03/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Boon to Obama's Economic Plan: Solis Confirmed as Labor Secretary

Just a few hours before President Obama was set to give his speech to Congress on the economy, former Rep. Hilda Solis was confirmed by a lopsided 80-17 vote as Labor Secretary following weeks of GOP delays. She was targeted, essentially, for being too pro-labor, although her Republican critics used other spurious objections to try to delay her choice, including some minor tax liens her husband already paid for his car repair business.

The delaying tactics were also a forerunner to the upcoming political battle over the Employee Free Choice Act designed to help workers overcome harassment and intimidation.

Now, aided by conservative mastermind Newt Gingrich, the right-wing has adopted a new Orwellian theme to go after workers' rights as part of their bogus economic stimulus (i.e., tax cuts for the wealthy) plan:

"Protect the Rights of American Workers. We must protect a worker's right to decide by secret ballot whether to join a union, and the worker's right to freely negotiate. Forced unionism will kill jobs in America at a time when we can't afford to lose them."

In truth, unions are needed more than ever now because they boost wages, living standards and consumer demand. That's what 39 of the nation's top economists, including two Nobel Prize winners, say in an ad the day after the President's speech on page A7 of The Washington Post, organized by the Economic Policy Institute.

It's also illustrated in a major report by the Center for American Progress and , of course, that statement from dozens of the nation's leading centrist and progressive economists, including Harvard's Richard B. Freeman, scheduled for release on Wednesday. That message of empowering working Americans was reinforced by the pro-working families themes struck by the President during his economic recovery speech: "That's what this is about. It's not about helping banks - it's about helping people..."

The Solis confirmation is not just a victory for Solis and the Obama administration, but for working families everywhere after eight years of Republicans undermining the Labor Department during the Bush Administration.

As Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the AFL-CIO president, remarks, " She'll be a Labor Secretary for workers, unlike Elaine Chao, who was a Labor Secretary for CEOs and corporations. She'll look for ways to make working life more fair for American workers." The AFL-CIO President John Sweeney also observed: "The delay of Rep. Solis's nomination for partisan and ideological reasons was overcome by the grassroots support of millions of Americans who are struggling and desperately need a secretary of labor who will be their voice." Part of her response to workers' needs for fairness in a troubled economy will be supporting the Employee Free Choice Act she co-sponsored when in Congress.

Union supporters, including the American Rights at Work executive director Mary Beth Maxwell, reacted to the well-received speech by urging the president, in part, to move ahead on the pro-union bill that he's already endorsed:

President Obama has already made impressive strides toward improving the lives of America's workers across our nation. By signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the economic stimulus bill, he has taken the first steps needed to rebuild the middle class. Now is the time for the President to take further action and make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land.

This legislation is critical to giving workers a chance at living the American Dream by allowing them to bargain for fair wages and benefits. A recent report by the Center for American Progress indicates greater unionization could pump $49 billion into the struggling U.S. economy. When workers can once again support themselves and their families, our economy will be put on the road to recovery, and that's why the Employee Free Choice Act is so vital.

So it's fitting, on the day of Obama's address on economic recovery, Solis was finally confirmed, adding a strong advocate for workers' rights to the Cabinet just as new reports by leading progressive think-tanks show just how important unions are to the economy; they help raise wage levels, living standards and consumer demand necessary to fuel the recovery. The Center for American Progress last week issued a report on the importance of strengthening union rights. On Wednesday, in that full-page ad in The Washington Post, a letter to Congress, and a press conference, the Economic Policy Institute is unveiling the new statement from dozens of the nations' leading economists showing that strengthening union rights is essential to allowing workers to bargain for their fair share of the economic pie.

But conservatives aren't letting go of their hostility to workers' rights and the Employee Free Choice Act. They're primarily using the lie that it takes away the secret ballot from workers -- when it just gives them the added option of using majority sign-up when they, not the bosses, decide to use it. As Beth Shulman, the author of Betrayal of Work, said last week when discussing the new Center for American Progress report: "The business community knows the basic facts that are in this report: when workers have unions, they have better wages, they have better benefits, they have a voice in the workplace, so it's not surprising they would take a hard line with this. This [bill] is important to ensure a road to the middle class and a right to organize."

But now the right-wing and corporate interests have adopted a new anti-union talking point that is literally as absurd as those used by the fictional dictatorship in George Orwell's 1984, which proclaimed such slogans as "War Is Peace" and "Freedom Is Slavery." Gingrich's update is "Protect the Rights of American Workers." That's like saying, Orwell-style: "No Unions = More Rights for Workers." Does enhancing the right to form unions, punishing corporations that intimidate workers and allowing workers to choose the majority sign-up option -- a choice now held by employers -- actually threaten workers' rights? Of course not. As American Rights at Work advocacy group points out:

The Problem: Employers Silence Workers Who Attempt to Form Unions

Under the current labor law system, employers often use a combination of legal and illegal methods to silence employees who attempt to form unions and bargain for better wages and working conditions. When faced with organizing drives, 25 percent of employers fire at least one pro-union worker; 51 percent threaten to close a worksite if the union prevails; and, 91 percent force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors.

In addition, the system designed to protect workers is severely broken. Laws and enforcement fail to sufficiently protect workers, offering penalties that are too weak to deter violations..."

So, in light of Obama's speech on the economy and our nation's future, it's worth noting how important unions will be to any recovery. The economists' statement today makes that crystal clear:

Although its collapse has dominated recent media coverage, the financial sector is not the only segment of the U.S. economy running into serious trouble. The institutions that govern the labor market have also failed, producing the unusual and unhealthy situation in which hourly compensation for American workers has stagnated even as their productivity soared.

Indeed, from 2000 to 2007, the income of the median working-age household fell by $2,000- an unprecedented decline. In that time, virtually all of the nation's economic growth went to a small number of wealthy Americans. An important reason for the shift from broadly-shared prosperity to growing inequality is the erosion of workers' ability to form unions and bargain collectively...

A rising tide lifts all boats only when labor and management bargain on relatively equal terms. In recent decades, most bargaining power has resided with management. The current recession will further weaken the ability of workers to bargain individually. More than ever, workers will need to act together.

The Employee Free Choice Act is not a panacea, but it would restore some balance to our labor markets. As economists, we believe this is a critically important step in rebuilding our economy and strengthening our democracy by enhancing the voice of working people in the workplace.

And, as the Center for American Progress report declared, "The essence of what labor unions do--give workers a stronger voice so that they can get a fair share of the economic growth they help create--is and has always been important to making the economy work for all Americans. And unions only become more important as the economy worsens."

With the pro-worker Hilda Solis now at the helm of the Labor Department, our country will have a better chance to fulfill the vision President Obama highlighted Tuesday night:

Now is the time to act boldly and wisely - to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity. Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down. That is what my economic agenda is designed to do, and that's what I'd like to talk to you about tonight.

It's an agenda that begins with jobs.

And, of course, that agenda can't be fully achieved without protecting the rights of workers to form unions.