Solis, Obama's Labor Pick, Vows To Protect Workers

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) appears at her confirmation hearing on Friday. i

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA), President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for labor secretary, appears before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Friday. She pledged to raise wages and retirement benefits for workers. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) appears at her confirmation hearing on Friday.

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA), President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for labor secretary, appears before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Friday. She pledged to raise wages and retirement benefits for workers.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

President-elect Obama's nominee for labor secretary told a key Senate panel Friday that her top priority is protecting workers, especially in the current economy.

Hilda Solis was lauded by Democrats at her confirmation hearing, both for her resume and for her personal story. Republicans, some of whom attempted to draw Solis into a discussion about labor union laws, were largely rebuffed.

"She has been a voice for the voiceless, with a true passion for fairness and justice," said Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Goals For Department

Solis is the daughter of two working-class Latino immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from college. She credits unions with giving her parents the opportunity to succeed in the United States.

In 1994, Solis was the first Hispanic woman elected to the California Senate. There, she spent years working to protect low-income families from pollution from nearby factories. In 2000, she received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage award for that work.

Solis told the committee Friday she has several goals for the Labor Department: giving workers better training and expanded unemployment insurance; raising wages and retirement benefits; and focusing — in particular — on combat veterans returning to the private sector.

Republican Doubts

Solis' long support for stronger labor unions prompted some Republicans to question whether, as secretary, she would approach labor and business interests with an equal hand.

"This is a very, very important position," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). "It can't be used to just magnify one side over the other. It has to be handled fairly."

Hatch did say he intended to vote to confirm Solis.

Among Republicans' concerns was Solis' sponsorship of the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form unions. The bill passed in the House two years ago but stalled in the Senate. At Friday's hearing, Solis declined to give her opinion on that legislation, saying she had not consulted with Obama on the matter.

Some Democrats also pushed Solis on specific issues.

"Everybody's talking about green jobs like they're going to be some big green bullet that's going to solve problems," said Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski.

Mikulski urged the nominee to consider more training funds for health care jobs.

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