When Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced Wednesday that she is leaving the Obama administration, my colleague Philip Klein remarked that President Obama “may as well cut to the chase and nominate Richard Trumka” to replace her. It was a reasonable idea, given big labor’s influence in the Democratic world. But the fact is, even AFL-CIO chief Trumka could not have been more loyal to organized labor’s agenda than the departing secretary. Democratic administrations usually make the Department of Labor a branch office of the AFL-CIO, but none did it with more enthusiasm than Hilda Solis.
That was never more than clear in February 2011, when, with the battle over Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to limit the collective bargaining powers of some public union workers raging in Wisconsin, Solis addressed the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting in Washington. “The fight is on!” Solis cried, pledging to do everything she could to help “our brothers and sisters in public employee unions” who were “under assault” in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
“Admittedly, I am a little biased,” Solis admitted, “because…I come from a union household.” Her father, Solis often told audiences, was a Teamsters shop steward, while her mother belonged to the United Steelworkers union.
A week later, Solis addressed thousands of members of the Communications Workers of America on a union conference call. “Let’s keep fighting,” she said. “I’m very excited to hear about the enthusiasm that’s going on in Wisconsin and around the country. I am so inspired and proud of all of you, especially those who went down to Wisconsin and also around the country.”
Hard as it might be to tell from her statements, it was not Solis’s job as Labor Secretary to represent unions. The mission of the Labor Department, at least according to the Department itself, is “to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States.” It doesn’t mention unions, which represent a little less than 12 percent of the nation’s workers. (In the private sector, slightly under seven percent are unionized, while in the public sector, the figure is 37 percent.)
But to Solis, child of union members and officials, unions were everything. What is notable about her time in office, though, is that organized labor is nowhere near where it hoped it would be after four years of a labor-friendly administration. Card check, the top union priority that was once thought a real possibility when the president had huge Democratic majorities in House and Senate, didn’t happen. After a ferocious fight, labor lost the battle in Wisconsin. And now Michigan, of all places, is a right-to-work state.
Some of the reporting on Solis’s departure focused more on her gender than her record. The New York Times called her “the latest woman to leave President Obama’s cabinet at a time when his personnel choices are drawing scrutiny for their lack of female candidates.” But what was notable about Solis was not her gender but what happened to organized labor during her time in office. Unions have suffered setback after setback in the last few years — a trend that seems likely to continue, no matter who Obama picks to replace Solis. Even Richard Trumka.