WASHINGTON (AP) - Hilda Solis, President-elect Barack Obama's pick for labor secretary, told lawmakers Friday that if confirmed she will work to expand job training programs, enforce workplace safety, health and fair pay laws and make sure employee pension plans are secure.
The California congresswoman appeared Friday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to tell lawmakers how she would lead a department that Obama says he wants to "once again stand up for working families."
"We need to restore the respect and integrity of those individuals in the workplace," Solis said.
The hearing was tempered by sobering news that the nation lost 524,000 jobs last month.
Solis called the job losses "a crisis situation" and said one of her initiatives would promote "green jobs" that could reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
Solis was introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats who praised her long history of activism on behalf of unions and workers rights.
"She is one person who has actually dedicated her life to public service and to improving the lives of people in her community," Feinstein said.
Solis, the daughter of a Mexican union shop steward, has won widespread praise from union officials who expect her to step up oversight of wage and hour laws, job safety regulations and rules covering overtime pay and pay discrimination.
Organized labor also views Solis as a determined advocate for its top priority this year - legislation that makes it easier for workers to form unions by doing away with secret ballot elections.
Business groups, already spending millions of dollars to campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act, are concerned about Solis' support for the measure.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., urged Solis to reject "the us-versus-them mentality that has unfortunately characterized labor-management relations." He said the secret ballot process "has been critical in securing organized labor for years."
Enzi pointed out that Solis once supported a California measure requiring secret ballots for workers negotiating flex time hours with employers. He said he hoped she would be as open to discussion about secret ballots now as she was in the 1990s.
Solis called the California context "very different," but she deferred taking an official position on the card check legislation.
Despite some wariness in the business community over her liberal record - she has a 97 percent rating from the AFL-CIO - Solis is expected to win easy confirmation.
She received a warm reception from the committee's chairman, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who in 2000 presented her with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her pioneering work on environmental justice issues in California.
Kennedy called her "a voice for the voiceless with a true passion for fairness and justice."
Solis was the first Latina elected to the California Senate, where she led the battle to increase the state's minimum hourly wage from $4.25 to $5.75 in 1996.
She won her congressional seat in 2000 after taking on a Democratic incumbent who had lost the support of organized labor. During eight years in Congress, Solis has made protecting the environment and helping immigrants two of her top priorities.
On the Net:
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee: http://help.senate.gov/
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)