susan walsh / associated press
Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009 | 2 a.m.
President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for labor secretary might be a forceful advocate for American workers, but she gave little indication of it at her Senate confirmation hearing Friday.
Nominee Hilda Solis, a California Democratic congresswoman, presented herself as a measured if soft-spoken negotiator unwilling to telegraph her passions. It was hardly the picture of a former activist who once walked picket lines.
“My priorities, if I’m confirmed, will be first and foremost to make sure that we attend to the priorities of the Department of Labor — that we have fair wages, that there’s wage protection and that hopefully people can aspire to a path to good-paying jobs in this country,” Solis said.
In many ways, her cautious remarks added up to a flawless performance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. Goal one of confirmation hearings is to get confirmed, and that means avoiding the pitfalls that could open up lines of controversy.
If nothing else, Friday’s hearing demonstrated that expectations of her are high. The proceedings drew a large crowd — on a day the nation learned that another half-million jobs were lost in December to the sagging economy.
In Solis, the daughter of a Teamster from a working-class immigrant family, both sides see one of Congress’ most progressive voices rising to what could be a vital Cabinet position.
Solis is a compelling figure — the daughter of immigrants who earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California and rose to become the first Hispanic state senator in California in 1994. She was the first woman to earn a John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage award and was just elected to a fifth term in the House.
Comparisons to the legendary Labor Secretary Frances Perkins are inevitable. One AFL-CIO official foretold of a “return to that era of an active labor secretary who really fights to improve the lives of working Americans.”
Workers’ advocates are looking to the Obama administration to reverse years of stagnating wages and rising income disparity. Organized labor played a key role in Obama’s victory in Nevada and other states, and unions see a rare opportunity to bolster the middle class by adding to their ranks.
The business community is bracing for a new era of regulatory enforcement from a union-backed nominee they fear could hamstring industry after the Bush administration’s preference for a self-regulatory approach.
Solis was nearly silent on the most compelling issue of the day, legislation to make it easier for unions to organize. The proposal is a top priority of unions and the No. 1 nemesis of the business community.
As a congresswoman, Solis supported the Employee Free Choice Act in 2007, as did Obama. Yet the legislation died in the Senate without enough votes to overcome a filibuster by Republicans that blocked its passage.
At Las Vegas Strip casinos, the bill’s passage would breathe life into union disputes at Caesars and Wynn Las Vegas, where efforts to organize dealers have dragged on. The bill would require workers and management to enter binding contract negotiations.
Even more, the bill would make it easier for unions to organize by allowing workers to join simply by signing cards. Currently, workers can organize only via secret-ballot elections after campaigns that labor leaders say give management an opportunity to intimidate workers.
Unions and Democrats including Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, see the legislation as necessary to prevent intimidation — as was seen in Nevada in the case of workers who tried to organize Wal-Mart stores several years ago and were summarily fired with little consequence to the company.
The business community, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, says secret-ballot elections are the only fair way to organize because they give management a chance to make its case before the voting and allow workers to express their preferences privately.
Battle lines are being drawn as Republicans pressed Solis on Friday for commitments on their priority issues — including investigating potential corruption in organized labor.
Solis’ supporters on and off the Hill praised her as a tested lawmaker with a quiet and steady determination that will be effective. Sen. Edward Kennedy, the committee chairman from Massachusetts, said Solis is “as strong a nominee as we could possibly have.”
“She has energy, as a lot of you will see,” testified California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat. “And she has creativity.”
Labor leaders remained confident Solis would play a key role in passing the union-backed organizing bill.
“The Employee Free Choice Act is a key economic recovery mechanism and we think she will be a voice in the administration as well as an advocate in Congress,” said Greg Denier, a spokesman for Coalition to Win, which includes several unions nationwide. “We look to the Obama administration and his secretary of labor to lead the fight for passage.”
In California, Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, praised Solis’ work in the state Legislature. “What we saw was a woman who knew how to balance, a legislator who knew how to understand both sides of the story,” he said by phone. “In that sense, she’d be a moderating influence in bringing the interests together.”
Randel Johnson, vice president of labor at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said union-backed priorities will not be “as prominent as organized labor would like them to be, because Obama appears to be reaching across the aisle to bipartisan solutions.
“They’re going to get their pound of flesh,” Johnson said about organized labor. “They’re not going to get their two pounds.”