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Obama Labor Appointee Vows to Bolster Unions, Enforcement, Training

The president-elect calls Rep. Hilda Solis ‘a champion of our middle class’ and ‘an advocate for everyday people.’

December 19, 2008
Related Topics: Managing Change, Immigration, Labor Relations, Latest News
President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of labor promised to bolster unions, workforce training and the agency’s enforcement of pay rules when she was introduced at a Chicago press conference on Friday, December 19.

Obama has tapped Rep. Hilda Solis, D-California, to helm the Department of Labor, one of four appointments he made Friday. He also announced his choices for secretary of transportation, U.S. trade representative and head of the Small Business Administration.

In her fourth term representing parts of Los Angeles and outlying areas of the city, Solis is the third Hispanic that Obama has chosen for a Cabinet position. He said that she “has been a champion of our middle class” and “an advocate for everyday people.”

Obama asserted that Solis would turn around what he called a wayward agency.

“For the past eight years, the Department of Labor has not lived up to its role either as an advocate for hardworking families or as an arbitrator of fairness in relations between labor and management,” Obama said. “That will change when Hilda Solis is secretary of labor. Under her leadership, I am confident that the Department of Labor will once again stand up for working families.”

In brief remarks, Solis, 51, emphasized her heritage and made a statement in Spanish. She is the daughter of immigrants—her father is from Mexico and her mother from Nicaragua. Both members of unions, she said they taught her the value of hard work.

She vowed to be an ally of organized labor. “I’ll work to strengthen our unions and support every American in our diverse workforce,” Solis said.

She also said she would increase workforce training, especially for “green collar” jobs, and target at-risk youth. In addition, she promised to beef up enforcement of wage and hour, overtime and pay discrimination laws.

“Through these efforts, we can strengthen one of America’s greatest assets—its labor force,” Solis said.

She did not mention by name a bill that would make it easier for workers to join unions, the Employee Free Choice Act, but she was a co-sponsor of the measure.

As the top priority of organized labor in the next Congress, the act would allow workers to form unions when a majority sign cards authorizing the formation of a bargaining unit.

Under current law, companies can demand a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The measure also would enforce mandatory arbitration for first contracts and substantially increase penalties against employers who impede organizing activity.

The Service Employees International Union has posted an excerpt from a Solis blog item about the bill that was originally published on the Huffington Post in March 2007:

“Unions are vital to the health and strength of our communities, and our workers are the bedrock of our economy,” Solis wrote. “Unionized workers earn 30 percent more than non-unionized workers, and 80 percent have health insurance, as opposed to just 49 percent of non-union workers.”

In the same post, she touted unionization as a way for immigrants to gain a foothold in the economy.

A leading business organization said it is not surprising that Obama would choose a labor secretary who would promote the so-called card-check bill. But Solis’ name was not one leading that speculation.

“We expected someone with that philosophical point of view to be appointed by Obama, but we didn’t expect her,” said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Since being elected to Congress in 2000, Solis has built a reputation for her work on the environment rather labor issues. She currently serves on the House Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees. She is also on the Select Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee.

In the last session of Congress, she voted with her party 98.4 percent of the time. A skeptic of trade liberalization, she voted against the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

Earlier in her political career, she chaired the Industrial Relations Committee in the California Senate. While in that position, she led the effort to increase the state’s minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75 an hour in 1996, according to her official biography.

Solis was the first Hispanic woman elected to the California Senate, where she served from 1994 through 2000. She previously was a member of the California Assembly from 1992 to 1994. She currently serves a U.S. House district that is 62 percent Hispanic and includes a part of Los Angeles and portions of several outlying areas, including East Los Angeles.

An immigration advocate hailed the choice. Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration group in Washington, said that the labor secretary would be at a focal point of reform efforts, from ensuring strong enforcement of labor standards to encouraging low-wage workers to join unions.

Solis’ appointment is “another indication that immigration reform will be a high priority for the Obama administration,” Sharry said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.

Johnson also sees Solis as being a potentially pivotal figure on the issue. “She may be in a position to help us broker a deal with the unions on immigration reform,” he said.

Union leaders have tossed her encomiums since the news broke that she was Obama’s choice to lead the Labor Department. The AFL-CIO gives her voting record a rating of 97 percent.

“From the streets of Los Angeles where she marched with the janitors who were fighting for jobs with dignity that can support a family through SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaigns, to the halls of Congress where she has been an outspoken supporter of health care rights for all, a livable minimum wage, and workers’ right to come together for a voice on the job, Hilda Solis has never backed down from the good fight to make the American Dream available to all,” SEIU president Andy Stern said in a statement.

The chairman of the Senate panel that will lead her confirmation process also expressed admiration for Solis.

“President-elect Obama has made an outstanding choice in selecting Hilda Solis,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement. “She’s a tireless champion of working families.”

Solis won a Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library in 2000 for her work on environmental justice and minority, worker and women’s rights. She earned her undergraduate degree from Cal Poly Pomona and a master’s degree from the University of Southern California.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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