Voices of Power: Hilda Solis


INTERVIEW OF HILDA SOLIS, Secretary of Labor

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday June 30, 2009

Chapter 1: CARD CHECK/UNIONS

Welcome, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Thank you for joining us today.

Your most important job as Labor Secretary is protecting the workforce. Yet, we have 9.4 percent unemployed, and we have new numbers coming out in a few days. What's going to happen? Where--where are those numbers going?

SECRETARY SOLIS: Well, unfortunately, it is really high, and this is a 26-year high that we've seen. It's unprecedented. I'm not happy with it, neither is the President, and I think we're going to continue to work full force to see that we make sure that the recovery monies that have been issued, that were signed into law in February, go out to the appropriate places that need it.

My role right now is to help provide assistance for those dislocated workers through benefits, through the UI program, the Unemployment Insurance program, so that much of the money that has already gone out to states where people are being able to see an extension of their UI benefits, and also, for the first time, we have about 19 states that are participating in a new modernized program that we call Modernization Act of the UI Program.

It allows women, part-time workers, people that have been victims of domestic violence or had to move around because their spouse had their jobs changed or they had to be moved, they can now also get additional money if they had worked, say, less than 40 hours a week.

So this is an additional benefit. It's helping to keep, I think, at least some effort and support for those people that have to make those payments for rent, utility bills, and keep their families fed. Certainly, it isn't the means to an end here. We still have a long way to go.

And another portion of the monies that we're giving out, that I feel very, very proud, is the release of green jobs, monies for the creation and development of training programs for the new renewable energy future, jobs that will be created, that we so badly need right now.

MS. ROMANO: I'm going to come back to green jobs, but just to--just to stay on unemployment for a second, Michigan's unemployment rate right now is 14 percent. Are you expecting the national numbers to go into the double digits this week?

SECRETARY SOLIS: I am not prepared to say that. I know that there will probably be a continued increase in the unemployment rate. We're seeing that in the State of California and other places that weren't there just a few months ago.

Unfortunately, you know, this is a--this is a terrible situation for us, and I think that, as I said earlier, we're going to do everything we can to make sure that recovery monies go out so that we can get people back to work and help provide them with health insurance benefits that they are eligible to receive.

MS. ROMANO: For the unions, the most important issue on the table now, at least on your plate, is a controversial one, which is the Employee Free Choice Act. Can you tell us what that is and why it's necessary?

SECRETARY SOLIS: Well, the Employee Free Choice Act is a bill that has been presented in the Congress and the Senate that would allow for individuals who would like to be represented by a union to be able to form a union by simply signing up on a card.

And the way I view it is that, for a long time, it's been very hard for employees to organize, and many times they come up against barriers, either by the responsible or--or, if they are successful in gathering enough, say, ballots to--to ask for representation, many times the employer will take the next step, and they'll go to the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, where it get caughts--it will get caught up for another portion of time.

In many cases, we've seen employees be intimidated or harassed by their employer and they'll lose their jobs. They will be terminated, and we don't want to see that happen.

So we want to see where there is a fair--fair balance here, and I think that right now the Senate and Members of the House are negotiating the bill.

I think coming from a union background myself, I know how important it is for people to know that they have some assurances of wages that they will be paid, some security so they have benefits and health plans, and that they are able--in some cases if they're able to negotiate for a retirement. All these things, I believe has strongly helped our country establish that middle class, and that has slowly been eroding over the last couple of decades.

Business is very strongly fighting the card check, and you don't have the votes right now. Where is the room for compromise?

SECRETARY SOLIS: I think that those discussions are going on right now with members of--of the Senate, and I--and I can't give you any particulars because I'm not involved directly, but I can tell you this. As a former Member of the House, someone who supported it and was a cosponsor as well as the President, we continue to hope that these negotiations will move forward.

MS. ROMANO: Doesn't the measure, in fact, though--it takes--it takes power away from the employer, but doesn't it give that power to the--to the union organizers? I mean, it doesn't necessarily give it to the workers because now the workers have to do all this in the open.

SECRETARY 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, it far outnumbers the lack of their success because there have been barriers that have been put up.

And I think that the past administration, I think, was not very favorable for--for unions. In fact, you know, they--they were not supportive in many ways.

And so I think all we're seeing here is let's level the playing field. If we can have good wages with benefits and good job security, I think that says a lot. And I think here in the Department of Labor, we're doing everything we can to help provide more inspections in Wage and Hour and in OSHA and working with small business, too, because we know there's a lot of good players out there that want to have help from the Federal Government, from Department of Labor, but it was nonexistent.

MS. ROMANO: Union membership has shrunk to 12 percent of the American workforce. Can they still play a meaningful role in the U.S. economy, you know, given globalization?

SECRETARY SOLIS: Yes, I do. In fact, I just returned from several summits, international summits, and one that I just came back from, from Geneva with the ILO, we talked about this on a global--on a global level and the financial crisis and what do you do as--as a leading country in terms of making sure that there's a safety net and protection in the workplace, so that you don't see a continuance of wages going down and a continuation of unfair competition globally. And I think that has hurt us here in the United States, and you keep hearing that, that we are outsourcing our jobs, our manufacturing base has gone to other countries.

I think the American public has enough sense to say, "You know what, we've got to take another look at this, and we want leadership that is going to stand up and help us level the playing field and help us work through trade agreements that are fair, that are actually fair, that help also preserve and--and have good intentions for our workers here.

MS. ROMANO: How are you going to get those jobs back?

SECRETARY SOLIS: I don't know that we're going to get them all back---but I can tell you that one of our--our strong preferences is to see that these new jobs that are created through the green economy that they will stay here. The preference is that they will be, hopefully, staying here, and that's what--that's what our priority will be.

Chapter 1 close

Chapted 2: CLIMATE BILL/GREEN JOBS

MS. ROMANO: The climate control bill is whooshing through Congress right now, and in it are monies for--for training or--or at least for studies for the Education Department on green jobs. Can you tell us what a green job is? A lot of people say, "Well, what are they talking about?"

SECRETARY SOLIS: Well, a green job is--let me just give you an example. People do get confused. It could be someone that has been trained to be an electrician or a plumber or someone who is even a cement mason. Those skills can be transferrable into the new renewable energy.

For example, an IBEW worker will now learn how to install, develop, measure, and also be able to do audits of energy that comes into a household by retooling, putting in solar panels, or putting in different measurements. So, even someone who is a welder, who is a boilermaker, can learn how to create and compile the necessary equipment to put together wind turbines, wind energy.

So these skills in my mind--and I've seen this happen because I've been out in the field watching different programs--apprenticeship programs, as well as community college programs--and actually seeing the workforce development occurring on the ground. It's not anything new; it's already happening.

Weatherization programs are considered also green jobs, only we're going to be looking at really putting in better instruments and tools and equipment that will help reduce that carbon footprint not only in the households but also in businesses and new measurements. So, even someone who is a welder, who is a boilermaker, can learn how to create and compile the necessary equipment to put together wind turbines, wind energy.

So these skills in my mind--and I've seen this happen because I've been out in the field watching different programs--apprenticeship programs, as well as community college programs--and actually seeing the workforce development occurring on the ground. It's not anything new; it's already happening.

Weatherization programs are considered also green jobs, only we're going to be looking at really putting in better instruments and tools and equipment that will help reduce that carbon footprint not only in the households but also in businesses and new industries that pop up.

We can retool, for example, a hospital, retool a parking lot structure by putting solar panels on top of the parking structures that will help put energy back into the grid system and lowering the cost of, say, colleges or schools or hospitals.

MS. 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?

SECRETARY SOLIS: It depends on what region, you know, you live in. I mean, obviously, in California, it's much higher than it is--than it is in other parts of the country.

SECRETARY SOLIS: I think States have the ability to do that, and they, you know, rightfully have that--have that responsibility, and if they feel that--that their constituents they have to support, the legislatures are in agreement, I think that's--I think that's fine. I think that--

MS. ROMANO: So let the states do it if they need to.

SECRETARY SOLIS: I think that's wholesome.

I think that we, too, though, at the Federal level 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, and we saw some changes occurring.

And it's unfortunate because you can't--you can't raise a family, and, in many cases, minimum-wage workers, there's a higher tendency for them to be women single women, head of households with children. And if you're expecting them to somehow be able to maintain a household with children, pay rent, car, and all the other incidences that go on, I think it's very unrealistic for us to say that they can make it on--on just $7.25.

MS. ROMANO: You've used the expression "level the playing field" a couple of times. Do you--do you think that American workers were at a disadvantage under President Bush? Was the--was it tilted towards businesses?

SECRETARY SOLIS: I would say in terms of enforcement and Wage and Hour and OSHA inspections --absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that there are different reports that have been issued by the GAO, by Members of the House, Senate, that had asked for inquiries, and--and the information and the facts are there. So, yes, there was, I think, a reluctance, and in terms of really--really trying to make clear that businesses should really be enforcing the laws.

MS. ROMANO: Retraining. 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 to other countries. Are we going to do more?

SECRETARY 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 that help get into these new renewable energy jobs that we just talked about.

In addition, in another few weeks, we'll be issuing $250 million that will go for health care careers and IT, another area that needs--that we see as a growing sector that needs to have attention paid to.

And we haven't--we haven't been very good about putting money and investing in our--in our best resource, and our best resource is our human resource, our human capital.

MS. ROMANO: Job outsourcing out of the country. What is--what's the proper role of the U.S. Government in trying to keep those jobs here? I mean, should--should it be regulated, or should the market just judge it, regulate it?

SECRETARY SOLIS: It might be--it might be a combination of both. It really--at this point, though, I think it's really important to understand that there--there is not a lot of tolerance for allowing more of our jobs to leave our shores, and that seems very clear. And I think that came through very clear in the elections in November, and I think that the public is really focusing in on new leadership here to help reestablish our economy, deal with the deficit, but also deal with job creation and retraining.

And I think people are really open to this right now because they see--they see what's happening. The cost of gasoline goes up. Fuel and energy continue to go up and rise. Limited resources that are out there, natural resources, climate change, different factors, droughts, hurricanes, all kinds of things that are happening globally that do have an impact on us, and we're seeing it even here in Washington, D.C., with the different cycles, weather--weather cycles that are occurring that are--that we haven't seen in a long time.

I think we have to be prepared for it, and the way you do it is you invest in training programs, in education, and, hopefully, retooling our manufacturing industry, and I think that's going to be a big challenge. It's going to take some time, but I think for us to make that sacrifice while other foreign countries have done it and they're ahead of us in many ways, I think we should take--we should take the lead now and begin to do that and create those jobs here.

MS. ROMANO: Unemployment benefits. When--when that first started, they were intended to cover half the wage. Now it's down to about a third. Is that something that should be higher, given what we're facing right now?

SECRETARY SOLIS: Well, I don't--I think right now, because we continue to see an increasing number of people applying for--you know, for unemployment, I don't--I don't think that we're in a position to do that right now.

What we would look at, I believe, and what the President has done in the recovery program was to help extend more weeks, and they did get--they did get a bump up, though, at the beginning, a $25 increase, but that was kind of, you know, a one-time shot.

Now we're--now we're into trying to make sure that states get involved in some other parts of the program that maybe they didn't apply for, like the new modernization of unemployment for part-time workers, which is another way of helping people. It doesn't certainly cover 50 percent of their wages they would have--they would have earned, but it does give them at least the ability to--to pay down for rent or pay those bills.

Chapter Three: Personal

MS. ROMANO: You're the product of immigrant parents and a working-class union family, I understand. How has--how does that shape your agenda as Labor Secretary?

SECRETARY SOLIS: Well, we had a very, very strict household. My father was very disciplined, and he--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, and they--and they were good about that, but they were always very fair. And they were very, very humble, hard-working people, very ethical and always imparted that upon their children.

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 the American Dream was being able to have their--their children attend public school that they didn't have to pay for, that they could get that opportunity to have a better life than they had, and also have the fulfillment that this was a country that was--that was very supportive of--of the underdog, of people that worked really hard.

MS. ROMANO: So do you feel, though, as part of your agenda, you are giving back to working-class people?

SECRETARY SOLIS: I hope so. And especially for young people--because so many young people, as you know, are losing out on the American Dream. They don't have the ability to go to college. They may come from a broken household.

I run into youth all the time that need a second chance, and once they're given that opportunity and given the tools and choices, many times they will succeed and supersede what our expectations are.

So I'm a big believer in education. I'm a big believer in giving people a helping hand, support, but also want to make sure that they give back, that they also help, to volunteer, go into their communities, and help provide the kinds of goals that the President has set for us.

He's really big on community service. He just initiated this program called www.Serve.gov. He wants volunteers. We were out this week earlier painting a veteran's home who is disabled, who was bedridden, and he needed his house repaired in East Los Angeles. This is an old wood-frame home, probably built in the '30s, looked like it was--it needed a lot of tender loving care, but we got out there with some other students from the YouthBuild program that we run, and volunteers--and we were out there painting.

And he was watching us from inside, he said--and he started to cry. He said, "You know, I'm so happy someone took the time to come and see me because I felt like I was on my last--my last leg here, where I couldn't--I couldn't walk anymore." He had had an accident. He had hurt himself, and he's very ill. He's had tumors, cancer, and different things, but he felt so enthused that local community people would come in.

He didn't have anything to give, but he just knew that, hey, the thanks was enough for--for the people that came out to help him.

And I think that those are good examples of what this administration is trying to push forward. That isn't certainly everything we want to do, but why not, why not when everybody is hurting, when unemployment is so high, when people don't have jobs, when even our soup kitchens and our food banks are in need of resources?

MS. ROMANO: You are the first Latina to head a major agency. What does that mean for the Latino community?

SECRETARY SOLIS: Well, as a woman, as a Latina, and as someone who grew up in this country, realizing that--that I could do what I'm doing now is--is, I think of--I have a great sense of pride for where I come from, from my--for my family, as well as--as well as the people that I come in contact with because they've really helped to--to position and make me who I am.

I'm not just a product of one thing but so many different experiences and so many women and people that have influenced my life and people that I've never met that have influenced my life.

I never met John F. Kennedy, but he's influenced my life.

I didn't have the opportunity to meet Martin Luther King.

I did not meet César Chávez, but I attended his funeral, but I attended his funeral and know his family, his wife. I know Dolores Huerta, who is the co-founder of the Farmworkers, who influenced much of my legislative work before I even came here to Washington.

So I have a great sense of--of pride of how--how my life has allowed me to go through these different opportunities and to share and to, hopefully, motivate other young people and other women, in particular, to take that step, to take that risk, and to test yourself but also remember that you can fail, but you can pick yourself up, and you can keep moving forward.

ROMANO: How does--how does kind of the, you know, open kind of demeanor of a Congress person translate into an agency?

SECRETARY SOLIS: It's very different, but, you know, I've always been like that.

MS. ROMANO: How so? How different?

SECRETARY SOLIS: Well, in the Congress, you don't spend a whole lot of time in your office

You're usually in committees. You're making speeches, or you're traveling back and forth to your district, or you're involved on the floor, and so it's very, very interactive. You need people, different people all the time.

Here, it's--it's different because you're in the executive branch. So coming in the first few months, I spent a lot of time just learning about--about the agency and the different divisions that we oversee and the kinds of work that we're doing, and now I'm feeling a lot more--I'm more comfortable. I'm able to go pop in and visit folks, and I want to.

SECRETARY SOLIS: I want people to know that I'm approachable, that I'm just like them, that I'm committed as a public servant to do what I can, and how can I help them, how can I help them do their job better, how can they help me better understand what changes, perhaps, we should be making to make this agency run smoother and really keep on top of what our goals are, keeping people employed, making sure they get benefits, hopefully making sure that when they go into a workplace that they can come--come home at night because it's a safer place to work at.

MS. ROMANO: Great. Thank you.

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