Solis Resigns as Labor Secretary; Leaves Pro-Union Legacy

hilda-solisA presidential re-election typically triggers a cabinet reshuffling. The U.S. Department of Labor now can be considered part of the process. Yesterday afternoon, January 9, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced her resignation. Solis, previously a four-term Democratic congresswoman from California, had won the job on the strength of her aggressive championing of union interests. In a statement issued shortly thereafter, President Obama lauded Solis as “a tireless champion for working families,” adding that “her efforts have helped train workers for the jobs of the future, protect workers’ health and safety and put millions of Americans back to work.”  Such words are at once understandable (coming from her boss) and misleading. For it is hard to imagine a secretary of labor so predisposed toward favoring union interests over those of nonmembers.

Back in December 2008, while Solis was a nominee, Union Corruption Update had taken note of her political moorings. While a member of Congress – she first was elected in 2000 – Solis through 2007 had compiled a perfect 100 percent lifetime rating from the liberal nonprofit Americans for Democratic Action. There was good reason for that. Most crucially, she was a co-sponsor of the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act, a top union priority during the past decade. This legislation would have forced private-sector employers to recognize a union as the sole bargaining agent at a worksite if its organizers manage to persuade at least 50 percent of potentially affected workers to sign a card indicating a desire to join. This mandatory “card check” feature would have rendered the main instrument of union democracy – the secret ballot – a virtual relic. She wasn’t bashful about her union roots either. In a March 2007 article for the Huffington Post, Solis wrote: “As the daughter of a union family – my father was a Teamster and my mother worked tirelessly for 25 years – I know that my seven siblings and I would not be where we are today without the wages and other protections earned with the help of their union.” She also resolutely opposed restricting immigration. Back in 1996, while as a California state senator, she made this bizarre statement: “We are all Americans whether you are legalized or not.” She has not repudiated this statement nor is it likely she ever will. For her and like-minded activists, immigration, the more the better, is an issue mainly insofar as it relates to workers’ rights.

Union officials recognized an ally when they saw one. Then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney stated upon her nomination: “We’re confident that she will return to the Labor Department one of its core missions – to defend workers’ rights in our nation’s workplaces…She’s voted with working men and women 97 percent of the time.” Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the driving force behind the upstart rival labor federation, Change to Win, likewise remarked: “The daughter of two immigrant workers and union members…she will be a secretary of labor working men and women can finally count on to stand up and fight for them.” Unions put their money where their mouths were, too. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ “Open Secrets” website, labor organizations had given Solis more than $900,000 in campaign donations for her congressional runs, and accounted for most of her political action committee contributions.

“Personnel is policy,” the saying goes. By that standard, Hilda Solis pretty much got the policy she wanted – and would have gotten more were it not for Senate opposition in some cases. Consider the following persons who served in or at least were nominated for senior DOL positions during her tenure: Labor Department Solicitor M. Patricia Smith previously had been labor commissioner for the State of New York where she developed the Wage Watch program to deputize outside volunteers to identify wage and hour violations at private-sector work sites. She used the program as a prototype for a similar federal plan, the details of which strongly suggest a “guilty until proven innocent” assumption. Obama’s nominee to head the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD), Lorelei Boylan, had run Wage Watch under Smith’s supervision; Boylan eventually withdrew her nomination in the face of heavy Senate Republican opposition. Her putative replacement, Leon Rodriguez, had a lengthy history of radicalism, especially as an attorney at the Justice Department. He, too, withdrew from consideration (the WHD post remains vacant) in the face of GOP opposition. Smith’s deputy solicitor, Deborah Greenfield, had been an attorney for the AFL-CIO. T. Michael Kerr, assistant secretary for administration and management, previously headed financial operations at the SEIU. Solis’ chief of staff, Ana Ma, was a longtime Democratic Party operative. The Department’s senior counselor, Irasema Garza, previously was director of women’s rights for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and national political director of an AFL-CIO project, Working America.

Shortly after taking office, Solis and her staff pulled back on several Bush-era rule changes made under Secretary Elaine Chao that would have facilitated the identification of union corruption. The department rolled back regulations that made Form LM-30 more detailed; the action thus made it harder to detect conflicts of interest among union officials and certain persons doing business with them. It also rescinded details added during the final days of the Bush administration to the basic LM-2 reporting form for large unions. The department also permanently shelved the approved but never-implemented Form T-1, which would have gone a long way in uncovering abuses of union financial trusts such as health plans, retirement plans and training funds.

It arguably was the union-driven campaign in Wisconsin early in 2011 to intimidate lawmakers out of enacting new Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposed curbs on public-sector collective bargaining that motivated Solis to reveal her foremost priorities. In late February of that year, while hundreds of activists were illegally occupying the State Capitol Building in Madison, she gave a rousing speech before the closing session of the Democratic National Committee at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. She proclaimed: “The fight is on. We work together. We help those embattled states right now where public employees are under assault.” And further: “We know many states are facing tough budget decisions. We know there’s room for shared sacrifice…We’ve seen our brothers and sisters in public employee unions willingly give up their fair share…The governors of Wisconsin and Ohio aren’t just demanding that they tighten their belts, they’re demanding that they give up their uniquely American rights as workers.”

Such statements grossly misrepresented the issue, as NLPC has explained on many occasions. But in a sense, she can’t be blamed. These were her people. She simply was professing her longstanding loyalty. And her loyalty is to the hard Left. Last year, the Labor Department put up a new poster inside its elevators at headquarters containing the theme, “We All March in Our Own Way.” One of the three photographs featured Solis, locked arm in arm with Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and other political luminaries. The occasion was a protest against a new law enacted by the State of Alabama to discourage further illegal immigration. The poster read: “Whether we take to the streets or simply do our work with integrity and commitment here at the U.S. Department of Labor…we are all marching toward the same goals : safer workplaces, fair pay, dignity on the job, secure retirement and opportunities to make a better life. I believe in the power of collective action.” In a less than subtle way, the poster was a reminder to civil servants that they have political duties.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because the U.S. Department of Labor exists to advance the interests of the nation’s working population, not simply a segment of it. In its own words, the department’s mission is to “foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment.” Protecting the right of employees to form or join a union is part of that right, of course, but that doesn’t mean the department should be promoting union economic and political goals. Unions are labor cartels. They exist to restrict entry into a given industry or firm and thus drive up an employer’s cost of hiring. Unions, like business trade associations, act as self-interested parties. Insofar as they promote the nation’s welfare, they do so by equating it with their own welfare. The Department of Labor shouldn’t be allying itself with unions any more than with management. As Solis’ predecessor Elaine Chao explained not long ago: “The Labor Department should not represent only that part of the work force that is unionized. It should be responsible for the overall welfare of the entire American work force.” The fact that union rank and file bargaining power is undercut, not enhanced, by mass immigration of unskilled workers from the Third World is a separate issue, something in fact I addressed in a lengthy NLPC paper (see pdf) published in 2006.

As Solis’ announcement of resignation is fresh off the presses, it will be at least a little while before President Obama names a successor. Her letter of resignation to department staff provided no date of her final day in office, but department sources say it should be around Inauguration Day. The letter, a mixture of celebration, regret, and ethnic aggrandizement, read in part:

Over the Christmas and New Year holidays with my family in California, I enjoyed my first opportunity in years to reflect on my past and my future, with an open mind and an open heart. After much discussion with family and close friends, I have decided to begin a new future, and return to the people and places I love and that have inspired and shaped my life.

This afternoon, I submitted my resignation to President Obama. Growing up in a large Mexican-American family in La Puente, California, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to serve in a president’s Cabinet, let alone in the service of such an incredible leader.

Because President Obama took very bold action, millions of Americans are back to work. There is still much to do, but we are well on the road to recovery, and middle class Americans know the president is on their side…

Leaving the department is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, because I have taken our mission to heart. As the daughter of parents who worked in factories, paid their union dues and achieved their goal of a middle-class life, and as the first Latina to head a major federal agency, it has been an incredible honor to serve.

The question now is who will replace Solis? Last fall, when she was hinting at departure, the nonpartisan periodical National Journal listed a number of potential successors. Among them were DOL Deputy Secretary Seth Harris; Maria Echaveste, co-founder of a Washington, D.C.-based immigration enthusiast nonprofit entity known as Nueva Vista Group; and Olena Berg Lacy, a board member at the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based retirement planning consulting firm Financial Engines Inc. All three had served in the Clinton administration. Another possibility is current AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker. As unions have plenty of allies among Capitol Hill Democrats, President Obama can be confident that any union-friendly successor to Solis will be approved, so long as he or she doesn’t have any skeletons rattling about the closet. As for Hilda Solis, still relatively young at 55, she’s reportedly planning to run for public office, most likely for a spot on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. That’s her home turf. And like unions in Washington, she won’t lack for allies.