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Labor Secretary Hilda Solis pumps up crowd at workers conference

March 18, 2009|Evelyn Larrubia

SACRAMENTO — The hottest ticket for labor types this week was the California Labor Federation's joint legislative conference dinner in Sacramento, where former Rep. Hilda Solis -- fresh from her swearing-in as Labor secretary -- addressed a cheering crowd of nearly 1,000 people.

Despite Monday night's hoopla, Solis never mentioned the event's big theme: the Employee Free Choice Act, a revision of federal labor laws that unions have long sought. Instead, she reminisced with the crowd about past fights and promised to be an advocate for workers and for their right to join labor unions.

"This is where I learned how to fight and how to distinguish right from wrong and help put the rights of working class people above all others," Solis said Monday night. "The Labor Department is back in business to support working and middle class people -- and, furthermore, we're going to enforce our labor laws."

The crowd responded with a standing ovation and the signature clapping rhythm of the farm workers movement. At one point, someone yelled out: "I love you, Hilda."

Organizers and union representatives were thrilled at the homecoming and downplayed her silence on the bill.

"We weren't disappointed with the speech at all," said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Federation of Labor. "Labor now has a seat at the table, which we have not had for at least eight years; some would say longer."

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, said Solis has to follow political protocol. She wouldn't be expected to speak in favor of any legislation before the president does.

The Free Choice measure would make it easier for workers to organize by allowing them to sign cards to join a union, instead of using a secret-ballot election. It would also allow workers and employers to request binding arbitration if they can't agree on a contract within 120 days after a union is formed. Proponents say this would speed up the resolution of disputes.

Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said there's no doubt in anybody's mind that Solis is a proponent of the bill. She was one of the hundreds of co-authors in the last session.

"She didn't have to" say the words, he said Tuesday, standing near a rally for the Employee Free Choice Act on the north steps of the Capitol.

The hourlong rally was one of the key events of the two-day conference and lobbying event, which kicked off the labor federation's campaign to pass the legislation. Seminars included training sessions for unions on how to get out their message on the bill -- that it balances power in the workplace, restores organizing rights to workers and can help the economy by increasing the buying power of regular working people, among other benefits.

The focus in California will be on Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who co-wrote the bill last session but has now expressed reservations. Hundreds of labor leaders and members at the conference were asked to write Feinstein letters, imploring her to vote for its passage.

Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, said he's hoping to raise $100,000 for his campaign in California, he said, while the bill's opponents have said they've raised $200 million nationally.

"We know we can't compete with them on the money issue," he said. "For us, what's important is . . . to focus on the issues."

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evelyn.larrubia@latimes.com

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