“Let me be clear, there is a new sheriff in town,” Solis told a crowd of a couple hundred Department of Labor staff, government officials and political supporters at her swearing-in ceremony Friday, March 13.
“We’ll accomplish this through tough enforcement, transparency, cooperation and balance,” she said.
Her remarks reflected President Barack Obama’s budget outline for the agency. He proposes to raise discretionary funding by $1.5 billion by 2010. A big chunk of the increase will go toward the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Wage and Hour Division.
Solis said another emphasis would be worker training, especially for “green-collar jobs” and for high-growth industries. “In a time of economic crisis, giving Americans the tools they need to find and keep a job must be our priority,” she said.
The swearing-in, conducted by Vice President Joe Biden, was a ceremonial event. Solis, a former congresswoman from the Los Angeles area, has been serving as labor secretary since her confirmation, 80-17, by the Senate on February 24.
The Senate took nearly seven weeks to scrutinize Solis’ background and policy positions. Her nomination was held up by Republicans who had concerns about a potential conflict of interest between Solis’ role as treasurer for an advocacy group and her support of legislation that it sought to pass, including a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions.
In addition, Solis ran into a tax problem involving her husband, who did not pay about $6,400 in tax liens against his auto repair business until the day before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was to vote on her.
Her nomination stumbles seemed far behind her during her swearing-in, with the enthusiastic crowd giving her a couple of standing ovations as she vowed to take the department in a new direction.
The program for the event captured the theme of Solis’ and Biden’s speeches. At the top, it said: “U.S. Department of Labor: The Voice for Working Families.”
Her vision for the department is shaped by her background as the daughter of immigrants who were both members of unions, Solis said. Her father, originally from Mexico, was a shop steward at a battery recycling plant. Her mother, who came to the U.S. from Nicaragua, worked in a toy factory.
Solis credited her father’s union for her family’s health care and other benefits. She articulated her affection for organized labor by recognizing union leaders in the audience.
“Thank you brothers and sisters for being here with me,” she said. “You are a very, very important part of what I will be doing in the next few years.”
While in the House, Solis co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would allow workers to form a union once a majority sign cards authorizing one. It would prohibit a company from requiring a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.
But Solis vexed Senate Republicans by refusing to answer questions about her position on the bill during her confirmation hearing. It was one of several policy areas on which she declined to comment.
Solis didn’t mention the bill in her remarks at the swearing-in ceremony, but she did emphasize that the department would be a forceful advocate for women and minorities.
Her background was a focus of the event. Solis, the first Latina labor secretary, began her remarks by saying, “Buenos dias.” She also paid tribute to her parents in a portion of her speech spoken in Spanish.
Solis was the first person in her family of six to graduate from college. She earned her undergraduate degree from Cal Poly Pomona and a master’s degree from the University of Southern California. She was the first woman to win a seat in the California Senate.
“The fact that I’m standing before you today as a child of an immigrant family, a working family, is proof that in America anything is possible,” Solis said.
—Mark Schoeff Jr.