In 1995, I was offered a job at the U.S. Department of Labor. I was 30 years old and had worked in Washington, D.C., for a few years, but still had stars in my eyes. To say I was thrilled is an understatement. The decade was an exciting time to work in the federal government … and the U.S. Department of Labor was at the center of the action. Looking back, I realize that I had a front row seat to many of the important efforts at the department that would make life better for working families.
At the start of the decade, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, paving the way for millions of Americans with disabilities to have the opportunity to participate in all aspects of community life, including employment. Although enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, this civil rights law laid the foundation for the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, which would be created 10 years later.
Lynn Morley Martin replaced Elizabeth Dole as President Bush’s secretary of labor in 1991 and stayed in office through the remainder of his term. Martin’s political career began a member of a local school board and she also served in the U.S. House of Representatives. A champion of women’s and social issues, Martin established the Glass Ceiling Commission to investigate and recommend ways of removing barriers to advancement opportunities for qualified women and minorities in corporate America.
When Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president in January 1993, he brought to the Labor Department fellow Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate Robert Reich. Within weeks, the pair worked together to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, landmark legislation that helps employees balance work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take job-protected leave for certain purposes, including the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a sick family member or to manage one’s own serious health condition. It was a major milestone for working men and women.
Reich played a large role in increasing the nation’s minimum wage — an effort Secretary Perez is leading today — and helped pass the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. He also spearheaded the “No Sweat” initiative, a multi-pronged campaign to end sweatshops in the garment industry (a movement Kathy Lee Gifford helped launch after it was revealed her clothing line was being produced under sweatshop conditions).
In 1996, Alexis Herman assumed the reins. She was not new to the department, however, having served as the director of its Women’s Bureau from 1977-1981. She was the first African-American to head the department.
While in office, Herman deftly resolved the 1997 UPS strike, during which 185,000 employees of the nation’s largest shipping company ceased work for 15 days. Remaining in office for the remainder of Clinton’s term, she also oversaw the wide-reaching reorganization of federal employment and training programs under the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, and the establishment of the Office of Disability Employment Policy — accomplishments that provided a fitting close to a decade that significantly expanded opportunity for millions of people.
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.