Labor’s fresh face
When Barack Obama set out to choose his secretary of Labor, his top priority was probably not recruiting an emblematic Angeleno. But in tapping Hilda L. Solis, a Democrat who represents a portion of the San Gabriel Valley in Congress, that’s just what he’s done.
The Latina daughter of immigrants, a product and champion of the labor movement, a staunch environmentalist, an ardent feminist and one of the gutsiest elected officials in American politics, Solis personifies the best of the new Los Angeles.
In some ways, her appointment harks back to Franklin Roosevelt’s selection of Frances Perkins as his Labor secretary, not least because Los Angeles today -- like Perkins’ New York a century ago -- is a city defined in large part by its huge immigrant working class.
In 1911, Perkins, then a young social worker, watched in horror as the young Jewish and Italian immigrant women who worked as seamstresses for Triangle Shirtwaist Co. leaped to their deaths rather than burn in the fire consuming their factory.
A quarter of a century later, as FDR’s Labor secretary, Perkins helped write and steer to enactment the first federal minimum wage and worker protection laws, as well as the National Labor Relations Act, which gave legal protection to workers seeking to form unions.
The lives of the working poor have been a central concern for Solis as well. In 1996, as a first-term member of the California state Senate (and its first Latina member), Solis did something elected officials just don’t do: She took money out of her own campaign treasury to jump-start an initiative campaign to raise the California minimum wage.
At the time, Republicans had controlled the state’s Industrial Welfare Commission for 14 straight years, and the minimum wage it set was in no way a livable wage. Solis provided seed money for a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75, and Californians passed it overwhelmingly.
In the state senate, Solis brought her distinctly working-class perspective to environmental issues. She focused on getting the carcinogens out of the air in neighborhoods where refineries made breathing risky; she worked to spruce up the L.A. and San Gabriel rivers where they ran through park-poor communities. She also crusaded against domestic violence in communities where it had been a taboo topic.
And in 2000, she did something else that career politicians just don’t do: She challenged an entrenched incumbent from her own party for his congressional seat. Marty Martinez, a nine-term incumbent who thought he was cruising to his 10th, was much more conservative than his constituents. He had voted for NAFTA, backed the extension of the 710 Freeway through South Pasadena and opposed abortion rights.
Against the wishes of the party’s national legislative leaders, who never like to see their members challenged, Solis ran against Martinez and, with the assistance of the L.A. labor movement, defeated him by a stunning 69% to 31%.
Solis’ victory made clear to anyone who doubted that L.A.'s labor movement now held real power in California politics. In the late ‘90s, as the number of immigrants surged, labor had been waging successful election campaigns that turned L.A.'s suburbs from Republican to Democratic. With Solis’ victory, labor also put its stamp on the kind of Democrat who would represent Los Angeles.
It was no coincidence that shortly after Solis dispatched Martinez, virtually every Democratic elected official in Los Angeles marched alongside striking union janitors. As the janitors could (and did) attest, Solis’ victory had been theirs too.
In Congress, Solis has continued to combine labor and environmental perspectives. Last year, she coauthored the Green Jobs Act, providing federal funds for job training in retrofitting, solar panel installation and other environmentally friendly occupations. She also worked to recruit Democratic congressional candidates in the Southwest and in heavily Latino districts throughout the country, in the process forging a good relationship with Rahm Emanuel, who will serve as Obama’s chief of staff.
The primary challenge Solis would face as Labor secretary won’t be all that dissimilar from that which faced Perkins. Then, in a time of economic devastation, Perkins guided the legislation -- Social Security, the NLRA -- which created the broadly shared prosperity of post-World War II America. Today, Solis must not only help shepherd the bills to stimulate the economy, she must lead the effort to enact the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would enable U.S. workers to join unions more easily.
And as Perkins once delivered for Roosevelt, Solis will now need to deliver for Obama.
Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the American Prospect, is an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post and was executive editor of LA Weekly from 1989 through 2001.