When Hilda Solis surprised many insiders by announcing last week that she was stepping down as Labor Secretary, she received rave reviews from labor leaders for her work over the past four years.
In a public statement, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka praised Solis—the first Latina to hold a post in the U.S. Cabinet—as staunchly "on the side of working families" and described her as a Cabinet official who "talks tough and acts tough on enforcement, workplace safety, wage and hour violations and so many other vital services." The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said Solis served as "an unwavering supporter of workers’ rights and ... the embodiment of the type of public servant that our country needs." IAM Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger saluted Solis as a public leader who “advocated with passion and sincerity for the rights of workers during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”
One labor leader, however, who requested anonymity, tells In These Times that her leadership was “underwhelming.” But even he stressed that Solis was constrained by the White House’s sidelining of labor. “To call us marginalized would be a gross exaggeration—it’s much worse than that,” he sighed.
Whomever President Obama appoints to replace Solis will need to seek support from a sometimes-wavering White House that blocked some of Solis’ efforts, like seeking to set effective safety regulations for children under 16 formally employed on farms. With Wall Street alumnus Jack Lew—who displayed his anti-union sentiments while an official at New York University and has been blasted by Sen. Bernie Sanders for his distance from the needs of working people—taking over the key post of Treasury Secretary, the new Labor Secretary may face new hurdles in working with the White House. Such in-fighting can take its toll: After President Clinton’s first term, his longtime friend Labor Secretary Robert Reich was on the losing end of a policy clash on corporate power with political heavyweight Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who heavily shaped Clinton’s economic policies and wound up leaving. (As for Solis’ motives in unexpectedly leaving the Labor Department, a labor leader close to her over the past 25 years could not be reached. Some have speculated that she is planning a run for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.)
Solis’ successor will also face battles with increasingly extreme and intransigent Republicans who repudiate the very notion of labor unions, in contrast to past GOP leaders such as Ronald Reagan, who while President of the Screen Actors Guild actually campaigned against the notoriously anti-union Taft-Hartley Act.
Meanwhile, working people desperately need a Labor Secretary who will unashamedly serve as a voice for worker rights and dare to criticize increasing inequality, declared Chris Townsend, the outspoken political action director for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). “With the new Labor Secretary, we in labor need to break out of the mindset of business as usual, and worrying about not giving the Republicans anything to complain about and enforcing the labor laws a little better than the Republicans,” Townsend tells In These Times. “Whoever is appointed must understand that workers need an advocate because we are having our brains beat in. The national interest is really at stake. We are seeing the loss of wages that allow people to lead decent lives, and not die younger. Corporations are actively driving down consumer buying power, tens of millions of working people are being neglected, and we face mass impoverishment and misery if something is not done. By cutting wages and demanding tax breaks, corporations are eating the seed corn of America’s future.”
Indeed, workers’ brains are being “beat in” on several key fronts. Even as corporations are reporting sky-high returns, they are engaged in a fervent crusade to drive down wages. Almost 60 percent of new jobs created since 2010 have a paltry median wage of $7.69 to $13.83 an hour. And Robert Reich has claimed that today's entry-level wages for employees in manufacturing are often commensurate to those even in the service-sector. In 2010, a remarkable 93 percent of all income gains were siphoned off by the top 1%. The upward re-distribution means that the bottom 80% own just 7 percent of the country’s financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home) while the richest 1% own 42 percent.
Meanwhile, workers are losing rights on the job. In 2005, for example, an estimated 31,358 workers were fired illegally because of their pro-union sympathies, according to labor writer and State of the Unions author Philip M. Dine. Along with the firings, corporations brazenly violated the law in lengthy, sustained campaigns of intimidation and threats of relocating jobs—overseen by highly paid union-busting consultants—virtually every time a union representation loomed.
Enormous hopes were placed on the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would radically shorten unionization campaigns by allowing representation based on a majority of workers signing authorization cards. But EFCA quickly withered under relentless lobbying by business. (Townsend tells In These Times that in late 2008, corporate lobbyists in Washington divided their time between claiming government bailouts of their firms would benefit the public and demanding that the same government effectively deny workers the right to unionize by shelving EFCA).
Not only did U.S. workers wind up without a federal EFCA, but on the state level, the Right rammed through “right-to-work” legislation in Indiana and in Michigan last year. Contrary to widespread media portrayals, such laws do not “protect” workers from being forced to join unions, something which is legally impossible. In fact, these laws forbid unions from collecting either membership dues or equivalent fees from workers who benefit from representation, even as federal law requires unions to represent every eligible worker in a workplace, protecting them from unfair discipline and seeing that they all receive the benefits of costly union negotiations.
The incoming Labor Secretary has an opportunity to serve as the voice of conscience for both the administration and the public on these issues. He or she will have a megaphone to remind America of the great moral challenge posed by a society where almost all the benefits of American workers’ hard work, unceasing sacrifices, and rising productivity flow upward to CEOs, large investors and other members of the economic elite. The Labor Secretary is also well-positioned to counter “right-to-work” propaganda and stress how such laws undermine the right to organize and maintain independent unions that are enshrined in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. More specifically, UE’s Townsend suggests, the Labor Secretary can lead the moral crusade to push companies to restore traditional pension plans that assure workers a secure retirement, instead of shakier 401K accounts and other schemes.
Obama’s choice of the new Labor Secretary will be very telling about his seriousness. Many of the best qualified people—such as David Macaray’s suggestions of Dennis Kucinich, Randi Weingarten, John Perez, Donald Fehr, and Alan Rosenberg—would require Obama to expend significant political capital, given that they are perceived within the Beltway as too “anti-business” and too strong-willed to be given serious consideration.
But equally crucial will be the set of tasks Obama lays out for the secretary. Will the secretary be told to lead the charge against inequality? Will the secretary be tasked with fighting for a renewal of the rights to union membership that have been so trampled in the last several decades?
Obama’s re-election campaign rhetoric about inequality inspires some optimism: In a December 2011 campaign speech in Osawatomie, Kan., Obama referred to economic inequality as “the defining issue of our time." But a closer look at Obama’s actual record is sobering. Obama’s overall economic program is premised on enhancing US “competitiveness,” with scant attention to how union busting has dampened wages. Further, Obama has also hollowed out his 2008 critiques of outsourcing and so-called “free trade" agreements, fundamentally embracing the pro-offshoring policies that he once denounced when Mitt Romney put them on display.
It therefore appears more likely that Obama will give the Labor Secretary a set of talking points promoting job training as a non-controversial—and largely ineffective—solution to the deteriorating quality and outright disappearance of jobs that once sustained US families. Obama will probably also delegate his Labor Secretary to tout the benefits of an “insourcing” trend that remains dubious, if not wholly imaginary.
Indeed, the next Labor Secretary’s stance on foreign trade deals may well provide the first litmus test of what marching orders he or she has received from the Obama White House—and whether the new secretary feels bound by those orders. Should he or she begin by preaching the supposed NAFTA-style benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—which will actually encourage more offshoring of US jobs to poorer, low-wage nations such as Vietnam and Peru—then workers may not be able to look to the Labor Department for much support over the next four years.