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Hilda Solis deflects Republican questions over union issues

Senate Republicans spent much of Friday morning trying to draw Barack Obama’s choice for Labor secretary, Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), into a fight over union issues.

But she gave them little ammunition, repeatedly refusing to express her opinion on hotly contested issues such as organizing rights. And at the end of her relatively brief confirmation hearing, Solis’ nomination did not appear to be endangered.

Republicans are concerned that Solis, a strong supporter of unions in her eight years in the House, will bring a pro-union bias to the Labor Department.

“This is a very important position,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). “It can’t be used to magnify one side over the other or any side over the other. It has to be handled fairly.”

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Hatch, however, said he would support Solis’ nomination.

Republicans are particularly wary of a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form bargaining units. Solis was a co-sponsor of the bill, which passed the House in 2007 but stalled in the Senate.

The legislation -- know as the “card check” bill because it would allow workers to simply fill out a card to indicate their interest in joining a union rather than vote in a secret election -- is likely to be taken up again in the House in coming weeks.

“Card check is a huge issue,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said. “I am so concerned with skewing the relationship between labor and management.”

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But Solis refused to express her support for the bill, instead repeatedly telling senators that she had not talked with Obama on the issue and could not speak for the incoming administration.

While a senator, Obama was a co-sponsor of the card-check bill. If the measure is again passed by the House and reaches the Senate, it’s likely to face a Republican filibuster.

Solis also was pressed by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) about preserving “right to work” laws in states such as his that prohibit employers from requiring workers to be members of a union or to pay dues as condition of employment.

But Solis told Alexander she was “not qualified” to give him a response on the issue, except to say that she believed “that the president-elect feels strongly that American workers should have a choice to join or not to join a union. And to me that is the basic premise of our democracy, whether you want to be associated with a group or not.”

Solis, 51, brought a compelling personal story to the hearing, one that was commented upon by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that is presiding over Solis’ nomination.

“The task before us is great. But Hilda Solis has overcome great challenges all her life,” Kennedy said.

Solis’ father immigrated to Southern California from Mexico and worked in a battery factory.

Her mother, a Nicaraguan, worked on an assembly line. Both were union members, and Solis has credited unions for making her achievements possible.

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In 1994, she became the first Latina elected to the California state Senate. She received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award in 2000 for her work on environmental justice issues, the first woman to receive the honor.

“Your life is one that epitomizes the American dream,” Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) said.

Her confirmation hearing came on a day when the Labor Department released a report saying the nation had lost more jobs in 2008 than in any year since World War II. “We are in a crisis situation,” Solis told the panel. “The public is demanding action on the part of the Congress.”

Solis said that, if confirmed, her early priorities would include job creation, fair pay for American workers, retirement savings, and retraining and job skills for returning soldiers.

Labor groups urged lawmakers Friday to quickly confirm Solis, calling her a champion of workers issues.

“At our events, she is known as an honorary shop steward -- a symbol of the respect she has earned throughout our decades-long working relationship,” said Bruce Raynor, general president of Unite Here, a union representing restaurant, hotel and laundry workers. “She has walked numerous picket lines with us in Southern California. Our members have worked on every single Solis campaign.”

He and others said a strong labor advocate crafting policies to aid workers was of particular importance as the economy flounders.

Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said in a statement: “Now more than ever, workers in this country need a friend like Solis at the Labor Department, an agency that has been a greater friend to corporations in the last eight years than the workers it was founded to protect.”

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joliphant@tribune.com

Times staff writer Evelyn Larrubia in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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