Voices of Power: Proposed Union Plans Â?Level the Playing Field,' Solis Says

Labor Secretary Solis on the controversy over the "card check" legislation and how the Obama administration will push for workers' rights.
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

After a lifetime in politics, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis has honed the fine art of dodging controversial questions, but here's one issue where she doesn't pull her punches: the 9.4 percent unemployment rate. The June figures will be released Thursday, and she's braced for more bad news.

"I know that there will probably be a continued increase," Solis said in an interview. "This is a 26-year high. . . . It's unprecedented."

Solis, 51, a former member of Congress, is the first Latina to head a major federal agency. She grew up in California, the third of seven children born to immigrants with deep union ties. The business community was not happy with her appointment.

One of her most pressing issues is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a huge priority of labor that would effectively change the way unions are organized. Under the proposed legislation, a secret ballot election can be bypassed. The measure faces a tough battle on Capitol Hill.

Romano: Doesn't the Employee Free Choice Act in fact take power away from the employer [and] give that power to the union organizers?

Solis: I don't think that it takes away power from businesses. I think it helps to level the playing field because, in many cases, workers have been disadvantaged. They've been intimidated, they've been harassed, and we have case after case after case that we can look at. And you probably hear from the opposing side, that they will say, "Well, no, there have been successes where people have been able to organize, and they have been able to push forward a unionization. But when you look at the attempts that have been made over the past few years . . . there have been barriers that have been put up. And I think that the past administration was not very favorable for unions. They were not supportive in many ways.

Romano: The federal minimum wage is about to go up to $7.25 an hour, but more than half the states have a higher minimum wage. Is the federal minimum wage still too low?

Solis: At the federal level, we have a responsibility. It took us a long time, several years, to get the minimum wage up, and we kept battling that, as a former member of the House, until finally we took over the -- the majority in the House.

You can't raise a family. And, in many cases, with minimum-wage workers, there's a higher tendency for them to be women, single women, head of households with children. It's very unrealistic for us to say that they can make it on -- on just $7.25.

Romano: With unemployment rising and the economy changing, a lot of workers need to be retrained. The U.S. government has been notoriously stingy on retraining as compared with other countries. Are we going to do more?

Solis: Absolutely. In fact, this week we released the grant solicitation for green jobs, $500 million that will go out to -- to the country, and people can then begin to look at how they can come together and create partnerships. . . . In addition, in another few weeks, we'll be issuing $250 million that will go for health-care careers and IT.

Romano: You're the product of immigrant parents and a working-class union family. How does that shape your agenda as labor secretary?

Solis: Well, we had a very, very strict household. My father was very disciplined, and he was very good about making sure that everybody, you know, kept to -- kept to their chores, kept to their studies. My mother was also very good about making sure that everyone played a role in the household.

They wanted the best for them because where they had come from, where they grew up, they didn't have the same circumstances, and they came from poverty backgrounds, very, you know, low education, but knew that this was a country that was -- that was very supportive of -- of the underdog, of people that worked really hard.

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