The face of hope has appeared early on Capitol Hill. The vision was fleeting, and it received little attention from journalists obsessively focused on the bigger shows, which will begin this week with the media extravaganza of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s appearance for her confirmation hearing as secretary of state.
Hilda Solis does not have Clinton’s star power. What President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for labor secretary does have is a record of unstinting loyalty to those who work and want to work, and who wish to receive in exchange a decent wage and a measure of dignity.
The power of Solis’ potential lies not only in the elevation of the Labor Department under a new Democratic administration. It is in her blood. The daughter of immigrants who is the first in her family to have attended college, she made it clear at her confirmation hearing last week that she has never forgotten where she came from.
Her father worked as a laborer, a farmworker, a railroad hand and at a battery plant, where he became a Teamster shop steward. Her mother stayed at home with Solis and her six brothers and sisters until, pressed for money, she began working at a toy factory and became a member of the rubber workers’ union. Solis is unashamed—proud, in fact—that she earned her college degree not only by dint of her hard work but because the federal government offered a hand up. “We could not have gone to college without federal financial aid like Pell Grants,” Solis told the Senate committee overseeing her nomination.
Obama is deft at rhetorically gliding above the ideological divisions that roil American public life. Solis is polite and polished, but rarely makes such pretense. She has chosen sides. Hers is with those on the side of the tracks where she grew up.
In her four terms as a member of Congress from California representing a working-class, largely Hispanic district, Solis has championed organized labor and environmental causes. Before her election to the House, she received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her effort to rectify environmental degradation in minority communities. She said that as labor secretary her chief goals would be to improve job training and job-placement assistance, and give particular urgency to aiding returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Pointedly, she said she wants to ensure that workers are “paid what they deserve” and in her prepared remarks even went so far as to say that “a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay.”
This is not a novel concept so much as a neglected one. It is a measure of how much the ground has tilted toward the best-connected and the best-off that even hearing this simple truth uttered by someone who plans to do something about it is remarkable—and welcome.
Committee Republicans predictably applauded Solis for her support of veterans, but otherwise tried to turn her confirmation hearing into an early confrontation over the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that unions want in an effort to make it easier to organize workplaces. The coming ideological warfare over the measure, which Solis co-sponsored in the House, threatens to produce a political bloodbath. Solis sidestepped the showdown temporarily by saying repeatedly that she had not yet discussed the matter with Obama, who promised during the presidential campaign to support the bill.
It remains to be seen whether that pledge will be cast aside, permanently or temporarily, in order to promote Obama’s goal of smoothing political waters. Such an abandonment would enrage organized labor, which helped Obama enormously and was a crucial factor in the industrial Midwest. It also would call into question the premise of the Solis nomination.
For now, though, the very purpose of naming Solis is this: The Labor Department no longer will be a citadel of inaction or, worse, a tool of corporate interests. Republicans on the Senate panel are aware of this, perhaps the reason they spent so much time warning Solis not to go overboard in protecting the interests of one side—that is, workers. They were so insistent that Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd felt compelled to note that the legislation creating the department says its purpose is “to foster, promote and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States.”
There is no doubt that Solis, at long last, will embrace this founding principle.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group