginning of my adult life. I remember one of my teachers telling my senior class that “adulthood is not defined by your age, but rather, the moment that you take responsibility for yourself, and more important, you take responsibility for others.” He added: “service is a fundamental part of adulthood.”
Service is also a fundamental part of the U.S. Department of Labor. I couldn’t help but think about that earlier this month, when the department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service partnered with several other organizations to host a Veterans Job Summit at Fort Bliss in Texas. In addition to connecting returning service members with potential employers, this event brought business and civic leaders together to discuss strategies for strengthening veterans hiring initiatives nationwide.
While the summit was organized over the last several months, its roots actually go back to 1981 — my graduation year and the year VETS was established, centralizing several programs with a common goal: to ensure that veterans have the opportunity to put their significant skills to work in the civilian workforce. Today, VETS’ mission remains unchanged, as it works on behalf of a new generation of veterans and their families.
The secretary of labor at that time was Raymond Donovan, who took the helm the week after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. Donovan brought his experience as a tradesman to the job, having worked his way up through the construction industry.
In addition to creating VETS, he implemented the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act and Retirement Equity Act. The former, passed in 1983, established employment standards for farmworkers, replacing the Farm Labor Contractor Registration Act. The latter, signed in 1984, amended the Employee Retirement Income Security Act to address women’s rights, including survivorship benefits.
When Donovan stepped down in 1985, his replacement was former Tennessee Sen. William Brock, who continued an emphasis on serving those who had served, especially Vietnam-era veterans. He introduced a “Workforce 2000” initiative to address anticipated labor shortages, and advocated for affirmative action, parental leave, and increased health and safety measures.
Two years later, Ann McLaughlin Korologos became secretary of labor, and remained in office for the remainder of Reagan’s administration. The second female secretary in the history of the department – the first was Frances Perkins under President Franklin Roosevelt – Korologos brought attention to work-life balance issues, especially for working women.
She also championed economic growth as an effective channel for improving employment conditions and oversaw the implementation of two new worker protections: the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, which prevents most employers from using polygraph tests for workers either before or during employment, and the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which requires advance notice of plant closings or mass layoffs.
When George H.W. Bush became president, he brought Elizabeth Hanford Dole to the department, who as secretary of transportation under Reagan had successfully rebuilt the nation’s air travel workforce following the air traffic controller strike of 1981. Dole drew upon this experience to help settle the Pittston coal mine strike in southwest Virginia and oversee a number of policy initiatives, including negotiating a minimum wage increase.
After two years, she resigned to become president of the American Red Cross — thus carrying on the spirit of service that has defined the Labor Department not only in the 1980s, but throughout our history.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. This post is one in a series in which he explores the department’s impact over the past 100 years. To view a timeline of the department’s history, watch a special centennial video and learn more about its 100 years of service, visit dol.gov/100.