Who Will Be the Next Secretary of Labor?

With Hilda Solis resigning as Labor Secretary (presumably, to run for LA County Board of Supervisors, the first step in the former congresswoman’s renewal of her political career), President Obama has the opportunity to appoint someone who can make a real difference. Not that Solis didn’t do her part. Given the hand she was dealt, she performed adequately.

Solis will be remembered for having added 250 field agents to the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (which was reduced in manpower during George W. Bush’s administration). The W&H Division is the agency tasked with investigating unfair wage practices (e.g., failure to pay overtime or minimum wage), examples of which abound in the restaurant and carwash industries.

Still, competent as she was, organized labor’s support of Solis never rose above lukewarm. Although she was the daughter of immigrants, both union members, and worked diligently on behalf of Spanish-speaking workers, and her heart was clearly in the right place, Solis was never regarded as forceful or dynamic enough to lead labor into the Promised Land.

A cabinet secretary has a unique voice. She has the opportunity to take center stage, to seize the microphone and force the American people to listen to her explain the issues she views as most important. But Solis couldn’t or wouldn’t take that critical step. Labor wanted more of a gadfly, more of a public cheerleader—more of a loose cannon, like Joe Biden. Alas, Solis was simply not Bidenesque enough for them.

Before listing those who would make excellent candidates, we should omit those who, while intriguing, wouldn’t be realistic—either because they don’t have the administrative skills to run a huge government agency, or because it’s unlikely they would accept the job.

One who is clearly pro-worker, but lacks administrative skills, is mau-mau journalist Matt Taibbi. I’m a big fan of Matt’s. How cool would it be to have a defiantly pro-union polemicist as our Secretary of Labor? Not only would it be cause for jubilation within the AFL-CIO, it would be a salutary jolt to the American psyche. But that ain’t going to happen. Ever. If we think Joe Biden is opinionated, Taibbi would make Biden look like Calvin Coolidge.

Another person we can count out, unfortunately, is Clinton’s first-term Labor Secretary Robert Reich. While Reich would be an excellent choice, he probably wouldn’t take the job a second time. Brilliant and knowledgeable as he is (I interviewed him for my book), it’s unlikely Obama could pry him away from UC Berkeley, and even more unlikely he has forgotten the bitter internal battles he fought in the Clinton White House.

We should probably count out Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as well. Even though Sanders, ideologically and sentimentally, is eminently qualified, the man wasn’t put on earth to oversee the day-to-day operations of a sprawling government agency. Sanders is a philosopher: a thinker, a dialectician, a moralist….not a bureaucrat.

Now let’s look at those who are qualified, and would likely accept.

If Obama is looking for a former congressman, he should consider Dennis Kucinich. Like Solis, Kucinich knows how to navigate the treacherous waters of the legislature, but unlike Solis, he’s pesky and persistent. Although Kucinich once ran for president, image-wise, he’s more suited for the cabinet. (Indeed, in this age of television, he comes off as the Anglo-Saxon version of Bobby Jindal).

If Obama is considering another woman, we suggest Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT (American Federation of Teachers). Weingarten has the toughness, the smarts, the administrative chops, and the requisite union background to hit the deck running. I know her casually. With her dedication to labor and her willingness to fight like a badger, she’d make an excellent Secretary.

If it’s another Latino, there’s John Perez, Democratic Speaker of the California State Assembly. Given that party politics in California is a brutal, back-stabbing, rough-and-tumble business, when an overweight (of Gov. Chris Christie proportions) openly gay Latino can rise all the way to Speaker, you have to figure the man is a bureaucratic genius. Plus, Perez used to be a union rep.

For straight-up, unadulterated union ideology, there’s Donald Fehr, former president of the baseball players association and currently head of the hockey players union. Anyone who knows Fehr will tell you he’s a quick learner, an inspirational leader, and a brilliant negotiator. I would love to see Fehr appointed.

Finally, as a wild card, Obama might consider Alan Rosenberg, former president of SAG’s (Screen Actors Guild) 140,000 members. Rosenberg, an accomplished actor himself, is a tough, charismatic political animal with fierce union loyalties. As for being up to the challenge, after having dealt with the monster egos and artistic temperaments of Hollywood, Washington D.C. would be a cakewalk.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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