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Hilda Solis: Great Choice for Labor

BY Kim Bobo

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will need support from labor, religious and community activists to help create jobs and pass worker-friendly laws.

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), President Obama’s pick for labor secretary, could help restore dignity and respect to American workers.

Before her appointment, Solis was not well known outside of California. But, with time, she could honor the spirit of Frances Perkins–FDR’s labor secretary and the first female Cabinet member–who was known for her tireless fight for American workers. Perkins’ name adorns the Labor Department building in Washington, D.C.

Like Perkins, Solis is a fighter for workers. She fought for farmworker rights in the California state legislature and later used her own funds to support a successful ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage.

Like Perkins, Solis isn’t part of the establishment. FDR was criticized for appointing a woman, particularly one from outside the labor movement, to serve as labor secretary. Similarly, Solis isn’t a creature of the Clinton years, unlike many of President Obama’s appointments. She is the child of immigrant workers and attributes her call to public service to César Chávez, United Farmer Workers of America leader.

Perkins visited the homes of immigrant workers in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. She investigated sweatshops and prosecuted employers who exploited workers.

Solis, too, has visited immigrant workers’ homes, marched with janitors, investigated sweatshops and fought to prosecute unethical employers. In 1995, she worked with UNITE HERE! to recover back wages for El Monte garment workers. She then helped pass California’s landmark anti-sweatshop law.

But the challenges facing Solis are formidable. The nation’s workforce is battered and increasingly unemployed, with job losses in 2008 expected to be about 2.5 million.

What’s more, in the last decade, wages and benefits for the vast majority of American workers have declined and will likely continue to erode amid the current economic recession.

To meet these challenges, the Labor Department must do three things:

First, it should help create and support new jobs. Currently, it has no job creation programs, so no staff or structures exist to help with green jobs or any other job-creation initiatives.

Second, the department should coordinate and oversee the training of America’s workers. Although there are some programs for this, the United States is falling drastically behind other industrialized nations in educating and training workers. Rebuilding the training division and figuring out how to coordinate with other agencies, such as the Department of Education, will be difficult.

Third, the department must set–and enforce–workplace standards. Standards were set 80 years ago under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, but they desperately need updating. The department’s wage enforcement and health and safety enforcement are a disaster.

Then there’s the issue of unions. Solis is a strong advocate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier for workers to organize unions and get first contracts. (See “Ready to Rumble,” in this issue) But employer groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are fervently against EFCA and are pledging an all-out fight against it.

Healthcare, too, is an urgent matter for the labor secretary, given that most of those without healthcare are low-wage workers and their families. The absence of a national healthcare program puts industries like American automakers at a competitive disadvantage with foreign companies that operate in countries with national healthcare systems.

Solis and the Labor Department will also need to help address U.S. immigration policy. Dragging immigrant workers out of factories in shackles and building fences along the U.S.-Mexico border are hardly adequate responses. Reform demands a strong role from the labor secretary in helping set and enforce workplace standards for all workers–regardless of immigration status–and in using trade and aid to raise workers’ standards in other nations, particularly in Mexico.

With all of these obstacles, Solis will need support from labor, religious and community activists around the nation. She’ll need a strong team of advisers, activists and staff working with and for her. Solis will need to tap the wisdom of job-creation experts, job-training leaders and on-the-ground enforcement advocates, such as worker center leaders. And she will need a strong advocacy base, drawing upon labor and religious allies to help pass worker-friendly legislation.

The country needs another Frances Perkins. Solis is the woman for the job.

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice and a columnist for Religion Dispatches, is the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid -- And What We Can Do About It (The New Press) and co-author of Organizing for Social Change, the best-selling organizing manual in the country.

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