Labor Secretary Hilda Solís: Past and Present

Atthe Hunter College graduation ceremony in New York in spring 2009, Hilda L. Solís, who spent four terms as a California congresswoman, gave the keynote speech. She related an incident that happened to her in high school in La Puente, Calif. At open school night, her guidance counselor told her mom that “Your daughter is not college material. Maybe she should follow the career of her older sister and become a secretary.” Solís did indeed become a secretary, but not the kind of secretary her guidance counselor envisioned. Solís was confirmed in February 2009 as the United States’ secretary of labor in President Obama’s Cabinet. She is the 25th secretary of labor in the country’s history and the first Latina named a Cabinet member.

Solís ended her Hunter College address by saying, “People always say that women, people of color, Latinas, aren’t ready to go to college; they’re not ready to be in these big positions. There are probably a dozen of you in this hall who are future Sonia Sotomayors, and there are probably twodozen future Hilda Solises. You have to have the desire to do it.”

Solís is so highly regarded that Michael Moore, Oscar-winning director of Bowling for Columbine and Capitalism: A Love Story, interviewed in Rolling Stone, called Solís as labor secretary an “inspiring choice. I’d like to see her out front more when the administration is talking about the economy.”

Solís, who is 51 years old and married, recognized that education was the ticket out of her working-class background and into launching a professional career. Solís graduated from California State Polytechnic University with a degree in political science in 1979. Two years later, she earned a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Southern California.

Hilda Solis

Her career in politics started modestly, as a summer intern, in 1981. As part of her master’s program, she edited a newsletter in the capital and made some contacts.

She worked in the White House during the Carter years, as White House officer of Hispanic affairs. In that role, she saw the impact and influence that elected officials could have. During the Reagan years, she was a management analyst in the civil rights division of the Office of Management and Budget but felt that the administration downplayed civil rights issues and resigned.

In 1992, Solís was elected to the California State Assembly and in 1994 became the first Latina elected to the California state Senate. Proving true to her working-class roots, she initiated a bill to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $4.75 an hour, in 1996. It passed. In 2001, she was elected congresswoman and held that position until 2009.

In this Q&A with The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine, Solís discusses what drove her to succeed in education, overcoming negative expectations, and her major plans as labor secretary.

The Hispanic Outlook: Your guidance counselor in high school didn’t think you were college material, but that didn’t deter you at all. What drove you to attend college and advance to obtain a master’s degree?

Hilda Solís: In high school, I was told by the counselor assigned to me that I was not suited for college but best suited for clerical work. But I didn’t listen to him. I had a loving, supporting family and friends who pushed me to do better. I also had the support of another counselor at my high school that encouraged me to go on and pursue a college degree. He wasn’t my assigned counselor, but he reached out to me and truly changed my life. That counselor’s name was Roberto Sánchez. It was Mr. Sánchez who looked into financial aid options and helped me fill out my college application forms. If it hadn’t been for his mentorship and encouragement, I’m not sure I would have gone to college and then pursued a graduate degree.

HO: How did you overcome these negative expectations?

Solís: My parents are both humble people. My mother immigrated to this country from Nicaragua and worked in a local toy factory. Meanwhile my father worked as a laborer, a farmworker, a railroad worker and a Teamsters shop steward in a battery recycling plant. Though our family could not afford college, my parents stressed the value of a good education. My family always pushed me to succeed, and I chose not to listen to people that put me down. I also had the support of Mr. Sánchez, who served as my mentor. I followed my parents’ example and worked hard in school. This work ethic and my father’s advice – “Question everything; don’t just accept other people’s opinions” – is what helped me overcome negative expectations. And am I glad I listened to his advice! I am proud to have been the first in my family to graduate from college.

HO: You attended an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at California State Polytechnic University. What impact did this program have on you?

Solís: EOP allowed me to have a rich and wonderful educational experience. The support I received through the program helped me do well in my classes and empowered me to pursue my goals, like earning a master’s degree.

HO: What were the key issues you fought for as a congresswoman in California from 2001 to 2009?

Solís: In Congress, I fought to protect and expand workers’ rights. In 2007, for example, I helped pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and raised the minimum wage for the first time in 10 years. I was also proud to co-sponsor the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would level the playing field for workers who want to join a union. I also authored and introduced the Green Jobs Act, which authorized up to $125 million in funding to establish national and state job-training programs, to help address job shortages that are impairing growth in green industries, such as energy-efficient buildings and construction, renewable electric power, energy-efficient vehicles and biofuels development. Expanding access to and reducing disparities in health care and advancing women’s rights were also issues I focused on. I led the effort to renew the Violence Against Women Act in 2005, which included two provisions I authored to help immigrants and women of color who are victims of domestic violence.

HO: What are the major issues you’re focusing on as labor secretary?

Solís: My primary goal as secretary of labor is to provide good jobs for everyone and prepare our work force for the new jobs of the 21st century. This means we have to mobilize work force development and adult education systems to ensure workers have the required skills for careers in green jobs and health care that are being created, to participate in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and to improve their access to other good middle-class jobs. This also means expanding access to pensions for workers so as to ensure their economic well-being. I believe the Department of Labor will be able to measure the success of its work by whether we have been able to raise the standard of living for middle-class Americans.

HO: You described yourself as a fighter “for social justice, combating discrimination and racism and always stand up and fight for the underdog.” What actions will reflect those sentiments?

Solís: The Department of Labor’s mission is to foster and promote the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners and retirees of the United States. That also means protecting our most vulnerable workers in industries where abuses have traditionally taken place. This is why I am adding resources to several of our departments to ensure that workers are safe, treated fairly and are compensated for their work. My priority is good jobs for everyone.

HO: Working-class people have had a tough time. Manufacturing plants have closed; outsourcing has been stepped up. What can the labor secretary do to turn the tide?

Solís: The Department of Labor is working hard to help workers through these difficult times. We are training workers so that they can be competitive in the new economy. One way we are helping workers is by ensuring they have the skills to compete for quality, sustainable jobs. The Department of Labor has injected $3.5 billion in worker-training funds into state-training programs from the Recovery Act. We hope to add to recovery investments with our fiscal year 2010 budget request of $8.7 billion for employment and training programs. I also believe we have a fundamental responsibility to protect workers from unsafe workplaces and to protect workers from unjust labor practices. That is why I am adding resources to the Wage and Hour Division, hiring more OSHA compliance safety and health officers and increasing the number of enforcement staff in the Employee Benefits Security Administration. In a single year, we will be adding nearly 670 investigators, inspectors and other program staff. We are returning our worker-protection efforts to a level not seen since the Clinton administration. I am also making the well-being of our workers a big priority for my department, and through the Recovery Act, we are modernizing unemployment insurance. This reform is especially critical for low-wage workers and others who more recently entered the labor market. The definition would also be extended to include unemployed part-time workers who seek new part-time work and for whom full-time work is not an option.

HO: The economic situation has been bleak. Unemployment is near 10 percent and higher in certain states. What job-training programs are proving effective?

Solís: Yes, we are facing extremely high unemployment rates, and these workers are the top priority of this administration. As I stated earlier, the Department of Labor has injected nearly $4 billion in worker-training funds into state-training programs from the Recovery Act. We know that the most effective job training is always based on local labor market needs and matching training opportunities to real jobs that are in demand. Job seekers should work with specialists in local One Stop Career Centers to ensure that they have the most up-to-date information about available jobs, and the best training providers to compete for those jobs. It is also worth mentioning that certain sectors have seen growth nationally – health careers, jobs in the education sector and jobs in emerging sectors like green technologies. The Department of Labor has made $720 million in Recovery Act funds available in competitive grants for training in these areas, including high-growth and emerging industries.