On Friday, December 19, President-Elect Obama made his fifteenth and final appointment to the cabinet. In a move that was cheered by the AFL-CIO and greeted, predictably, with groans and whining from the business community, he chose Congresswoman Hilda Soils (D-CA) to be his Secretary of Labor.
While Obama has taken considerable flak from leftist intellectuals and the progressive wing of the Democratic party for many of his earlier cabinet choices—being accused of everything from “selling out” to Establishment interests to being inordinately “cautious” (after hammering us with his Time for Change campaign theme)—his choice for Labor Secretary has to be seen as a bold and decisive move.
Of course, it’s impossible to say in advance how any political appointee will perform in office. But based on what we know of Ms. Soils’ personal background and what can be ascertained from her voting record and history of social activism, she could very well turn out to be exactly what the doctored ordered—providing the doctor ordered a dramatic shift in how America views its “working class.”
Soils is not only the daughter of poor Latin American immigrants, she could very well be the first Labor Secretary in history who has firsthand knowledge of what it actually means to “work” for a living. Her father, a Mexican, was a shop steward with the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters), in Mexico, and her mother, a Nicaraguan, was a former assembly line worker.
Compare Solis’ credentials to those of the well-bred, exquisitely polished “silver spoon” crowd who typically get appointed to cabinet posts, and you can understand why organized labor and workers groups everywhere are thrilled at her appointment.
Instead of a well-meaning blue-blood doing his or her noblisse oblige number—or one of those cookie-cutter, professional bureaucrats who bounce from one administrative job to another, upwards, always upwards—America’s workers will finally have “one of their own” calling the shots.
To fully appreciate the change Solis represents, all one need do is contrast her to Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Labor she’s replacing. Besides being an anti-union conservative (she’s a Heritage Foundation fellow) who not only did nothing to advance the labor movement, but assisted corporations in neutralizing unions, Chao stands as a perfect example of those wildly ambitious, recycled bureaucrats who so thoroughly exemplify Washington.
A product of expensive Eastern colleges and an accomplished self-promoter, Chao ran the Peace Corps, the United Way and, previously, was Deputy Secretary of Transportation, before George Bush appointed her as Secretary of Labor. As a proven Washington insider and survivor, Chao is obviously a silky smooth politician and buck-passer. She is currently the second wife of Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader.
This is not to suggest that Hilda Solis is a peasant. Far from it. Indeed, she brings more than adequate academic and administrative creds to the job, with degrees from Cal Poly and USC and a considerable reputation for diligence and leadership skills. She was instrumental in drumming up House support for the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act). I’m familiar with her record. Her congressional district, California’s 32nd, happens to be right down the road from my own.
Of course, as with any other cabinet appointee, the proof will be in the pudding. Her tenure as Labor Secretary will be judged not on her family background or past voting record, but on how well she performs in office. And in this regard, there are three ways—and only three—in which it can play out.
First, she could turn out to be a “traitor,” one of those sharp-eyed bureaucrats who come to Washington with an activist pedigree and long list of noble items on their agenda, only to succumb to Establishment pressure and D.C. glamour, and subsequently sell out the very constituency they were supposed to represent. Granted, the chances of this happening with Solis are slim. But it’s not outside the realm.
Second, she could hit the deck running, full of institutional piss and vinegar, throw herself into every major pro-labor enterprise she’s ever dreamed of fulfilling while simultaneously rejecting all the temptations in her path . . . and still fail utterly.
She could fail because she didn’t have Obama’s support, because she didn’t have Congress’ support, or because, hardworking and resourceful as she is, she didn’t possess the leadership skills to pull it off. The Department of Labor has close to 17,000 employees and a budget of close to $70 billion. It’s going to take an inspirational leader to have an impact.
And third, she could succeed. She put the DOL on track. After all, Obama didn’t appoint her not knowing her background or being unfamiliar with her list of priorities. And, according to congressional observers, she has a wonderful working relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. With the stars in alignment, this could be a turning point for labor.
At the very least it will mean new, energized appointments to the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), a Labor Secretary with the whiskers to push passage of the EFCA, and a White House that has the confidence and blessings of America’s organized labor movement. That’s not nothing. It’s going to be interesting
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Borneo Bob,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org