Labor Secretary Hilda Solis fired up Democrats at the party's national winter meeting in Washington on Saturday, as the feisty former California congresswoman chastised Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and across the country for not sitting down with union workers to negotiate a compromise on state budget crises.
"We know many states are facing tough budget decisions. We know there is room for shared sacrifice. Shared," Solis stressed, adding, "We've seen our brothers and sisters in public employee unions willing, willing to give up their fair share...The governors in Wisconsin and Ohio aren't just asking workers to tighten their belts, they're demanding they give up their uniquely American rights as workers."
It was the issue that moved attendees most at their annual gathering, with many sporting bright red "Stand Up for Worker's Rights" badges and toting supportive signs. As members cheered and shouted their support, it was clear this issue could be one that galvanizes the party base in the future should the state budget wars continue deeper into the 2012 election season.
One senior Democratic official told Fox, "Regardless of how Wisconsin plays out, what's clear from the display today is that (Wisconsin Governor) Scott Walker has handed us a gift. He took a deflated, fractured party coming out of 2010 and as evidenced by what we saw in this room, given us a unified, energized and motivated base."
"The fight is on!" Solis cheered, as the formal speeches wrapped and the low-key gathering devolved into something more closely resembling a pep rally, and the microphones were opened up to audience members. First up, Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees union, the third largest union in the country.
"This battle in Wisconsin is not just for public sector workers," McEntee cried, "It's really a battle for human rights!" The longtime union president chided Wisconsin's governor, as he invited a willing audience's "boo's" and asked for support picketing the Republican during an appearance he is scheduled to make on a Sunday morning political talk show.
"This is where we go when we elect Republicans to these powerful offices," McEntee warned a rapt crowd, as a parade of union officials, as well as, current and retired union workers from Michigan to Florida to New Mexico followed him at the mics, all with one focus: protect the right to collectively bargain. Some even compared the current union fight to the democratic struggles in the Middle East. The crowd cheered for each, as they approved a resolution of solidarity with union workers in Wisconsin and beyond.
Walker and a number of other GOP governors across the U.S. are moving to end this long-time union mainstay, as these officials contend that the practice shoots up the cost of doing business in their cash-strapped states. Walker, who was elected in 2010 in the GOP wave that swept the country, has refused to negotiate, saying the state is broke and that the voters chose him and other governors like him to get their states' fiscal houses back in order.
Back at the winter meeting, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, himself a former governor, praised the union workers, but it was Solis, the first Latina Cabinet secretary in U.S. history who hails from "a union household," who really marshaled the rank and file.
"These are our neighbors, our friends and family. They teach our kids...risk their lives to protect our friends and families, and all they're asking for is to be treated with dignity. All they're really asking for is an opportunity to sit down at the table. And that's what collective bargaining is all about." Through a standing ovation, Solis shouted again, "The fight is on!"