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
Solis, daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Nicaragua,
has the skill, experience, determination - and firm presidential backing - to
shift the department from what's been the opposite direction under President
Bush's secretary of labor, Elaine Chao.
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them and has withdrawn more than 20 other proposed safety rules.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
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
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.
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister