Rarely has a nominee for any cabinet post drawn such widespread praise as President-elect Obama’s choice for secretary of labor – and for good reason: Hilda Solis has the potential of returning the Labor Department to its mission of defending and strengthening the status of American workers.
Solis, daughter of immigrants from
Chao, admittedly acting on orders from the White House, has done little to combat the widespread employer violations of the laws that are supposed to guarantee workers union rights, safe workplaces and decent wages, hours and working conditions.
She’s opposed regulations that were designed to protect workers from the repetitive motion injuries that seriously harm millions of them and has withdrawn more than 20 other proposed safety rules. She’s slashed the budget for enforcement of the remaining regulations and virtually all other department functions aimed at helping workers. At the same time, she’s increased spending on enforcement of onerous union oversight regulations that were sought by anti-union employer groups.
The Government Accountability Office says the Bush/Chao Labor Department has ignored many workers who’ve complained of being paid less than the federal minimum wage, of being cheated out of overtime pay, or even being denied paychecks due them.
It’s clear, as Obama says, that the department "has not lived up to its role either as an advocate for hardworking families or as an arbiter of fairness in relations between labor and management."
Chairman George Miller of the House Labor and Education Committee has an even harsher judgment. He says the department has "actively worked to undermine workers’ rights."
Democrat Miller acknowledges that changing the department will be "particularly daunting." But like many others who’ve spoken out since Obama nominated Hilda Solis to succeed Chao, he says he’s confident Solis, a member of his committee, can pull it off.
If she does, she’ll rank as one of the greatest labor secretaries since the legendary Frances Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary throughout his 12 years as president. It was Perkins who first proposed and enforced many of the labor laws that grant workers the basic rights and protections that Elaine Chao has flaunted.
Like Perkins, who took office during the Great Depression, Solis will serve as secretary during a time of extreme economic problems and under a president who will rely on her to play an important role in attacking the problems. Obama says that will include "making our unions strong" and otherwise aiding workers, one of his top priorities.
Leaders of the country’s labor federations and hundreds of their affiliated unions agree with Obama that Solis will be an exceptionally strong advocate for working people. So do Democratic Party leaders, many of Solis’ fellow Democrats who’ve served with her in Congress over the past eight years, and officials of liberal interest groups such as the Sierra Club.
Probably as much in Solis’ favor is the vehement opposition to her appointment by notoriously anti-labor organizations like the National Right to Work Committee, whose Mark Mix warns ominously that she’s "a 100 percent proponent of unions." Solis must be doing something right to draw such opponents.
Actually, she’s only a 97 percent proponent. That, at least, is how the AFL-CIO scores Solis’ congressional votes on labor issues.
She’s variously described by her many supporters as a tremendous champion of workers’ rights and of working families, a "warrior" who’s relentless, unwavering and tireless in their behalf. They see her, too, as a progressive who will work closely with grassroots labor, environmental and immigrant worker groups. One enthusiastic backer calls her "smart, gutsy and passionately committed."
Solis’ record in Congress and in California’s State Legislature for a half-dozen years before that does indeed show her to be one of the best political friends workers could hope for.
Solis led the way to increasing California’s minimum wage and tightening enforcement of the state’s pro-worker labor laws, for instance, and helped create environmentally friendly, energy-saving "green jobs" and job training programs at the state and federal level. She’s helped expand unemployment and disability insurance programs, fought to protect minority and low-income communities from pollution and pesticide exposure. She’s joined workers’ marches, picket lines and other demonstrations.
There’s no doubt Solis will carry out her promise to actually enforce and try vigilantly to expand and strengthen the laws and programs designed to aid workers, their unions and their communities.
And just as Frances Perkins once worked so hard for passage of the National Labor Relations Act that gave workers the basic right to unionize, Solis will be working hard for passage of the long-pending Employee Free Choice Act that would lift the legal barriers that have so seriously undermined the Labor Relations Act that only 12 percent of American workers now belong to unions.
Imagine that. A pro-labor secretary of labor.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com