News & Events

Welcome change expected with Obama pick as labor secretary

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
January 2009 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

Barack Obama has nominated California Congresswoman Hilda Solis as the new secretary of labor, selecting a woman with deep union roots and a proven track record supporting working men and women.

After eight years of Republican rule marked by a hostile attitude toward labor, this pick offers to labor the same hope and optimism that President Obama did for the country.

  Hilda Solis

Fellow California Congresswoman Lois Capps called Solis, 51, “a wonderful fit” for the job of labor secretary. “Her whole background has been working families. She knows what everyday Americans are living through,” Capps said. “She will bring to the table so many concerns that she’s lived with her whole life in the working class areas of East L.A.”

A member of Congress since 2001, she was recognized as a staunch environmentalist and ardent feminist, as well as a friend of working men and women. She has deep labor roots. Both of her immigrant parents (Mexican and Nicaraguan) were proud union members. Her father was a steward in the Teamsters and her mother was a member of the United Rubber Workers. She has been an outspoken critic of President Bush’s labor policies.

She has stated that “When union people get paid good wages, that money stays in the community, it helps to provide a vibrant economy, it helps to also even send their children like me … to college and eventually run for office.” She has been described as both a coalition builder as well as a tenacious advocate for her positions.

In her years as a California assemblywoman, state senator and congresswoman, Solis has: successfully fought for a higher minimum wage, picketed with striking janitors; campaigned against domestic abuse; worked to rid the neighborhoods of air-borne carcinogens; fought to clean up rivers running through her district; co-sponsored legislation to limit carbon emissions across the board; and, co-authored the Green Jobs Act designed to provide funds to retrain workers in environmentally friendly jobs.

Upon the announcement of her selection, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney stated “We’re confident that she will return to the labor department one of its core missions–to defend workers’ basic rights in our nation’s workplaces.”

Her appointment will be a welcome change at the Labor Department from the last eight years of Secretary Elaine Chao’s reign. Chao was appointed by Bush and is the only original member of his cabinet serving throughout his two terms. She is married to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican Senate minority leader – whose re-election was her top priority this year, and not that of her job as labor secretary.

Chao’s tenure was marked by hostile decisions toward working men and women. Even as her term wound down, her attacks on workers continued, as reported by the Washington Post on July 23, 2008.

“Political appointees at the Department of Labor are moving with unusual speed to push through in the final months of the Bush administration a rule making it tougher to regulate workers’ on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins.”

One has to ask: Is this the appropriate role of the secretary of labor? Or is this just a reflection of a politically driven agenda to suppress workers’ rights at the workplace?

And the New York Times added in an opinion piece on Aug. 8, 2008:

“Under the Bush administration, the Department of Labor has shirked its responsibility to upgrade workplace safety. In seven years, it has issued but one major rule change protecting workers against a chemical toxin—and that was forced on it by court order.

“Now, it’s taken a giant step beyond benign neglect. Political appointees at the agency have been discovered in a rush to duck public disclosure and jimmy into place a pro-industry rule making it more difficult to limit workers’ exposure to poisonous chemicals.”

The mission statement of the Department of Labor, as on its website states:

The Department of Labor fosters and promotes the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements. In carrying out this mission, the department administers a variety of federal labor laws including those that guarantee workers’ rights to safe and healthful working conditions; a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay; freedom from employment discrimination; unemployment insurance; and other income support.

Under Chao almost none of this happened. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. For example, under her “leadership” there was lax mine safety enforcement. Her department found 208 “serious and substantial” safety violations at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and they did nothing about it and 13 miners lost their lives in January 2006. This was followed just over two weeks later with a mine fire at the Alma Mine also in West Virginia with another two miners dead and by another five miners’ deaths in May 2006 at the Darby Mine in Kentucky. Chao’s corporate connections aligned her with the interests of the mine owners rather than with the safety interests of the miners.

When he announced the appointment last month, Obama said, “If jobs and incomes are our yardstick, then the success of the American worker is key to the success of the American economy. 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 arbiter of fairness in relations between labor and management. 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.”

There is nowhere to go but up with a new administration and a new secretary of labor. But one has to be hopeful and optimistic when a person of Solis’ stature is appointed. She has her work cut out for her, in repairing and reversing all of the damage done in the past eight years.