Hilda Solis, President Obama's nominee to be secretary of labour, suddenly faces a battle in the US Senate. On the face of it, the story appears to be another case of an Obama appointee who has had trouble remembering to pay some taxes. Currently the vote on Solis's nomination is delayed, with Democrats pushing for a quick confirmation and Republicans taking a "wait and see approach," according to a Republican senate aide. What remains to be seen is whether this particular instance of tax delinquency - actually her husband's $6,400 in overdue tax liens on his auto repair business, now repaid - counts as an honest mistake (as for Timothy Geithner) or unforgivable sin (as for Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer). As it stands, the rule seems to be the only cabinet position for which failing to pay your taxes does not disqualify you to serve is secretary of the Treasury - who is, as it happens, also head of the Internal Revenue Service.
However, Republican resistance to Solis is not rooted in any deep affinity for the IRS. On January 23, two weeks before her husband's tax problems came to light, an unknown Republican senator placed a secret hold on Solis - an obscure parliamentary procedure that can be used anonymously to delay a confirmation vote. At issue is Solis's support of unions and proposed legislation to make it easier for workers to join them. Senator Michael Enzi (a Republican from Wyoming) described Solis as "evasive" when he asked if she supports the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act - an odd question to ask, considering she co-sponsored the bill. Other senators have questioned whether her position on the board of American Rights at Work, a pro-union advocacy group, represents a conflict of interest.
Asking a labour secretary nominee why she supports unions is akin to asking the head of the Environmental Protection Agency why she supports clean air - something that would seem patently absurd on its face, if not for the precedent set by the last administration. Bush's labour secretary Elaine Chao had no love for unions: coming from the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation, her outreach to unions entailed publicly posting their budgets on the department of labour website. As for the department's safety enforcement duties, its approach was personified by Edwin Foulke, George Bush's second Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) director and a narcoleptic. OSHA staff report that Foulke often fell asleep in front of them while they briefed him at meetings; personnel resorted to wearing loud clothing and kicking him in the leg to try to keep him awake (in an interview with the Washington Post, Foulke said that he "listened with his eyes closed" and "was often tired").
Given this legacy, unions could be relatively happy with any labour secretary who does not openly vow to crush them. Solis was not, in fact, Obama's first choice. Despite not wanting the job, former Democratic congressman David Bonior was at the top of Obama's short list, which included Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm and Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius. Bonior, who founded the pressure group American Rights at Work, pushed for its executive director Mary Beth Maxwell, and then Solis, for the post. Solis's position as a sitting congresswoman made her pick at once more palatable to business and more practical for unions, who know any major labour reforms will be won only through a tough legislative battle.
Solis's nomination signals two shifts in labour's political role in the new administration.
First is the more inclusive approach Obama has already taken toward unions. The second is a power shift within the labour movement: from the manufacturing to the service sector, and from the rust belt to coastal cities. Solis herself reflects this trend. The daughter of a Teamster shop steward from Mexico and an assembly line worker from Nicaragua, she grew up in a immigrant union household.
Solis spent her early political career in Los Angeles, which has transformed in the past two decades from a company town into an epicenter of new organizing, and built ties with the unions that carried out large-scale recruiting campaigns in the hotel, cleaning and transportation industries. Their members do not resemble the hardhat caricature of organized labour: they are mostly female, Hispanic and African American. Many are foreign-born; given their industries, a significant portion are undocumented. Last year's successful organizing drives by LA security guards and Long Beach port truck drivers were partly behind the recent reversal of the long decline in union membership in the US, which rose by 428,000 in 2008.
As the first Hispanic labour secretary, Hilda Solis would reflect a large part of the membership of those unions in which nearly all membership growth is concentrated - for the simple reason that they organize in industries that cannot be outsourced. It's easy to offshore a factory, it's impossible to offshore a janitor. Because they are not affected by the same pressures from globalization as their machinist counterparts, their political agenda differs as well. In 2000, they reversed the AFL-CIO's longtime opposition to immigration. Today their top issues are health care, immigration reform and - above all - the Employee Free Choice Act.
Solis presents a friendly face to unions as a whole but to service unions in particular. Her nomination suggests Obama's labour policy will not necessarily translate into a more restrictive trade policy, or meet the steelworkers' perennial demands for import quotas. Hints of a union growth-friendly, free trade model arose in a Wall Street Journal interview last month with Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern, who expressed openness to dropping opposition to a Colombia free trade pact in exchange for the Employee Free Choice Act. The SEIU spent $85m last year helping to elect Obama, more than any other union. Stern's name also briefly made the list of possible labour secretary nominees. His union has since launched a campaign to secure Solis's confirmation.
When it comes to trade and growth, unions will have to choose their battles. With or without Solis, though, Obama appears to have made that choice for them.