By Bobo, Kim
In These Times , Vol. 33, No. 2
REP. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), President Obama's pick for labor secretary, could help restore i dignity and respect to American workers.
Before her appointment, Solis was not well known outside of California. But, with time, she could honor the spirit of Frances Perkins-FDR's labor secretary and the first female Cabinet member-who was known for her tireless fight for American workers. Perkins' name adorns the Labor Department building in Washington, D.C.
Like Perkins, Solis is a fighter for workers. She fought for farmworker rights in the California state legislature and later used her own funds to support a successful ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage.
Like Perkins, Solis isn't part of the establishment. FDR was criticized for appointing a woman, particularly one from outside the labor movement, to serve as labor secretary. Similarly, Solis isn't a creature of the Clinton years, unlike many of President Obama's appointments. She is the child of immigrant workers and attributes her call to public service to César Chavez, United Farmer Workers of America leader.
Perkins visited the homes of immigrant workers in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. She investigated sweatshops and prosecuted employers who exploited workers.
Solis, too, has visited immigrant workers' homes, marched with janitors, investigated sweatshops and fought to prosecute unethical employers. In 1995, she worked with UNITE HERE! to recover back wages for El Monte garment workers. She then helped pass California's landmark anti-sweatshop law.
But the challenges facing Solis are formidable. The nation's workforce is battered and increasingly unemployed, with job losses in 2008 expected to be about 2.5 million.
What's more, in the last decade, wages and benefits for the vast majority of American workers have declined and will likely continue to erode amid the current economic recession.
To meet these challenges, the Labor Department must do three things:
First, it should help create and support new jobs. Currently, it has no job creation programs, so no staff or structures exist to help with green jobs or any other job-creation initiatives.
Second, the department should coordinate and oversee the training of America's workers. Although there are some programs for this, the United States is falling drastically behind other industrialized nations in educating and training workers. Rebuilding the training division and figuring out how to coordinate with other agencies, such as the Department of Education, will be difficult. …