Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — President-elect George W. Bush Tuesday named conservative columnist Linda Chavez to head the Department of Labor, which under the Clinton administration made fighting garment sweatshops in the U.S. and abroad a priority.

Chavez, 53, writes a syndicated column and is a GOP booster. Her only federal government experience is serving as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1983-1985 during the Reagan administration.

Bush said he and Chavez “share a passion that no one in America is left behind.” For her part, Chavez — her father was a house painter and mother worked in restaurants and department stores — pledged to enforce labor laws and “to keep faith with the men and the women who still work at jobs my parents held.”

Her position on garment contractors shortchanging workers on wages is unclear.

Under the Clinton administration, retailers and apparel manufacturers were pressured to pay millions in wages owed to garment workers. The government forced co-operation from these customers of contractors by invoking a Depression-era law that allows officials to block shipments made in suspected sweatshops until wages were paid. The government also used bad publicity against retailers as a cudgel. Abroad, the Clinton administration sought sweatshop reforms.

Ann Hoffman, legislative director for the apparel union UNITE, said she’s dismayed by Chavez’s appointment. Hoffman cited Chavez’s opposition to affirmative action as an example of the Labor Secretary-nominee’s conservative bent.

“I don’t know what her priorities will be. She has never in the past been a friend of labor and her appointment isn’t a good sign,” Hoffman said. “I certainly wouldn’t see a Bush administration be more aggressive against the retailers regarding sweatshops.”

Scott Cahill, vice president of government and industry affairs at the National Retail Federation, said it’s too soon to say how Chavez will address enforcement of federal wage laws at garment contractors. He said retailers’ own anti-sweatshop efforts, such as monitoring contractors for abuses, should hold the industry in good stead.

In 1986, Chavez won the Republican nomination for senator in the heavily Democratic state of Maryland and lost in the general election. From 1992-1996, she served as the U.S. representative on the United Nations’ Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. In 1995, Chavez founded the Center for Equal Opportunity, a think tank that studies race, ethnicity and immigration.

The 14-member Bush cabinet is now complete. Bush also named former Michigan GOP Sen. Spencer Abraham, who lost his seat in the 2000 election, as Secretary of Energy and tapped current Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta, as secretary of Transportation. Mineta is the lone Democrat on Bush’s team, which now goes to the Senate for approval.

Bush is scheduled to hold an economic summit in Austin today with top corporate officials, including Wal-Mart ceo H. Lee Scott, the only one from a general merchandise or department store at the closed-door meeting. Also attending: Michael Dell of Dell Computer; G. Richard Wagoner Jr., ceo of General Motors; and Raymond V. Gilmartin, ceo of Merck & Co.

Like President Clinton did in 1992, Bush, concerned about the slowing economy, wants to hear from corporate chieftains before taking office. A closed door session with high-tech executives on Thursday will focus on free trade, improving education and easing government regulation.

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