With Hilda Solís At Labor, Obama Rounds Out Latino Contingent in his Cabinet

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
Hilda Solis

Hilda Solís

On the heels of a much-criticized decision by the Bush Administration to change the H-2A guest worker program, it looks like one of the public officials who spoke against the change is headed to be the new secretary of labor.

California Rep. Hilda Solís, the 51-year-old daughter of a Mexican father and a Nicaraguan mother, was signaled yesterday as President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for the labor position.

The Associated Press reported that Obama plans to make the designation official today,

Unions, which contributed heavily to Obama and Democrats this year, expect Solis to be an advocate for them and for workers. They expect her to press for legislation that would force businesses to recognize union representation once more than 50 percent of a company’s eligible work force signs union cards, instead of waiting for secret-ballot elections.

Solís becomes the third high-profile Latino official to join the Obama Administration, after the designations of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as secretary of commerce and Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar as interior secretary.

The California politician clearly sees things differently than the Bush White House in labor matters. Last week, after changes to the H-2A program were known, Solís issued a statement calling them “just the latest example of how out of touch the president is with working families, especially with Latino families that make up a large portion of the farm workers in this country.

There is no question that the guest worker program needs significant overhaul but slashing wages and reducing basic rights for the most vulnerable workers in our country, especially hardworking Latino farm workers, is not the answer. I look forward to working with the Obama administration and the Democratic majority to find the best solutions to strengthen this workforce and protections afforded to them.

Now, she gets a chance to do just that.

“Progressives seem genuinely happy with this choice,” the blog Vivir Latino said yesterday after the news got out, mentioning the representative’s campaign website, which reads on its Labor page: “The daughter of a union family, Hilda is widely considered to be one of the strongest supporters of America’s workers and the labor movement in the House of Representatives.”

Ken Rudin, NPR political commentator and blogger, said “Solís was first elected to the House from east Los Angeles in 2000, unseating her fellow Democrat, Matthew Martinez, in the primary. A favorite of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she has been a tireless advocate for environmental, women’s and workers’ rights.”

With a father who was a  Teamsters Union shop steward in Mexico, Solís has both a union and an immigrant family background. According to the AP, Solís said last year, “Unions are vital to the health and strength of our communities, and our workers are the bedrock of our economy. In this day and age when the number of women and new immigrants is increasing in the work force, it is important that they become a part of the American fabric and one of the ways is to be a member of a union.”

Solís’ designation was hailed by unions and environmental activists alike.

“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,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a statement. Carl Pope, executive director of environmental organization The Sierra Club, said the group was “overjoyed” at the news: “She has been a tireless advocate for environmental issues, environmental justice, worker’s rights, and green jobs.”

Business groups, in turn, reacted with caution, according to the AP:

“There’s a new sheriff in town, but they’ll still have to deal with the business community and they know it,” said Randy Johnson, vice president for labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We would hope she will continue to support programs that help educate employers about voluntary compliance with the law rather than pursue heavy handed enforcement,” he said.

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