Solis Tells Lawmakers She Will Expand Job Training as Labor Secretary

WASHINGTON -- Hilda Solis, President-elect Barack Obama's pick for labor secretary, told lawmakers Friday that if confirmed she will work to expand job training programs, enforce workplace safety, health and fair pay laws and make sure employee pension plans are secure. 

The California congresswoman appeared Friday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to tell lawmakers how she would lead a department that Obama says he wants to "once again stand up for working families." 

"We need to restore the respect and integrity of those individuals in the workplace," Solis said. 

Those are comforting words for union and labor advocates, who consider the department under President Bush's labor secretary, Elaine Chao, much too business friendly and are eager to have an advocate in the Obama administration. 

Solis would be the nation's first Hispanic labor secretary. She proudly recounted her roots growing up in California's San Gabriel Valley as the daughter of immigrants and the first in her family to attend college. Her father, from Mexico, became a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant and often told his children that his union association would help bring the family a place in America's middle class. 

She was introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats who praised her long history of activism on behalf of unions and workers rights. 

"She is one person who has actually dedicated her life to public service and to improving the lives of people in her community," Feinstein said. 

Solis has won widespread praise from union officials who expect her to follow a pro labor agenda in the Obama administration. That includes stepping up oversight of wage and hour laws, job safety regulations and rules covering overtime pay and pay discrimination. 

Organized labor also views Solis as a determined advocate for its top priority this year -- legislation that makes it easier to boost union membership by giving employees the right to sign union cards to form unions instead of holding secret ballot elections. 

Business groups, already spending millions of dollars to campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act, are concerned about Solis' support for the measure. 

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., urged Solis to reject "the us-versus-them mentality that has unfortunately characterized labor-management relations" and challenged her position on the card-check bill, which she co-sponsored last year when it passed the House but failed in the Senate. 

Enzi pointed out that Solis once supported a California measure requiring secret ballots for workers negotiating flex time hours with employers. He said he hoped she would be as open to discussion about secret ballots now as she was in the 1990s. 

Solis called the California context "very different," but she deferred taking an official position on the card check legislation. 

Otherwise, Solis provided few policy specifics, despite repeated attempts by some GOP lawmakers to get her to take a position on hot-button issues. 

She declined to say whether she would change an executive order that requires both union and nonunion companies to be allowed to compete for government contracts. She also sidestepped a question on whether private sector employees should have the same right as federal employees already have to negotiate flex time with employers. 

The hearing was tempered by sobering news that the nation lost a staggering 524,000 jobs last month, sending the nation's unemployment rate to 7.2 percent. 

Solis called the job report "a crisis situation" that confirms "the economy is in a severe recession and shedding jobs at an alarming rate." She pledged to work on reducing those numbers, including a commitment to promote "green jobs" that could reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. 

Despite some wariness in the business community over her liberal record -- she has a 97 percent rating from the AFL-CIO -- Solis is expected to win easy confirmation. 

She received a warm reception from the committee's chairman, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who in 2000 presented her with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her pioneering work on environmental justice issues in California. 

Kennedy called her "a voice for the voiceless with a true passion for fairness and justice." 

Solis was the first Latina elected to the California Senate, where she led the battle to increase the state's minimum hourly wage from $4.25 to $5.75 in 1996. 

She won her congressional seat in 2000 after taking on a Democratic incumbent who had lost the support of organized labor. During eight years in Congress, Solis has made protecting the environment and helping immigrants two of her top priorities.