In 2000, when President Barack Obama was mounting his ultimately unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in Illinois, another state senator, Hilda Solis of California, also challenged a sitting incumbent in a Democratic congressional primary.
Unlike Obama, she won overwhelmingly. Initially, Solis was seen as an underdog in her race against Rep. Matthew Martinez, who had represented the congressional district spanning East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley for 18 years. But he had become vulnerable by disappointing the unions, especially with his vote in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Solis, who was approaching her term limit in the California state senate, decided to challenge him, encouraged by her union allies whom she regularly sided with during her time in the California statehouse. Unions not only pumped money into her campaign, they also staffed her office with 260 volunteers who made telephone calls and knocked on doors on her behalf — and she won the primary by a lopsided 69-to-31 margin.
“I wouldn’t be here, were it not for my friends in the labor movement,” Solis said in her victory speech in her hometown of El Monte, Calif. After coasting to victory in the general election, Solis came to Washington. In four terms as a congresswoman, she never forgot who brought her to the dance.
For her voting record in the House, Solis holds a lifetime 97% rating from the AFL-CIO (and a 100% rating for 2007, the last full year for which ratings are available), a 100% rating from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and a 100% rating from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
As she continued to take care of them, big labor kept paying her back. Over the course of her congressional career, Solis has received $903,550 in campaign contributions from organized labor — more than triple the next closest sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website. She has received $264,300 from building trade unions, $180,500 from industrial unions, $162,550 from public sector unions, and $153,500 from transportation unions.
So when it came time for Obama to reward the labor movement for helping him complete his dramatic rise from a humiliating congressional primary defeat in 2000 to a sweeping national victory eight years later, the new President tapped Solis as his nominee for secretary of Labor.
Up until that point, many liberals had been lamenting that Obama’s early cabinet picks were too moderate. But when the Solis nomination was announced, unions and liberal activists did a collective touchdown dance.
Takes Labor Line
“It’s extraordinary,” SEIU President Andy Stern told the liberal news website Talking Points Memo. “On every issue that’s important to us, she has stood up for an America where everyone’s hard work is valued and rewarded. She probably will be the Labor secretary that has been on more picket lines and rallied more in support of workers’ rights than potentially anyone in American history.”
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced, “We’re thrilled at the prospect of having Rep. Hilda Solis as our nation’s next Labor secretary. 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. She’s proven to be a passionate leader and advocate for all working families — in fact, she’s voted with working men and women 97% of the time.”
Harold Meyerson, the Washington Post columnist who follows labor issues for the liberal American Prospect magazine, reacted to the announcement with a gushing blog post titled: “Hilda Solis is great.” He wrote, “What does Rep. Hilda Solis, Barack Obama’s selection for secretary of Labor, bring to the job? Only a record of passionate commitment to working people, a high level of political smarts, and some genuine displays of raw guts that could make her a star of American liberalism.”
Union in Her Blood
Progressives were overjoyed by the Solis selection not simply because she has consistently voted with the labor movement, but because unions are in her blood. Solis was born on Oct. 20, 1957, to a Mexican father who was a shop steward for the Teamsters and a Nicaraguan mother who worked on the assembly line at a Mattel toy factory in Southern California, where she was a member of the United Rubber Workers.
In 1985, Solis won her first public office in California, serving on the Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees. She was elected to the state assembly in 1992, and in 1994 she became the first Hispanic woman elected to the state senate.
The Los Angeles Times, in a 2000 profile of Solis, described her career in the legislature this way: “Solis was known for tenaciously pushing a liberal agenda. She has championed labor causes, women’s rights (especially in the area of domestic violence), and education and health care issues, sometimes irritating Republicans who consider her a captive of the labor lobby.”
As chairwoman of the state senate’s industrial relations committee, she battled to raise the state minimum wage from $4.25 per hour to $5.75. When then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed her wage hike bill, she used $50,000 of her own campaign cash to lead a signature drive to put it on the ballot in 1996, and California voters approved the measure.
Solis is also a friend of the “environmental justice” movement in California, and in 2000 she became the first woman to win a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for fighting the business community to pass legislation aimed at preventing polluting projects from being disproportionately located in low-income and minority neighborhoods.
Since coming to Washington, Solis has again racked up an across-the-board liberal record that gives her high marks from every constituency of the left. Her campaign website boasts that she “tirelessly defends the 40-hour work week and overtime pay requirements against the constant attacks by the corporate wing of the Republican Party,” that she voted for the 2007 federal minimum wage increase from $5.15 to $7.25, and was a leading opponent of the Central American Free Trade Agreement and of giving the President “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Solis proposed a one-time $300 tax rebate for all low-income workers, regardless of their citizenship status. Many illegal immigrants in Los Angeles had lost their jobs in the hospitality industry and were ineligible for government unemployment benefits.
Solis was prepared to have the federal government spend $16 billion to assist them. “It’s not enough, but we have to take what we can get,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
Solis also sponsored a resolution honoring labor firebrand Dolores Huerta and another piece of legislation authorizing the U.S. Department of the Interior to “study lands important in the life of Cesar Chavez for possible inclusion into the National Park System.” Together, Huerta and Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.
In 2002, when the 72 year-old Huerta received an award for her work for progressive causes, Solis thanked the labor agitator for inspiring her in the early 1990s. “You’re my conscience, and you’re the conscience for many of us,” Solis said.
In 2007, Rep. Solis sponsored the Healthy Places Act. Aiming to make health assessment comparable to environmental assessment, the bill “establishes a process to incorporate all levels of government in community planning with the goal of designing communities which promote healthier living.”
The bill would set up an interagency working group, fund research grants, and make health assessment part of every community’s planning process. Companion legislation was introduced in the Senate by then-Sen. Barack Obama.
Co-Sponser of Card-Check Bill
In Congress, Solis has stood with organized labor to promote its principal legislative priorities — making union organizing easier and enacting “pay equity” regulation. With Democratic control of Congress and the White House, these proposals now have a much better chance of becoming law.
Solis was a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) — also known as “card-check” — legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize a workforce rapidly by abandoning secret-ballot elections.
Union organizers would need only to have workers sign cards agreeing to be represented by a union. The union would have to be recognized when 50% plus one signed the cards.
Further, EFCA would impose binding arbitration on businesses and workers if the union and management could not agree to a contract on their own.
Solis wrote an entry on the liberal Huffington Post website, arguing that “the current system stacks the deck against workers.… The Employee Free Choice Act could end much of the bullying, coercion, and harassment of workers who want to join a union, and build common ground, lead to better wages and a stronger workforce.”
Solis is also an advocate of so-called “pay equity.” Last July, she took to the House floor to urge passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which calls for harsher penalties on businesses that are deemed to have unfairly paid men more than women.
Opponents say the bill would overburden businesses with red tape, subject them to frivolous lawsuits, and that the government would rely on arbitrary data to determine whether wage discrimination was occurring.
But Solis argued that “it’s important to take care of all those that work in our society, but particularly women because they are the ones that are mostly discriminated against, and we have to cut that out.”
During the Bush Administration, both EFCA and the Paycheck Fairness Act sailed through the House, but they were blocked by Senate Republicans. Unlike Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who was a strong opponent of both bills, Secretary Solis is on record as a supporter.
Ignoring Union Fraud
As she pushes for passage of union-friendly legislation, Secretary Solis will enjoy control over a department with a roughly $50 billion budget and nearly 17,000 employees. Unions are well-aware that a Labor secretary can take actions “under the radar” that have a profound impact on the way business is conducted.
The Department of Labor is typically thought of as an agency that runs job-training programs and oversees business conduct regarding labor grievances. But Secretary Chao took another role seriously — government’s responsibility to make sure that a union’s finances are transparent and accountable to its members.
The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act is administered by the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS). Previous Labor secretaries neglected the OLMS, which receives less than 1% of the department budget. But Chao fought to increase funding, stepped up audits of unions, increased disclosure requirements, and battled union corruption.
Since 2001, OLMS has recovered $93 million on behalf of union members by pursuing criminal court cases against union officials. During 2001-2008, OLMS secured 1,004 indictments and 929 convictions. It also stepped up audits of unions from 238 in 2001 to 791 in 2008, an increase of 232%. But when the Democrats took over Congress after the 2006 elections, they cut OLMS funding by $11 million below the administration’s request, while approving $943 million more than the Labor Department asked for its total budget.
Solis voted to defeat a Republican amendment that tried to prevent the OLMS from being cut $47.8 million to $45.7 million, well below the Bush Administration’s request for $56.9 million. Given Solis’s cozy relationship with labor leaders, there’s every reason to believe she will deemphasize the OLMS — an action that will go unnoticed by all but the most astute Labor Department watchers. A tame OLMS is likely to allow unions to operate with a freer hand.
Conflict of Interest
Republicans tried to grill Solis about the OLMS during her confirmation hearing, but she told Sen. Mike Enzi (R.-Wyo.) only that she believes, “whenever there’s corruption, we have a responsibility to end that.”
Secretary Chao was regularly denounced for daring to monitor union finances, and she is accused of harming workers by loosening regulations on business. The pro-union advocacy group American Rights at Work even launched a “Shame on Elaine” website that declared, “Under Elaine’s questionable ‘leadership’ the Department of Labor has turned into an agency that screws America’s workers and enables corporate giveaways.”
Solis was a member of the group’s board of directors, which is chaired by former Rep. David Bonior (D.-Mich.) and includes AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and former Sen. John Edwards (D.-N.C.).
501(c)(4) lobby groups like American Rights at Work (2006 revenue: $2.6 million) and its tax-deductible charitable affiliate, the American Rights at Work Education Fund (2007 revenue: $721,000) longed for Chao’s exit from the Labor Department.
In 2008, Democratic candidates typically scrambled for union support by pledging to install a “pro-labor” secretary. In announcing his selection of Solis, President-elect Obama fulfilled that pledge.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
In accepting the nomination, Solis said, “As secretary of Labor, I’ll work to strengthen our unions and support every American in our workforce.” She later added that, “We must also enforce federal labor laws and strengthen regulations to protect our nation’s workers, such as wage and hour laws, and rules regarding overtime pay and pay discrimination.”
‘Green Jobs’ Fanaticism
But Solis emphasized a new task for the Labor Department, one that exemplifies a preoccupation of the Obama administration and liberals in general: the creation of so-called “green-collar jobs” developing alternative energy. This is an area in which Solis has already clashed with Chao. In December 2007, President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which included a provision that Solis coauthored for a “green jobs” program to be administered by the secretary of Labor.
In August, Chao drew fire from Solis for not moving on her pet program. Solis, along with Rep. John Tierney (D.-Mass.) and her Senate allies Bernard Sanders (I.-Vt.) and Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.), wrote a scorching letter to Chao, saying that “Unfortunately, we now find that the six-month deadline for establishing the program has elapsed. Further delay is unacceptable.”
During Solis’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Sanders asked her whether she would proceed with the program when she became secretary. “Yes,” Solis responded.
Goodbye Non-Union Firms
She was much less forthcoming with Republican senators. When Sen. Enzi, the ranking Republican, asked whether she would continue the policy of allowing non-union firms to compete with union firms for government construction contracts, Solis replied, “That is something that I am not able to speak to at this time, but would like to review and come back to you”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R.-Tenn.) asked if she supported the 60-year-old provision of the Taft-Hartley Act that allows states to pass “right to work” laws granting workers the freedom to choose not to join a union.
“I don’t believe that I am qualified to address that at this time,” she said. “That is not something that I have personally discussed with the President-elect.”
Even when asked specific questions about the Employee Free Choice Act she said she could not voice an opinion, despite the fact that she was a co-sponsor of the legislation.
Having spent millions of dollars and contributed thousands of man-hours to give the Democrats control of Congress and the White House, organized labor unions are thrilled by the appointment of Hilda Solis to be secretary of Labor. One of the unions’ own will get to make the rules of the game. Her fellow Democrats are counting on it.
This article is excerpted from the February issue of ‘Labor Watch,’ a publication of the Capital Research Center.