Amid the disappointments of Obama’s first year in office is one bright spot: a Department of Labor that stands up for workers’ rights.
Published in Yes! Magazine.
Those who voted for “change you can believe in” in 2008 have found many reasons since Obama’s inauguration to be disappointed with the new White House. But there have been some bright spots in the administration’s first year as well—positive steps that illustrate the difference that a progressive-minded administration can make when it stands up to corporate interests and is unafraid to act in the public good. One well worth acknowledging as the administration’s second year gets underway is the work of the Department of Labor under Secretary Hilda Solis.
From the beginning, Obama’s Labor appointment was one to cheer. Solis grew up in a predominantly Latino suburb of Los Angeles, the daughter of immigrant parents who were both union members. She was the first in her family to receive a college degree. In 1994, after more than a decade in public service, she became the first Latina ever elected to the California State Senate. There she helped to defeat an anti-labor ballot proposition and was a leader of the effort to raise the state’s minimum wage.
Solis’ rise to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000 was the product of her ties with vibrant progressive movements that have reshaped the political landscape of Los Angeles. In the 1990s, the LA County Federation of Labor created powerful alliances between community groups and diverse unions, including those that were organizing recently-arrived, low-wage immigrant workers in the service industries—workers that conventional wisdom decreed “un-organizable.” The insurgent grassroots coalition brought a fresh attitude to electoral politics. Instead of supporting any candidate that gave lip service to democratic values, it was willing to run true progressives for office—even against incumbent Democrats who were prioritizing corporate desires over the needs of the constituencies that had elected them. Case in point was a Democratic incumbent Matthew “Marty” Martinez, an 18-year veteran of the House who had supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and was the only California Democrat to back National Rifle Association stances on gun control. Solis agreed to challenge Martinez and campaigned as a champion of working families. She won election after trouncing Martinez in the Democratic primary with a landslide vote of 62 percent to 29 percent. During her 8 years in the House, she stayed true to her platform by writing pioneering “green jobs” legislation and by opposing pro-corporate trade deals with countries like Colombia.
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Taking on Wage Theft
Given her track record, it is not surprising that Solis has distinguished herself in the Obama administration. Perhaps the landmark achievement of her first year as labor secretary was her decisive move to crack down on “wage theft.” Wage theft is a concept that has been promoted in recent years by grassroots labor activists including Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice and author of Wage Theft in America. “Wage theft is widespread and pervasive across all types of companies,” Bobo wrote recently; it ranges from mom-and-pop car wash and restaurant owners stealing tips from workers and withholding employees’ checks after promised paydays, to corporate sub-contractors or Wal-Mart stores requiring off-the-books overtime or failing to pay the minimum wage. All this, Interfaith Worker Justice argues, constitutes a “crime wave that no one talks about.” It represents theft from workers totaling at least $19 billion a year, according to the Economic Policy Foundation.
Under the Bush administration’s Department of Labor, the crisis of wage theft was summarily ignored. In March 2009, the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying that the department’s Wage and Hour Division had for years “left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn.” Secretary Solis made reversing this trend a defining initiative of her department. Even before the report had been released, she had commenced the hiring of 150 new field investigators to enforce wage and child labor laws, as well as 100 more to police government contractors working on stimulus programs.
This signature effort would alone have made for a laudable opening year. But beyond taking action on wage theft, Solis made several other important changes. She spoke out forcefully for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (even though it is unclear that Congress or the president shared her enthusiasm). She instituted a program to ensure accuracy in company records of worker sickness and injury. Her department crafted new safety standards to address the previously unregulated problem of dust explosions. And it aided immigrant workers by suspending Bush-era regulations that activists argue had suppressed wages for all those employed in agriculture. Finally, in October 2009, Solis worked with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to fine the oil giant BP $87 million for hundreds of “willful and egregious” violations of safety standards at its refinery in Texas City, Texas, and for failing to remediate workplace hazards in the wake of a 2005 explosion. It was the largest such fine in OSHA’s history, and it showed that Solis was making good on her promise that there would be “a new sheriff in town” enforcing government safety regulations.
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Amplifying a Quiet Revolution
Some of these moves may appear routine and bureaucratic. But to understand just how important they are, it is necessary to compare Solis’ flurry of activity in her first year to the long tenure of her predecessor, Bush administration Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.
A reliably conservative veteran of the Heritage Foundation who fit comfortably within the Bush/Cheney Cabinet, Chao’s attitude toward enforcing wage and safety regulations was lax at best. Her actions essentially gave business the signal that it could do whatever it pleased. She significantly weakened her department’s Wage and Hour Division, and aside from one court-ordered exception, OSHA failed to create a single health or workplace safety regulation under her leadership, even in the wake of high-profile industrial accidents. As Representative George Miller (D-California) has noted, her department spent more energy repealing standing regulations, such as one that sought to prevent repetitive motion injuries, the most common type of workplace injury in American today. Chao actively worked to keep the minimum wage low. And her vision of “enforcing” labor law involved implementing a program euphemistically called “compliance assistance,” which focused on “reaching out to the employer community” rather than punishing those that were violating the law.
There are plenty of things to criticize about the Obama administration, and those who are disappointed by the White House are right to demand better. But the necessity of creating popular pressure for change does not mean that critics should fall into the trap of making the lazy claim that there is no distinction between the Bush administration and the current government.
Changes like the ones that Solis has implemented do not make too many headlines. Unless you are in the trenches working on a specific issue that makes you aware of how ordinary people are affected by government decisions about labor standards, housing, or environmental protection, it is easy to overlook the difference between a department like Solis’ and one like Chao’s—even though the distinction could hardly be clearer. New Republic Senior Editor John Judis has gone so far as to argue recently that the bureaucratic shifts put in place by the Obama administration amount to a “quiet revolution.” He writes:
“Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.”
Moving forward, the challenge remains to go beyond subtle regulatory changes and make any “quiet revolution” into a loud one. It will take outside critics and currently disillusioned citizen activists to do that. But it will also take progressive public servants who have demonstrated what can be accomplished when regulators are encouraged to actually do their jobs—to fight for the interests of workers, for example—vigorously and creatively. These officials will have much to learn from Hilda Solis.
Research assistance for this article provided by Rajiv Sicora and Arthur Phillips.