The Obama administration has a real opportunity right now to improve labor standards in this country, but it begins with appointing a pro-active secretary of labor who truly supports the ability of workers to collectively bargain. Bush's former appointee Elaine Chao not only presided over what has been one of the worst periods in our history in terms of unemployment, job growth, and wages; she also does not favor expanding workers rights. Therefore the Senate needs to stop holding up the confirmation of Congresswoman Hilda Solis for secretary of labor.
I knew that Solis had a strong record with supporting labor unions, but it became even clearer to me last week when I had lunch with a close friend of mine who used to work for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He was involved in a campaign a few years ago to organize the 14,000 employees who work for the large healthcare corporation Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) in California. The workers at CHW were paid less than workers with similar occupations at nearby hospitals. Moreover, they had to pay hundreds of dollars every month for healthcare benefits while employees at other hospital chains in the state like Kaiser Permanente received theirs for free.
As with most organizing campaigns, once the employer begins to realize his/her employees are willing to stand up for better pay, more affordable healthcare, and better working conditions by forming a union, they begin to fight aggressively. For instance, they often retaliate against vocal union supporters and hold mandatory "captive audience" meetings where they blatantly misinform employees and create an atmosphere of fear. They know that keeping the facility "union-free" will allow them to keep wages stagnant, raise healthcare costs on his/her employees, and keep more of the profits funneled towards those in executive positions. Meanwhile, employees are prevented from passing out union literature and union organizers are denied access to public areas like the cafeteria.
During this tense time, politicians are often hesitant to get involved, probably because of how their actions would look to the business community. This was not the case with Solis. My friend described to me that during the heat of the campaign, Solis would go into the hospital to confront the management and openly express her support for the workers. She also joined union members in labor rallies, marches, and protest actions. Because of the efforts of public figures like Solis, the workers in CHW eventually won a landmark contract that led to guaranteed raises and free family healthcare. The standards that were set at this large California chain eventually pushed other hospitals in the Los Angeles area to raise their wages and improve the benefits for their own workers.
We need more people like Obama and Solis in national government who have been on the ground standing up for workplace democracy. But the work needs to start as soon and possible. That begins with Solis' confirmation.