Her father came from Mexico and was a Teamster who worked at a battery recycling plant. Her mother is from Nicaragua and had a union job on a Mattel assembly line.
Rep. Hilda Solis, the daughter of immigrants who lives in a modest home in El Monte not far from where she was raised, takes her first step to almost certain confirmation as U.S. secretary of Labor today at a Senate hearing.
In eight years as a lawmaker in Sacramento and eight years in Congress, Solis has been an advocate for low-wage workers, particularly immigrants, and for organized labor.
Solis, 51, has a master’s in public administration from USC and an undergraduate degree from Cal Poly Pomona, and has made her career in government. But her understanding of labor and immigration is not academic.
In a speech last year, Solis credited unions for her family’s success. “Without the help, protection that we received, and retirement benefits, I know myself and my [six] siblings would not be where they are today,” she said.
Her ascent reflects labor’s strength in Southern California and the influence of immigrants, especially Latinos, within a union movement that was crucial to electing Barack Obama to the White House.
“What we are looking at in Southern California today is the United States in 2040,” said UC Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken, a labor historian.
Obama has made a point of appointing moderates to his Cabinet. Solis would be one of the most liberal members.
As Labor secretary, she would oversee a $10.5-billion budget and enforcement of workplace laws, a prospect that worries business leaders.
“She didn’t win our Spirit of Enterprise Award,” quipped Randy Johnson, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive.
Former state Sen. Ray Haynes, a Republican who tangled with Solis when she headed a budget subcommittee, called her “a committed liberal in the pockets of labor.”
As Congress opens, labor issues are at the forefront. One bill would make it easier for victims of pay discrimination to sue. Solis pressed for pay equity legislation more than a decade ago. A bill that Solis co-sponsored last year would make it easier for unions to organize workers.
Backed by unions, Solis won her congressional seat in 2000 by knocking off an incumbent Democrat who had run afoul of labor by voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
With a relatively low Washington profile, she was on no one’s short list to head the Department of Labor. But labor leaders have welcomed the choice.
“She is very proud of her working-class roots,” said Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “She gets offended when working people aren’t treated with respect.”
Solis’ father, Raul, worked at the Quemetco battery plant in the City of Industry and met her mother, Juana, at a citizenship class.
The couple own the La Puente tract home where Solis grew up with two brothers and four sisters -- and where, when the wind shifted, they could smell the Puente Hills Landfill.
“They came with that hope -- esperanza -- of coming to a country that would allow their children to prosper,” Solis said recently. “I was born here. But I still have that notion that my parents have instilled in me, that they want a better life and they know that there’s opportunities here for us.”
The third-eldest of the children, Solis was the first in her family to graduate from college, aided by grants. In the 1970s, she would take her younger sisters to the library to study, encouraging them to follow her lead.
Her graduate-school program took her to Washington for a semester. She and Ruben Smith, a classmate who is now an Orange County attorney, landed jobs with President Carter’s special assistant for Hispanic affairs. “I think being at the White House empowered her to say: You can do anything you want to do if you work hard,” he said.
Smith said Solis has always been “very serious” and a dogged worker. Politics was her world. Other than salsa dancing, he said, she didn’t appear to have any outside interests.
In Washington, she met her husband, Sam H. Sayyad, who owns Sam’s Foreign & Domestic Auto Center in Irwindale. He picks up his own phone, though he declined to be interviewed, as did Solis.
Solis is not a politician who has become wealthy in office. When she took her Assembly seat in 1993, she disclosed one main asset -- her husband’s garage, valued at $10,001 to $100,000. Fifteen years later, she disclosed a few modest retirement funds -- and the shop, still valued at $100,000 or less.
“Some others tend to change with the power. They begin to think they’re entitled to it. She hasn’t,” said Manuel Baca, a political science teacher at Rio Hondo College in Whittier.
Baca has worked on each of Solis’ races, starting in 1985 when, at 28, she won a seat on the Rio Hondo board against two far-more established politicians.
In 1992, she won an Assembly seat against an opponent who had been endorsed by the retiring incumbent and by then-Assemblyman Richard Polanco, one of the most powerful politicians in California at the time. “Hilda was there walking every day,” Baca said. “Her dad was working. Her mom would make food for the volunteers, burritos.”
Solis was not one of the Legislature’s more stellar orators. But she took strong stands. In one of her first acts, she sided with labor against the tobacco industry and the Democratic leadership by voting in 1993 for legislation that banned smoking in all workplaces.
After a single term in the Assembly, she won a state Senate seat, and became chairwoman of the labor committee, where she cemented her reputation as a labor loyalist.
She also made a point of paying visits to Republicans on the committee, including then-Sen. Rob Hurtt, an Orange County businessman. Hurtt, surprised at the Democrat’s visit to his office, stood and saluted. “We obviously didn’t see eye to eye,” Hurtt said. “But she was respectful. I’ll give her credit; she was a very hard worker and she knew her stuff.”
Wages, working conditions and immigration came together for Solis in the summer of 1995, her first year in the Senate. Authorities raided an El Monte building fenced by razor wire. There, 72 Thai workers toiled 18 hours a day in slave-like conditions, stitching garments that were to be sold in shopping malls.
Solis held high-profile hearings, called garment manufacturers to Sacramento to explain themselves and pushed for heavier enforcement of laws against sweatshops.
Soon after, she saw her legislation to boost the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75 die.
Barry Broad, a labor lawyer, met with her to contemplate a ballot measure to raise the wage. She said, “Let’s do it,” put $15,000 into the campaign, and cajoled unions, some of which were lukewarm about the idea, into donating more.
Voters approved the measure in 1996. Other states have followed with similar initiatives.
Tom Hayden, a former state Senate colleague and an ally on her anti-sweatshop campaign, believes Solis has attributes that will help her improve the lives of American workers.
“Her toughness will be underestimated, and her idealism will be discounted,” said the former legislator. “You get that combination, and she can get a lot done -- with a smile.”