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Obama settles on Rep. Hilda Solis as labor chief

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JESSE J. HOLLAND | December 18, 2008 05:55 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be labor secretary, Democratic Rep. Hilda Solis of California, is expected to advocate greater union influence in the workplace and more "green" jobs.

Solis, the 51-year-old daughter of a Mexican union shop steward and a Nicaraguan assembly line worker, is in line to be the third Hispanic nominee in Obama's Cabinet. Obama planned to announce her nomination on Friday, said a labor official who spoke on condition of anonymity because an announcement had not been made yet.

The lone member of Congress of Central American descent, Solis would replace Elaine Chao, the only original member of President George W. Bush's Cabinet still in office.

Chao said her successor "will inherit a strong legacy on behalf of America's workers, which includes record low fatality, illness and injury rates, record achievements in enforcement recoveries, and strengthened protections for union members."

Unions, which contributed heavily to Obama and Democrats this year, expect Solis to be an advocate for them and for workers. They expect her to press for legislation that would force businesses to recognize union representation once more than 50 percent of a company's eligible work force signs union cards, instead of waiting for secret-ballot elections.

Unions claim mangers coerce and intimidate workers into rejecting unions in secret ballots at work. Employers say workers often are coerced themselves by their peers to sign union cards and that a secret-ballot election is the only way to determine their true wishes.

"Unions are vital to the health and strength of our communities, and our workers are the bedrock of our economy," Solis said in 2007 while advocating for the Employee Free Choice Act. "In this day and age when the number of women and new immigrants is increasing in the work force, it is important that they become a part of the American fabric and one of the ways is to be a member of a union."

Solis' father was a Teamsters shop steward in Mexico.

"We're confident that she will return to the Labor Department one of its core missions _ to defend workers' basic rights in our nation's workplaces," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor organization.

Solis in 1994 was the first Latina elected to the California Senate, where she led the battle to increase the state's minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75 an hour in 1996.

Andy Stern, president of the 1.9-million member Service Employees International Union, recalled marching with her in Los Angeles _ well before she was elected to Congress _ to seek higher wages and benefits for janitors.

Environmental groups noted that while in Congress, Solis wrote a measure that authorized $125 million for work force training programs in areas such as energy efficiency retrofitting and "green building" construction.

"We can think of no better person to help President-elect Obama implement his plans for an economic recovery fueled by the creation of millions of new green jobs," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., will be in charge of Solis' confirmation as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He said she will be "an invaluable asset to President Obama in protecting workers' rights and restoring economic opportunity."

Business groups, ready to assume a more defensive posture during Obama's administration, responded cautiously to the news about Solis.

"There's a new sheriff in town, but they'll still have to deal with the business community and they know it," said Randy Johnson, vice president for labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We would hope she will continue to support programs that help educate employers about voluntary compliance with the law rather than pursue heavy-handed enforcement," he said.

A call to Solis' office was not immediately returned Thursday.

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Associated Press writers Sam Hananel and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

Solis' House Web site: http://solis.house.gov

Labor Department: http://www.dol.gov