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Democrats have accused President-elect Donald Trump of stacking his Cabinet with millionaires and billionaires. One of the wealthiest among them is Wilbur Ross. He's Trump's choice for commerce secretary. Ross is known as a tough businessman with an eye on the bottom line. But some people say he's the best pick Democrats could hope for in a conservative administration. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Wilbur Ross's critics call him a vulture. That's because Ross profits by buying up dying companies. So to find out more, we went to talk to Leo Gerard.
LEO GERARD: My name is Leo Gerard, and I'm the international president of the Steelworkers Union.
ARNOLD: Gerard represented workers after Wilbur Ross bought up some bankrupt steel mills back in 2002. So we asked him about this.
They say oh, Wilbur Ross is a vulture capitalist. You know, he swoops down and feasts upon the spoils of bankrupt companies. Was that your experience?
GERARD: Well, look at - the relationship we had with him was one where he was open and accessible and candid and honest. And he put a lot of money back into the mills and - so that literally tens of thousands of jobs were saved.
ARNOLD: OK, so here's what happened. Starting in the late '90s, there was a massive global surplus of steel.
GERARD: And we ended up with a steel crash in America, where 35 to 40 companies went bankrupt.
ARNOLD: Now, Gerard's a labor leader. He says he's seen the dark side of Wall Street investors coming in to profit off a steel company's misfortune. They raid the pension fund, sell off parts of the company. All the workers lose their jobs.
GERARD: We've had experiences where we've had so-called bottom feeders come in and suck the capital out of them and left them there to die.
ARNOLD: But he says that is not what Wilbur Ross did. Gerard says Ross restored some of the retirees' health care benefits after a bankruptcy court wiped them out, even if the benefits weren't as generous. And he says Ross turned to the blue-collar workers for ideas on how to be more efficient. Wilbur Ross talked about this approach in an NPR interview in 2008.
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WILBUR ROSS: We got an enormous amount of good ideas from the blue-collar workers. That fellow who has been standing behind a machine for 10 years knows it better than the people who built it, really knows what to do.
ARNOLD: Ross sold off the companies a few years later, made a pile of money. But Gerard says by that time, he'd restructured the steel mills in a fair, sustainable and smart way.
GERARD: With Wilbur, it's been almost 15 years now. And those mills are running, and some of them are the most productive in North America.
ARNOLD: Given this good relationship with unions and that Ross was a longtime Democrat - he was involved with the Clinton administration before backing Romney and then later Trump for president - you might think that Democrats and liberals would be OK with Ross as commerce secretary. But many lump him in with what they describe as a cabal of wealthy elites getting ready to take over America.
KURT WALTERS: There's massive skepticism about Ross and his record.
ARNOLD: Kurt Walters is a director with the liberal advocacy group Demand Progress. He says the steel industry aside, when Ross bought textile companies, he did exactly what Donald Trump criticized during the campaign - he killed American jobs.
WALTERS: He was very willing to ship American textile jobs from U.S. factories over to China and over to Mexico.
ARNOLD: Still, Ross also kept textile jobs here in the U.S., and even some in the labor movement don't vilify him for owning factories overseas. Scott Paul is a Democrat and the president of the nonpartisan Alliance for American Manufacturing. It's a union and business partnership that promotes American-made products.
SCOTT PAUL: Wilbur Ross - he reminds me of a trauma surgeon in a way, who's dealing with a patient who's in crisis. And there may be some unpleasantness associated with it. You might lose a limb, but he's going to save your life. And I think that's something that workers have a strong appreciation for.
ARNOLD: One former employee of Ross's says Ross, in some ways, is the opposite of the flamboyant Donald Trump. He remembers picking the billionaire up at the airport for the first time. He expected a private jet and an entourage. But he says Ross flew commercial without any assistance and got off dragging an easel and some charts. He was about to give a presentation in Congress about the auto bailout.
This time, when Ross comes to Washington, these labor leaders say they hope he's the same guy they came to know, who understood how to balance profits with the interests of working-class Americans.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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