Solis To Lay Out Vision for Labor Department

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President-elect Barack Obama's pick for labor secretary is set to appear before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The labor-friendly Hilda Solis isn't expected to have any problems in the confirmation process. The California congresswoman, a Democrat, has a 97 percent rating from the AFL-CIO.


Today, confirmation hearings begin for the woman President-elect Obama has chosen to serve as his Labor secretary. Democratic Congresswoman Hilda Solis of California is the daughter of immigrant union workers. Frank Langfitt covers labor for NPR, and he's with us in the studio. Good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How do you see the Labor Department changing under the Obama administration?

LANGFITT: You know, Ari, this may be the biggest ideological change we're going to see at the Cabinet level under this new administration. Under President Bush, organized labor was at war with the Labor Department; they saw the administration as the enemy. Take Elaine Chao; she was running it for the past eight years. She's seen as a very pro-business. She came under a lot of criticism for failing to kind of look out for workers, certainly from the point of view of unions. It was a government report that criticized the department for not investigating hundreds of overtime and minimum-wage complaints for a year or more.

Now, Solis, she has a completely different kind of profile. As we mentioned, she's the daughter of union members. Her dad's from Mexico and was a shop steward with the Teamsters. Her mom is from Nicaragua; she's a member of the United Rubber Workers. So, she's seen as a lot more sympathetic to organized labor and a lot more focused on sort of the daily concerns of ordinary workers.

SHAPIRO: OK. So, we have a shift from a Republican administration, generally perceived as being aligned with business interests, to a Democratic administration, generally seen as being aligned with union interests. But given that we're in an economic recession right now, a crisis, is the Obama administration going to have to make choices that the unions are going to disagree with?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. I think that one of the big issues that's going to come up, and it's already been put off, is what's called the Employee Free Choice Act. Right now, most union elections are through secret ballot, and it would allow them actually to do this by just asking people to check a card, saying they wanted to have a union. And the advantage to the union is that they can do this quietly, frankly, on the side, and not have the businesses know what's going on. When the businesses realize that a union drive is coming, they often mount a very tough campaign, sometimes hiring labor-union-busting firms, law firms. And it's been very challenging for unions to organize, and that's been one of their problems.

SHAPIRO: So, this bill would make it much easier for employees to form unions?

LANGFITT: Dramatically so. Looks like that particular bill won't come up until the summer. Even though Obama had supported the bill during the campaign, it remains to be seen how hard he can push for that, given that the real front-burner issue now is the economy.

SHAPIRO: What about Detroit specifically? There's been a lot of talk about, if the auto companies are going to stay alive, there will have to be fundamental restructuring. Can the Labor Department and the autoworkers union see eye to eye?

LANGFITT: I think it's going to be one of the first big challenges for the Obama administration. You know, the Bush administration gave $13 billion to Chrysler and GM at the end of the year, and one of the things it said is it wanted real concessions; it wants a very different business model; wants these companies to cut a lot of costs; and it wants the unions to take big, big hits on their wages and salaries and health benefits. The United Auto Workers head Ron Gettelfinger is going to go to Obama and say, you know, we can't accept this; you have to fix this for us. President-elect Obama is under a lot pressure to fix these companies and make sure they have a good business plan going forward, because now, as taxpayers - you, I, the rest of our listeners - we're all investors.

SHAPIRO: When you look at this relationship between President-elect Obama and his chosen Labor secretary, Hilda Solis, Mr. Obama is not strongly affiliated with the unions in his history; Congresswoman Solis is. Do you see her as being perhaps more allied with the unions and maybe trying to convince President-elect Obama to do things that he might not otherwise do?

LANGFITT: I don't know. I think that his choice of her is a very positive sign to the unions, but on some of these big issues, like the future of Detroit and this bill that would make it easier to form labor, I suspect that that's going to be run out of the White House.

SHAPIRO: That's our labor correspondent Frank Langfitt. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Ari.

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