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Hilda L. Solis was still a senior at La Puente High School east of Los Angeles when a guidance counselor hinted she wasn’t exactly college material.
“He told me I was best suited for office work and suggested that I become a secretary,” recalled Solis, who would one day follow her counselor’s advice — only not in a way he could have imagined at the time.
The ambitious student, raised along with six other children by her Nicaraguan mother and Mexican father, went on to earn degrees from the California State Polytechnic University and the University of Southern California, and entered politics in 1992.
Eventually, Congresswoman Hilda Solis — representing California’s 31st District, then the 32nd District in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2009 — became Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on Feb. 24, 2009, making history as the first Hispanic woman ever to serve in the U.S. Cabinet.
While on the Hill, she promoted women’s rights and environmental issues, including a law to train workers for “green-collar” jobs. As head of the Labor Department, she’s found an outlet for her lifelong dedication to promoting worker rights, strengthening workplace safety rules while tackling the joblessness that’s been eroding the U.S. economy.
Earlier this summer, Solis, 54, spoke to The Washington Diplomat. It was the second time in 10 years this reporter had interviewed her; the first was in Mexico City, during the 2002 visit of a 12-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus delegation.
The occasion for our latest meeting: a June 11 signing ceremony at Labor Department headquarters with Solis and the ambassadors of Ecuador, Honduras, Peru and the Philippines. Under the partnership agreements signed that day, the department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) as well as its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will cooperate with the local consulates of all four countries, reaching out to migrant workers in the United States with information about U.S. health, safety and wage laws.
“The Department of Labor has already had such an agreement with Mexico since 2005. That’s really where the basis of this comes from,” Solis said. “I took it a step further, working with the Mexican Embassy and its consulates around the United States to get other Latin American countries on board.
Eventually, the embassies of Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and India agreed to participate. The latest group brings the total number of countries in the program — known in Spanish as “Podemos Ayudar” — to 10.
“Honduras is extremely pleased to sign these letters of arrangement with the Department of Labor, WHD and OSHA,” said Honduran Ambassador Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro. “It marks an important step forward in the cooperation between our governments that will promote the respect and defense of migrant workers’ rights.”
Added Philippine Ambassador José L. Cuisia Jr.: “We assure the Department of Labor we will do our part in ensuring the dissemination of helpful information to Filipino workers concerning their right to a safe and healthy working environment, and fair wages and working hours in the U.S. — and assisting them to seek redress when such rights are disregarded or outright violated.”
The Labor Department would like to add Vietnam and several other Asian countries to the list, as well as expand its efforts around the Caribbean.
“Many of their people are working here but aren’t aware of their rights,” Solis explained, emphasizing that this includes undocumented immigrants as well — a position for which she’s taken considerable heat from Republicans and Tea Party activists. Early on, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) questioned why taxpayers would spend money to ensure that illegal workers get help from the Labor Department while millions of unemployed Americans can’t find jobs.
“The role here is to elevate the protection of workers overall, and to let some of these industries know that they have an obligation to play by the rules,” the labor secretary insisted. “Many of these businesses are fully versed in these laws as well.”
Solis said that since taking over at the Labor Department, she’s hired more than 300 investigators fluent in Spanish, Vietnamese and Haitian Creole, as well as other languages, who go out into the field and meet with workers. The goal is to minimize on-the-job injuries and wage violations by letting foreign workers here know their rights.
Getting the embassies involved, she said, “is a new way of doing business with existing resources that are already here in Washington. It’s an amplification of current rules and laws, empowering these communities and the churches, community-based organizations and other various entities that work with them.”
Solis noted that the program is not targeted at farm workers but rather service workers in the construction, hotel and restaurant industries that tend to hire immigrants, particularly Hispanics.
“For example, we know that fatalities in the Hispanic community are very high in the construction industry,” she pointed out. “We’re rolling out different campaigns with OSHA: Protect yourself while you’re working outside, whether you’re a car-wash employee, an outdoor sales rep or even a restaurant employee working over a hot stove.”
Solis said the program has paid off in the form of other dividends.
“I knew the president of El Salvador [Mauricio Funes] when he was a congressman. And I’ve visited Nicaragua and worked out a labor agreement, under which the ILO [International Labour Organization] will help monitor for better worker protection in the garment industry.”
She added: “We’re working with the ILO to see how we can set better standards, so that when garments are being produced, you know they are going to have some kind of seal of approval saying they were not made by children or abused women. That’s a whole new set of standards that began under the Clinton administration, and we’re trying to expand that effort.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1957, Solis is the third oldest of seven siblings — four sisters and two brothers; her parents had met in citizenship class and married four years earlier. Her father, American-born Raúl Solis, moved to Mexico at an early age and came back to the United States, where he worked on farms, on a railroad and as a shop steward for the Teamsters Union at a battery recycling plant in California’s San Gabriel Valley.
Her Nicaraguan-born mother, Juana Sequeira, spent 20 years working the night shift on the assembly line at toy manufacturer Mattel. She was a member of the United Rubber Workers and was also an outspoken advocate for improved working conditions.
Labor issues were a common theme at the family dinner table — but so was the importance of doing well in school.
“My parents knew that the only way for their children to have a better life was to get an education,” Solis recalled. “Without their moral and spiritual support, I know I couldn’t have achieved so much. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I was a good student in high school, but I didn’t think about college. No one in my family ever had.”
Maybe that explains why education is such a critical factor in her approach today to dealing with the nation’s 8.2 percent unemployment rate — which she considers her most urgent priority as labor secretary. At present, more than 12 million Americans are jobless, yet 3.7 million jobs remain unfilled across the country.
“We need to match qualified job seekers with jobs that are available now. So my department is making major investments in America’s community colleges and in worker-training programs in areas like science, technology, engineering and math, so we can out-educate, out-innovate and out-build our global competitors in the 21st century,” she said.
“At the same time, we cannot allow any worker to be denied their rightful pay or sacrifice their life for their livelihood. If we allow a few unscrupulous employers to exploit and underpay their workers, it sends a message that it’s OK to do in order to compete,” she added.
“That’s why we’re partnering with consulates to make sure all workers in America are treated fairly and paid fully for the work they do. We understand that many migrant workers in America are afraid to report mistreatment because it can lead to more abuse, the loss of their job or deportation. We’re making it easier for immigrant workers to come forward by partnering with the institutions where they are most likely to go for help — their country’s own consulates.”
In 2010, the Wage and Hour Division concluded 26,486 cases finding more than $176 million in back wages for 209,814 employees. Hispanics filed a big portion of those claims because many came from workers in construction, janitorial jobs and the poultry industry — all sectors in which Hispanics tend to be overrepresented.
As secretary of labor, what Solis does and says has an impact on millions of lives, from the families of victims of West Virginia’s April 2010 Massey Energy disaster, in which 29 coal miners died, to those affected in Louisiana in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that same month.
As the presidential campaign grows increasingly negative, President Obama has made an issue of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s role at private equity firm Bain Capital when it sent jobs overseas. Documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission place Romney in charge of Bain from 1999 to 2001, when jobs were outsourced and companies in its charge fell into bankruptcy — yet Romney has done everything he can to distance himself from this period in Bain’s history.
Regardless of who is telling the truth, Solis said this country has a responsibility to not only prevent outsourcing of good jobs, but to encourage the in-sourcing of jobs back to U.S. shores.
“President Obama understands that as other countries grow and develop middle classes of their own, global companies are going to pursue those markets and employ workers. But right now, as our economy recovers, we have a unique opportunity to bring some of our good manufacturing jobs back. Now is the time for us to seize the moment. That’s why we are pushing tax proposals that reward companies that choose to bring jobs home and invest in America. And we want to eliminate tax breaks for companies that are moving jobs overseas.”
On the other hand, Solis is adamantly opposed to the idea of states like Arizona and Alabama playing the role of immigration cop. In those states, at least 70,000 jobs have been lost due to draconian laws that not only give police officers the right — but make it a requirement — to check on the immigration status of people they pull over.
“You see industries suffering there. What happens to the businesses, the farmers, the grocery-store owners, the people who live and work in the community who now have to close their doors? It has a devastating domino effect. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost because people have left.”
Another hot-button issue for hard-core GOP loyalists is the secretary’s support of public employees in Wisconsin, where voters in June supported Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a contentious recall election. Walker earned the wrath of unions nationwide after he slashed workers’ benefits to ease the state’s dire cash crunch.
But Solis is unfazed by the political attacks and has stood her ground, according to a recent article in Latino magazine.
“Some of that resolve has come from her background,” writes correspondent Ana Radelat. “What she learned from her father about labor relations has served her well, as has her early ties to unions and their organizers. It helped her win political support that propelled her to the California State Senate, where she served as chairwoman of the Senate Industrial Relations Committee and led a battle to increase California’s minimum wage.”
While pro-business groups have long viewed Solis as working against their interests and siding with big labor, on one issue she appears to agree with the U.S. business community: free trade.
Asked if the recently ratified free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea — which were bitterly opposed by the AFL-CIO and other unions — have helped or hurt American workers, she said the FTAs were a “win-win” for all the countries.
“For our farmers and ranchers here in the United States, the agreements will increase exports of agricultural products. From aerospace to electronics, it will increase American manufacturing exports, including those produced by our small businesses — and they will help level the playing field for American automakers,” Solis told us.
The FTAs also include protections for labor rights, the environment and intellectual property so that trade really is free and fair, the secretary noted.
“They will promote green jobs and clean energy, another area where we’ve been deepening our international cooperation,” she said. “Also, we insisted that Congress include a robust Trade Adjustment Assistance program so American workers who are negatively impacted by shifts in global trade can get high-quality retraining to thrive in the growth industries of the 21st century.”
Solis said she sympathizes deeply with the children of immigrants who came to the United States illegally but then made lives for themselves.
“These people who are of school age, who have known no other home except the United States, came in through no fault of their own. It’s like the DREAM Act. You can qualify to stay here and be granted a work permit, as long as you have no criminal background,” she said. “Nonetheless, this would be reviewed on a two-year basis. That’s a system even people from the other side of the aisle agree with.”
Compromise is something she learned a long time ago, though it’s also important to build trust with people from diverse backgrounds — a skill she acquired during her first elected position as trustee at a community college in California.
“If you take an all-or-nothing approach to a problem, too often the result is nothing. Unfortunately, you don’t see the kind of cooperation and compromise in Washington that’s so important to our progress,” she told The Diplomat. “President Obama has worked very hard to change that, but he has too often been rebuffed by folks on the other side of the aisle. But we continue to reach out, because the American people cannot afford to wait until the next election for both sides in Congress to find a way to work together for the common good.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.