CHICAGO – Through eight years of the right-wing Bush administration, the secretary of labor helped lead the administration’s war against organized labor. The only time the labor secretary interacted with labor leaders was to threaten and scold. So it was a breath of fresh air to hear new Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis give a Labor Day address here September 2.

“For me it’s about real people, real families, real suffering going on in the country,” declared Solis, the daughter of trade unionists, in referring to the difficulties facing working families in this time of crisis.

Solis, who was introduced by Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon, was addressing a crowd of labor, business and elected officials before the venerable Union League Club.

“I can’t think of a better place to give a Labor Day address than Chicago,” said Solis. Not only is the city home to many of the nation’s large corporations, but it also has a “rich labor history, including the Pullman strike, the Haymarket tragedy and the Republic Windows and Doors dispute. Some see turmoil and strife. Others see progress and hope.”

Solis said this was a time of unprecedented economic crisis and challenge. “We (the Obama administration) were forced to take bold action to confront the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. There are signs of life but we are not there yet,” she said.

Official unemployment is at 9.4% and it’s a time of great anxiety and fear for the 15 million Americans who are jobless. She warned the economy would continue to suffer layoffs over the next few months.

In effect for only 200 days, Solis said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has only begun to have an impact. The Act is “pulling the country back from the brink” and applications have been made for over 30,000 projects and will continue to wend their way into the economy in the months ahead.

Solis stressed a chief concern was to make sure that no one is left behind in the economic restructuring. The crisis has particularly impacted the African American and Latino communities and youth who suffer unemployment far higher than the national average. She wants to make sure everyone benefits and is particularly concerned that funds go to communities of color, women, the disabled, veterans and youth.

“It is not enough that just any jobs are created, but good jobs should be available for all that support families, are in safe and secure workplaces where workers have a voice and that are sustainable and innovative. Only such jobs will rebuild and restore a strong middle class,” she said.

Solis said the economic restructuring ahead meant that new jobs would be created in the health care, Internet technology and renewable energy fields. The economic stimulus is pumping $500 million into green jobs, especially creation of biofuels and lithium batteries and aimed especially at closed plants and dislocated workers. She said “retooling workers” to go into green jobs was a high priority.

Solis also announced the convening of a national dialogue and action summit on workplace safety. This comes in response to the large number of fatalities in some industries like the construction sector. The summit will be charged with bringing labor and corporations together to develop a plan to end workplace abuses including deaths, injuries, injustice, super exploitation and wage theft.

“No one should have to die for a job and workplace safety is a moral obligation,” she said.

The summit is part of expanding the role of the Labor Department to ensure workplace safety, which includes hiring 130 new Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors. “We won’t be satisfied until there are no deaths,” she said.

Solis also expressed confidence the Employee Free Choice Act would be passed and said she and President Obama were committed to its passage. The need for fairness and balance in the workplace is the strongest argument for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, said Solis.

“Workers have a right to bargain collectively. Union jobs are good jobs, in pay, flexibility and benefits. The President has said we need to level the playing field to rebuild the middle class. I am looking forward to a resolution to this issue.”




John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.