Labor unions shelled out well over $100 million (pdf) in donations to political candidates during the 2008 election. More than 90 percent of that total went to Barack Obama and the Democrats. With President-elect Obama's nomination of Rep. Hilda Solis to be his secretary of labor, the payback has begun. Solis, a liberal Democratic congresswoman from Los Angeles, is one of big labor's best friends.
Don't take my word for it, however. Listen to the chorus of union leaders and labor-friendly progressives praising her nomination. "Hilda Solis is an outstanding choice," Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Applebaum said in a statement. "She has demonstrated a life-long commitment to working people and, like President-elect Obama himself, knows first-hand how unions can lift poverty wage workers into the middle class."
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pronounced himself -- and the 55-union, 10 million-member labor organization he leads -- "thrilled" by Obama's choice. "We're confident that she will return to the Labor Department one of its core missions -- to defend workers' basic rights in our nation's workplaces," Sweeney said, in a not-too-subtle dig at outgoing Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, a conservative reformer.
"The daughter of two immigrant workers and union members... she will be a secretary of labor working men and women can finally count on to stand up and fight for them," enthused Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. Sal Rossi, president of the United Healthcare Workers, described Solis's nomination as "tremendous news." The Chamber of Commerce's vice president for labor relations could only bluster to the Associated Press, "There's a new sheriff in town, but they'll still have to deal with the business community and they know it."
"What does [Solis] bring to the job?" the American Prospect's Harold Meyerson asked. "Only a record of passionate commitment to working people, a high level of political smarts, and some genuine displays of raw guts that could make her a star of American liberalism."
Solis first won liberal plaudits in 1996, when as a freshman state senator (and the first Hispanic woman in her state to serve in that capacity) she used money from her own political account to promote a successful ballot initiative that raised California's minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75 an hour. To win her U.S. House seat in 2000, Solis defeated a nine-term incumbent congressman, the more moderate Matthew Martinez, in a Democratic primary by an eye-popping 38-point margin.
Over four terms, Solis has racked up a 97 percent career rating from the AFL-CIO. In 2007, she voted 100 percent of the time with the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, the Service Employees Union, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the Utility Workers Union, and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. "Unions are vital to the health and strength of our communities, and our workers are the bedrock of our economy," Solis said in a widely circulated speech in favor of the so-called Employee Free Choice Act. "In this day and age when the number of women and new immigrants is increasing in the work force, it is important that they become a part of the American fabric and one of the ways is to be a member of a union."
Making unions, whose share of the national labor force has been declining for decades, a bigger part of the American fabric will likely be Solis's job number one at the Labor Department. As your humble servant recently documented at length in the Capital Research Center's Labor Watch (pdf), there is a symbiotic relationship between the Democratic Party and organized labor. Unions provide both substantial monetary assistance and the boots on the ground to help get Democrats elected. Once in office, those Democrats pursue policies likely to increase unionization and the flow of money to union coffers.
That's where the aforementioned Employee Free Choice Act (better known as card check legislation) comes in. Unions lose roughly 40 percent of secret-ballot representation elections. But when employers allow their workers to publicly sign union cards via card check, the AFL-CIO estimates that it prevails about 75 percent of the time. According to the Senate Democratic caucus, "more workers form unions via card check than via secret-ballot elections," by a margin of 375,000 to 73,000 in 2004 alone.
Card check now stands atop big labor's agenda for 2009, with some union activists pushing for its enactment within the first 100 days of the Obama administration. Whether that's possible in a Senate just shy of a filibuster-proof Democratic majority remains to be seen. But a switch from Chao, who supported secret-ballot elections for union organizing, to Solis, who is staunchly pro-card check, would improve the legislation's prospects.
The appointment of Hilda Solis and signing card check into law won't satisfy all of Obama's debts to organized labor. But it will amount to a sizeable down payment.