Saturday, Dec. 20, 2008 | 2 a.m.
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After some grumbling about President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet picks being too centrist, the left is feeling good about his choice for labor secretary: California Rep. Hilda Solis.
A progressive out of Los Angeles with pro-union credentials, Solis is one liberals can put squarely in their column — and her appointment set off a chorus of glowing praise from labor stalwarts.
“I’m glad we got one — one out of 22,” said Tim Carpenter, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America. “She’s going to be a great voice.”
Just how much influence Solis will have in the Obama administration, though, is questionable.
Many have invoked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days when talking about Obama’s ambitions, but it’s unlikely he’ll make the secretary of labor as high-profile as when the job was held by Frances Perkins, architect of many New Deal policies, such as the first federal minimum wage.
If Obama’s omission of the position from his economic team is any indication, Solis won’t be given near as prominent a platform. And neither Tim Geithner, nominated for Treasury secretary, nor Lawrence Summers, picked to head the National Economic Council, will be a pushover for the union agenda.
At a news conference after Obama announced his economic team in late November, David Bonior, longtime union advocate and chairman of American Rights at Work, wished out loud that the secretary of labor was on the team.
“I hope they take that job seriously,” he said at the time.
But Solis ended up being one of Obama’s last nominations, and since World War II, the labor secretary has fallen to a second-tier Cabinet position even among Democrats, according to Clete Daniel, professor of labor history at Cornell University.
But Bonior insisted “it’s folly and it’s stupid to make important economic decisions” without someone dedicated to workers’ issues contributing to the discussion.
Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, failed when he tried to create a more prominent role in economic policy, and served only to prove how distinctly less influential he was than his Cabinet colleagues, Daniel said, adding he suspects Solis will find not much has changed.
“Economic policies are going to be made with some regard to the impact on American workers, but I don’t think concern with worker issues will dominate debates,” he said.
As is typical among special interests once a Cabinet member is selected, labor applauded Solis’ selection, so it’s hard to judge just how much its leaders genuinely like Obama’s choice. For certain they were taken by surprise; Solis’ was not a name bandied about publicly as a contender.
But besides her lack of national prominence, there isn’t much for labor to complain about. She has a made-for-TV perfect bio: She is one of eight children of immigrants, both of whom were union members, which she credits in part for her success. She has passionately championed the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to choose to be represented by unions by signing cards. And according to Project Vote Smart, she has voted almost 100 percent of the time in favor of labor interests during her tenure in the House.
Solis, who serves on the board of American Rights at Work, also has a history of being a ground-level supporter of union causes.
Culinary Union leader D. Taylor said he has heard good things from union colleagues in California and is ecstatic about the pick.
Solis isn’t the shouting type but doesn’t back down from positions either, said Bonior, who took himself out of the running for the job in part because he said it was time for a new generation of leaders.
“She has a record of standing up and is not afraid to be in the minority when she needs to be,” Bonior said. “It gives me great hope for this Cabinet.”
There is some sense, though, that the labor community would welcome any Obama appointee, for the departure from the philosophy of the Bush administration.
As Danny Thompson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO, said: “Anyone over the existing labor secretary would be a vast improvement. I just want the Labor Department to go back to enforcing labor law and not be focused on an anti-labor binge that’s been the MO for the last eight years.”
Those words are directed at Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who has served in the job for both of Bush’s terms. And reversing the course his presidency set in motion might be the most unions can expect from Solis.
Indeed, John Wilhelm, a top leader of Unite Here, seemed to try to temper expectations in an internal memo leaked to the media, in which he warned against flooding “a new Obama administration with all sorts of proposals for regulatory changes, executive orders, appointments, etc.”
Still, “A fuse has been lit in the progressive community to keep him honest,” Carpenter said. “We think Solis will keep that labor question before the economic team.”