Hilda Solis' belief in unions runs deep

President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the U.S. Labor Department sees her parents' membership as key to the success she and her siblings have achieved.

January 09, 2009|Dan Morain and Evelyn Larrubia

Her father came from Mexico and was a Teamster who worked at a battery recycling plant. Her mother is from Nicaragua and had a union job on a Mattel assembly line.

Rep. Hilda Solis, the daughter of immigrants who lives in a modest home in El Monte not far from where she was raised, takes her first step to almost certain confirmation as U.S. secretary of Labor today at a Senate hearing.

In eight years as a lawmaker in Sacramento and eight years in Congress, Solis has been an advocate for low-wage workers, particularly immigrants, and for organized labor.

Solis, 51, has a master's in public administration from USC and an undergraduate degree from Cal Poly Pomona, and has made her career in government. But her understanding of labor and immigration is not academic.

In a speech last year, Solis credited unions for her family's success. "Without the help, protection that we received, and retirement benefits, I know myself and my [six] siblings would not be where they are today," she said.

Her ascent reflects labor's strength in Southern California and the influence of immigrants, especially Latinos, within a union movement that was crucial to electing Barack Obama to the White House.

"What we are looking at in Southern California today is the United States in 2040," said UC Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken, a labor historian.

Obama has made a point of appointing moderates to his Cabinet. Solis would be one of the most liberal members.

As Labor secretary, she would oversee a $10.5-billion budget and enforcement of workplace laws, a prospect that worries business leaders.

"She didn't win our Spirit of Enterprise Award," quipped Randy Johnson, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive.

Former state Sen. Ray Haynes, a Republican who tangled with Solis when she headed a budget subcommittee, called her "a committed liberal in the pockets of labor."

As Congress opens, labor issues are at the forefront. One bill would make it easier for victims of pay discrimination to sue. Solis pressed for pay equity legislation more than a decade ago. A bill that Solis co-sponsored last year would make it easier for unions to organize workers.

Backed by unions, Solis won her congressional seat in 2000 by knocking off an incumbent Democrat who had run afoul of labor by voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

With a relatively low Washington profile, she was on no one's short list to head the Department of Labor. But labor leaders have welcomed the choice.

"She is very proud of her working-class roots," said Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "She gets offended when working people aren't treated with respect."

Solis' father, Raul, worked at the Quemetco battery plant in the City of Industry and met her mother, Juana, at a citizenship class.

The couple own the La Puente tract home where Solis grew up with two brothers and four sisters -- and where, when the wind shifted, they could smell the Puente Hills Landfill.

"They came with that hope -- esperanza -- of coming to a country that would allow their children to prosper," Solis said recently. "I was born here. But I still have that notion that my parents have instilled in me, that they want a better life and they know that there's opportunities here for us."

The third-eldest of the children, Solis was the first in her family to graduate from college, aided by grants. In the 1970s, she would take her younger sisters to the library to study, encouraging them to follow her lead.

Her graduate-school program took her to Washington for a semester. She and Ruben Smith, a classmate who is now an Orange County attorney, landed jobs with President Carter's special assistant for Hispanic affairs. "I think being at the White House empowered her to say: You can do anything you want to do if you work hard," he said.

Smith said Solis has always been "very serious" and a dogged worker. Politics was her world. Other than salsa dancing, he said, she didn't appear to have any outside interests.

In Washington, she met her husband, Sam H. Sayyad, who owns Sam's Foreign & Domestic Auto Center in Irwindale. He picks up his own phone, though he declined to be interviewed, as did Solis.

Solis is not a politician who has become wealthy in office. When she took her Assembly seat in 1993, she disclosed one main asset -- her husband's garage, valued at $10,001 to $100,000. Fifteen years later, she disclosed a few modest retirement funds -- and the shop, still valued at $100,000 or less.

"Some others tend to change with the power. They begin to think they're entitled to it. She hasn't," said Manuel Baca, a political science teacher at Rio Hondo College in Whittier.

Baca has worked on each of Solis' races, starting in 1985 when, at 28, she won a seat on the Rio Hondo board against two far-more established politicians.

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