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Obama Said To Pick Hilda Solis For Labor Secretary

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So, the auto bailout moves the problem to the new administration that takes over January 20th, and that new administration is still taking shape. Today, President-elect Barack Obama is expected to name Hilda Solis, a five-time Democratic member of Congress from California, as his next Labor secretary. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: Her father came from Mexico and was a shop steward with the Teamsters; her mother, from Nicaragua, and a member of the United Rubber Workers. Organized labor runs in the veins of Hilda Solis.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Representative HILDA SOLIS (Democrat, California): When union people get paid good wages that money stays in the community; it helps to provide a vibrant economy; it helps to, also, even send their children to college.

LANGFITT: Unions have often viewed the Bush Labor Department as the enemy. Now, after eight years in the political wilderness, they could soon have a friend there. Anna Burger is secretary treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. She says Solis is dedicated to issues that matter to workers, like better wages and healthcare.

Ms. ANNA BURGER (International Secretary-Treasurer, Service Employees International Union): I remember being out in the streets with her for Justice for Janitors, when, you know, we were trying to organize and fight for the janitors so that they could have a decent life in Southern California.

LANGFITT: Burger also says Solis will bring a new perspective to the nation's rapidly changing workforce.

Ms. BURGER: And I think having a Latino woman is terrific. Having a strong advocate for an understanding of the issues of immigrants as well will be a dramatic improvement for our country.

LANGFITT: So far, the business community is responding to the selection of Solis with caution, and something else.

Mr. RANDEL K. JOHNSON (Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce): Well, we were surprised.

LANGFITT: That's Randy Johnson. He focuses on labor for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

When you first heard this name, had you ever heard of her before?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I had not, and I think among those of us who do traditional employment issues, she's relatively unknown.

LANGFITT: Indeed. Solis shares some of Mr. Obama's agenda, including an emphasis on green jobs. But labor sources say she was not a top choice for this post. The president-elect was looking at better-known names. They included former Michigan Congressman David Bonier and current Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. But publicly, they said they weren't interested. After news of Solis broke yesterday, Randy Johnson of the Chamber read up on her. He said Solis and business do agree on some things, like the value of temporary-worker programs.

Mr. JOHNSON: We're hopeful that we could work with her on some issues, and then there will be some issues where we're simply going to be in separate camps on.

LANGFITT: One of those issues on which they're certain to clash is unions. Organized labor is pushing a bill that would make it easier to form one. Both Mr. Obama and Congresswoman Solis support it. But many big businesses hate the idea. They're worried it will increase labor costs in the midst of a deepening recession.

Mr. HAROLD MEYERSON (Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect: The fight over the Employee Free Choice Act is going to be one whale of a battle.

LANGFITT: Harold Meyerson is a liberal political columnist who writes for the American Prospect. He got to know Solis in the Los Angeles area in the 1990s. Meyerson describes her as gutsy and committed. He recalls that Solis put at least $50,000 into a petition drive to raise the state's minimum wage.

Mr. MEYERSON: For an elected state senator from a working-class Latino district, in particular, that was real money.

LANGFITT: Solis helped get the issue on the ballot, and on Election Day, the initiative passed. Later, Solis set her sights on Congress. In the 2000 primary, she ran against nine-term incumbent Democrat Matthew Martinez.

Mr. MEYERSON: You know, people didn't do this. Democrats didn't take on incumbent Democratic members of Congress, let alone beat them 70 to 30, which is what Solis did to Marty Martinez.

LANGFITT: Solis was able to peel away labor support from Martinez, and she actually won 63 percent to 28 percent, but you get the idea. Since 2001, Solis has represented California's 32nd district, which includes parts of Monterey Park and East Los Angeles. Now, she's looking to move to 200 Constitution Avenue, home of the Labor Department. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.