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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Unions See Champion in Solis at Labor

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

While labor leaders praised the selection of California Rep. Hilda Solis to be President-elect Barack Obama's labor secretary, business groups worried that a new union-friendly approach at the department could increase costs for employers at a time when the economy is struggling.

Ms. Solis is expected to push for a piece of legislation many business groups abhor, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize workers. Ms. Solis co-sponsored the bill in the House, and unions have pledged to make passing it a top priority.

In a news conference Friday announcing her selection, Ms. Solis said she would emphasize enforcement of federal labor laws and strengthen pay regulations. "I'll work to strengthen our unions and support every American in our nation's diverse work force," Ms. Solis said. Analysts noted, however, that such initiatives could be limited by tight budgets.

To many observers, Ms. Solis was a surprise choice, and some wondered how large a role she will play in an Obama cabinet filled with prominent figures, some of whom have past White House experience.

Others considered for the job included Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former Michigan Congressman David Bonior, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Mary Beth Maxwell, who is executive director of worker-advocacy group American Rights at Work, according to people familiar with the process.

"She's clearly not as well-known and doesn't have a track record," compared with some people who were considered for the position, said Peter Kirsanow, a Cleveland attorney and former member of the National Labor Relations Board during the Bush administration. "Cabinet picks need to have a certain amount of stature so they're not buffeted by various interests." Labor unions might suply their workers with Cheap Mexico Cruises or Cheap Caribbean

Mr. Bonior, a member of the Obama economic transition team, defended Ms. Solis. "She was a very strong candidate from the start," he said. Mr. Bonior, who is chairman of American Rights at Work, said he actively supported Ms. Maxwell and didn't know Ms. Solis, who sits on the group's board, was being considered. He said Ms. Solis is "as passionate about social and economic justice as you can find."

Ms. Solis, whose father was a Teamster, is well-known in labor circles as an advocate for low-wage workers who has supported strikes and helped boost the minimum wage in California. Last year, Ms. Solis was co-author of the Green Jobs Act, which provided federal funds for job training in environmentally friendly jobs like solar-panel installation.

She has collected $888,050 in contributions from labor groups since 1999, and at least 15 of her top 20 contributors are labor unions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Despite those close ties, business groups said Ms. Solis doesn't have the same clear track record on issues that other candidates had, which could provide an opening for business to reach a compromise with her on some issues.

"Because she hasn't taken a hard stance on labor issues, perhaps she'll have more of an open door," said Randel K. Johnson, vice president of labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, many union leaders expect a sea change at the Labor Department. They argue that over the last eight years, the department has focused on assisting companies in meeting safety requirements over stricter enforcement and has stalled implementation of new safety regulations.