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DOL Nominee Solis Dodges Questions on Unionization Bill at Senate Hearing

Solis said she had not yet spoken to Obama about the Employee Free Choice Act, which is the top priority for organized labor.

January 9, 2009
Related Topics: Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Workforce Planning, Latest News
President-elect Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Labor, Rep. Hilda Solis, D-California, told a Senate panel on Friday, January 9, that she will be a voice for working families and would champion an agenda that ranged from bolstering workplace safety to providing training for “green-collar” jobs.

But during the course of the two-hour hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, she sidestepped questions about controversial legislation that would allow workers to form unions by signing cards rather than conducting secret-ballot elections.

Solis said she had not yet spoken to Obama about the Employee Free Choice Act, which is the top priority for organized labor.

“It’s premature for me to say anything at this point for the purposes of this hearing,” Solis said.

She said that her first priority is to attend to the regulatory matters that agency administers. “I see my role as a steward of the Department of Labor,” Solis said.

Panel Republicans told Solis that they wanted her to answer their questions about the so-called card-check bill before they vote on her nomination next week. With a strong Democratic majority, the panel and the Senate are likely to confirm Solis, who was not well known on workplace issues before being tapped by Obama.

“We were flabbergasted that there wasn’t an opinion on [the union bill],” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming and the ranking Republican on the committee, in an interview after the hearing. “She probably did have an opinion but didn’t want to state it.”

Solis’ stance is not a mystery. Like Obama, she is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Unions want Congress to act quickly on the measure, which could sharply increase the number of workers covered by collective bargaining units. Currently, about 7 percent of private-sector employees and 12 percent of the overall workforce belongs to a union.

Organized labor has not been shy in pointing out how its fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts helped elect Obama and increase Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill.

Solis also dodged a question related to the union bill. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, noted that his is a right-to-work state. He implied that that characteristic helped it land a major Nissan manufacturing operation when he was governor in the 1980s. Later, General Motors opened a plant 14 miles away from the Nissan facility.

The Nissan plant is not unionized and the GM plant is, Alexander said. He asked Solis whether she supported the provision of the National Labor Relations Act that prohibits making union membership a term of employment. Nearly two dozen states have such laws on the books.

“I don’t believe I am qualified to address that at this time,” Solis said. “I have not discussed that with the president-elect.”

Both Republicans and Democrats praised Solis’ background. (

“Your life is one that epitomizes the American Dream,” Enzi said.

The Los Angeles-area congresswoman is the daughter of a Mexican-immigrant father and a Nicaraguan-immigrant mother. She earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, becoming the first college graduate in her family. She represents a heavily Latino district.

Prior to her election to the House in 2000, Solis was the first woman elected the California Senate, where she served from 1994 through 2000. As chair of the Industrial Relations Committee, she led the effort to increase the state’s minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75 an hour in 1996.

She also has been active, through the Service Employees International Union, in organizing workers throughout Los Angeles.

During the hearing, Solis vowed to overhaul the workforce training and unemployment systems so that they better target workers who fall through the economic cracks after losing their jobs.

“They are in desperate need of retooling educational opportunities,” Solis said.

She also promised that the she would vigorously enforce wage and hour laws.

“The Labor Department must assure that American workers get the pay they have earned working in safe, healthy and fair workplaces,” Solis said in prepared remarks. “A fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts and chairman of the panel, warmly endorsed Solis.

“We need a fighter for the workers in America,” Kennedy said. “We come away from the hearing with a strong sense of your caring about these issues.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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