The case for Jennifer Granholm as Labor secretary

Jennifer Granholm was a speaker at the Democratic National Convention in September. Jennifer Granholm was a speaker at the Democratic National Convention in September. Lynne Sladky/AP

President Obama says he’s very concerned about income inequality. If he wants to elevate that issue in his second term, he should consider naming Jennifer Granholm as his next Labor secretary.

The Current TV host and former two-term Michigan governor would be a highly symbolic choice, given that her Republican successor recently signed a law making Michigan—birthplace of the organized labor movement—a right-to-work state.

She would also be a practical choice. It was during Granholm’s tenure as governor that the auto industry sank into decline and, with Obama’s bailout, began its comeback. She is favorably viewed in the labor community for looking to clean energy as a source of manufacturing jobs. She signed an energy package requiring that 10 percent of Michigan’s energy come from renewable sources by 2015 and tried to make the state a center for alternative-energy investment, manufacturing, and production.

Granholm, a lawyer and a professor at the University of California (Berkeley), also has a good reputation with unions on labor issues. She “promoted labor-management cooperation in her role as governor vis-a-vis state employees and worked with both management and union in the auto industry,” Elizabeth Bunn, organizing director of the AFL-CIO, told me in an e-mail. Bunn also said Granholm understands the need for “balanced trade agreements” and “a national economic policy that is not based on competition among states for jobs through tax-cutting bidding wars.”

Perhaps most important, Granholm would be a real attention-getter as a public advocate for unions, workers and the middle class. She gave one of the best speeches at the Democratic convention last summer (maybe not the best way to win over Republican senators for a confirmation vote, but who could forget her dig at GOP nominee Mitt Romney, “The cars get the elevators and the workers get the shaft”?) and for the past year she has hosted Current TV’s The War Room.

There are of course other prospects for Labor secretary, some of whom have deep roots in the labor movement and who would, like Granholm, add diversity to Obama’s cabinet. Among them are former Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio, a labor lawyer, who lost her reelection race last year; Arlene Holt-Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, and Patricia Smith, solicitor of labor at the Labor Department.

What sets Granholm apart is her stature as a former governor, her ease in front of the camera, and her familiarity with the broad range of economic issues facing the country. At an agency often viewed as a backwater, she’d have the potential to be a breakout Labor secretary in the mold of Robert Reich—a far glitzier Reich. As The Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman memorably summed up her convention performance, “Part union boss, part Tina Turner.”

Steve Rosenthal, a former political director of the AFL-CIO who was associate deputy secretary of Labor under Reich, described Granholm as “a serious person, good relationships with labor and business, smart, good political instincts/experience and a ‘player,’ plus the media likes her and she handles herself well.” He added: “All would be great” for the department. 

Union membership is shrinking as more states pass right-to-work laws and more industries locate and expand in those states. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday that only 11.3 percent of the workforce was unionized last year, down from 11.8 percent in 2011 and 20.1 percent in 1983. The New York Times, citing a Rutgers study, says the 2012 membership was the lowest share since 11.1 percent in 1912.

So unions are in need of a champion. And it turns out that Granholm may need a job. When Al Jazeera bought Current TV earlier this month, she announced she would be leaving her War Room gig in a few weeks.

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