There has never been a more pro-worker Secretary of Labor than Hilda Solis, who announced yesterday that she’s stepping down from her cabinet post. But for much of her tenure, she was swimming upstream—confronting not just most anti-labor congressional Republicans in modern American history, but also an Obama White House inner circle that she, like many of her fellow cabinet members, never really permeated.
Within those considerable constraints, Solis did what she could to get the federal government to intervene on workers’ behalf. Unable to advance many new policies, however, that often meant enforcing established pro-worker policies with uncommon vigor. During her tenure, the Labor Department collected record amounts of back pay for workers cheated by their employers, and moved to strengthen mine-safety inspections. The administration also announced new regulations that would bring nearly 2 million home-care workers under the coverage of the federal minimum-wage law, but, encountering pushback from large home-care companies, those regulations have yet to be finalized.
Solis brought a remarkable labor pedigree to her job. The daughter of immigrants—her father was a Teamster organizer both in Mexico and the United States—she was the first member of her family to attend college, and distinguished herself in the California state legislature in the mid-90s by her leadership on environmental issues and, most remarkably, by spending her own campaign funds to seed an initiative campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage, which voters passed handily. In 2000, with the help of the Los Angeles labor movement, she mounted a primary challenge to Marty Martinez, a longtime member of Congress from Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley who’d voted against environmental, gun control, and labor legislation and who had the support of the city’s Latino old-guard political establishment. A gifted campaigner, Solis defeated Martinez by nearly 40 percentage points—a notable victory that helped establish L.A.’s labor movement as the dominant force in the state’s Latino community, and the labor-Latino alliance as the dominant force in Southern California politics.
If Solis returns to Los Angeles, she has several electoral options open to her. Her longtime mentor, Gloria Molina, will be termed out next year as a member of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors—a five-person board with vast powers, each of whose members represents districts of 2 million people. Several statewide elective positions, among them treasurer and secretary of state, will come open due to term limits as well.
Speculation as to her successor as labor secretary has already begun. “Obviously we’d like somebody who’s pro-labor, but also somebody who can be in the loop with the White House, which isn’t easy,” said one labor leader on Thursday. “Even coming in with major stature is no guarantee of being in the loop—look at Paul Volcker.” Under pressure to appoint more women to his second-term cabinet, Obama might consider Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the Los Angeles AFL-CIO, was an early Obama supporter and is a respected figure across the California political spectrum. Her counterpart in Chicago, Jorge Ramirez, has a long relationship with the president. United Auto Worker President Bob King, who is termed out from continuing to serve as UAW president, supported Obama’s trade deal with Korea when other labor leaders opposed it, and worked closely with the administration during the auto bailout. Former SEIU leaders Andy Stern and Anna Burger also worked closely with Obama during the battle for health care reform, but probably left behind more enemies in the labor movement than Chuck Hagel apparently has in the Republican Party.
Should Obama look outside labor’s ranks—and in the department’s 100-year history, only three Labor secretaries have come from within labor’s ranks—there are several Democratic congressmen who’d be on the list, as Solis and Connecticut’s Rosa DeLauro were in 2008. Former congressmen, such as Michigan’s David Bonior, could be as well. (Former Wisconsin Congressman David Obey would be terrific, though he almost surely has no fans within the White House.) Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm has plenty of White House supporters. Presidents Carter and Clinton both chose labor academics to serve as their secretaries (Carter’s pick was Ray Marshall; Clinton’s was American Prospect founder Robert Reich), and Obama, a president with no aversion to academics, might want to do the same.