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Q&A: Labor secretary sees progress, but long road ahead in helping unemployed


Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, fourth from left, with other members of President Obama's Cabinet in 2009.

(Photo Courtesy of Vanity Fair)

By Peter Whoriskey

There have been easier times to be leading the charge for America's workforce. It's bad enough that unemployment has persisted above 9 percent. But it has also been a year marked by two horrific workplace accidents - one at a West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 and then the explosion at the BP oil rig. Both fatal incidents called into question how well the United States has been monitoring worker safety. As Labor Day approaches, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis talked about restoring morale at the department, retraining for unemployed workers and safety issues.

What are you doing for Labor Day?
I will be traveling with the president to Milwaukee. There will be a host of labor leaders. I'm also delivering a message directly to all American workers through the Internet. It's available at And I want people to talk to me. They can e-mail me at

When did you develop an interest in labor issues?
I started at a very young age. I grew up in a household [in California] where my father was a shop steward for the Teamsters union. He worked at a battery-recycling plant, which is very dangerous work - being exposed to chemicals. He made sure the union provided protection for the workers.

When I was 14, I helped him translate some of the workers' grievances from Spanish to English.

My mother, too, was a union member with the United Rubber Workers. She worked at a toy assembly plant. Thank God for the union. She got minimum wage, she got overtime and today relies very much on the pension she received.

What do you tell people you meet who are unemployed?
It's very frustrating. I'm very sympathetic to what they are going through. I send them to the One-Stop phone line (866-4-USA-DOL). There are 3,000 One-Stop offices around the country that offer help for people looking for jobs. There is information on resume writing, on education and training. It allows people to get back into the swing of getting a job.

Some experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of retraining efforts. What is your assessment?

Since March 2009, there have been approximately 39 million Americans who have gone through our training programs. They have a very good rate of placement.

The vast majority of those who participate in Workforce Investment Act training programs gain employment within a year or less. According to state reports for program year 2008, 85 percent of individuals exiting [the] Workforce Investment Act Dislocated Worker training found a job within one year.

Aren't a lot of those retrained workers being forced to settle for lower wages?
Part of that is the restructuring of our economy. We're trying to help people better understand the opportunities in information technology, broadband and health care. We've seen over 230,000 jobs created in health care in the last year alone.

Where is the next wave of job growth coming from?

It's going to be in manufacturing. It's going to be high-tech. It's going to be clean energy. Biofuels, solar power, wind power. There will be more emphasis on computer skills. I think the American worker can certainly benefit from creating a better-skilled worker. They work hard, but they can go a little bit further.

I'm very optimistic but we still have a long way to go.

In light of the fatal accidents on the BP oil rig and at the Massey coal mine, what is the Labor Department doing to make sure workers are safe on the job?

For the last decade this department was really flat-lined in its ability to do enforcement. Now, if people have complaints about fatal hazards or not getting paid or being harassed, we need to know. We've beefed up enforcement.

We're doing more surprise, off-hours inspections in the mines. At OSHA [the Occupational Health and Safety Administration], we're improving ways to identify and inspect employers who endanger workers by cutting corners on safety, and increasing the number of big penalty cases. We're sending a message that we will not tolerate the preventable injury and death of American workers.

We've hired over 100 new OSHA inspectors this year. We hired 250 new investigators in the Wage and Hour Division last year. We are hiring 100 more this year.

We're trying to bring back the level of help we provide workers. It has been a tremendous effort by the administration. We're not just bringing about new laws to bear. We're enforcing our laws that have been on the books.

As a union supporter, do you have any thoughts on why union membership in the private sector has been on a downward trend for years?

Government policies were detrimental. We lost a lot of jobs overseas. Now I think the American public is keenly aware that we can't buy our way out of everything. Now we should be focused on keeping good blue-collar and green-collar jobs that put people in the middle class and not just provide big profits for companies that outsource.

With prospects for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act dim, what, if anything, can be done to make it easier to organize a union?

We're very supportive of people being able to have the choice to collectively bargain. The president issued an executive order, and as a result, there is a new poster required to be displayed at all federal contract work sites. It notifies employees of their right to organize. That's just one example. We're looking at changing some of the regulations put forth in the previous administration that were detrimental. We're leveling the playing field. Whether people want to be a part of a union or not is their choice, and we're going to respect that.

How is the Labor Department different now than it was during the Bush administration?

It needed to be resuscitated. The morale was very poor. As I came in the building on my very first day, I was greeted by 400 or 500 employees, and it was so cold that day. I'll never forget that. They were cheering. I had tears. I thought, "This is a good day for working men and women." The people here realized they could carry out the jobs they were here to do.

By Peter Whoriskey  |  September 3, 2010; 7:59 AM ET
Categories:  U.S. Economy , U.S. Labor Department , Unemployment  
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Next: Car czar's new tell-all book: Rahm curses UAW


I believe this should be in bold:

"In light of the fatal accidents on the BP oil rig and at the Massey coal mine, what is the Labor Department doing to make sure workers are safe on the job?"

Posted by: tbb2 | September 3, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Will giving amnesty to 12-20 million illegal aliens help our present unemployment problem? It is great that we can supplement the incomes of the unemployed for out to two years but won't the money pool dry up soon and are the taxpayers going to pay this bill in the future? Are immigration and unemployment linked as one worker displaces the other and the taxpayer picks up the tab?

Posted by: Anonymous | September 3, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

After dealing on both sides of the bargaining table for the last 40 years, I find it to be amazing that there is so much anti-union sentiment in our society. It seems that the stigma of mob involvement in the 30’s and 40’s has soured perceptions to this day. This is unfortunate because in my experience, collective bargaining has been a positive influence for workplace relations, provided that all parties know the law and negotiate in good faith. It is true that government regulation and certain anti-union activity in industry have resulted in a dramatic change in the work force demographic. Pending legislation on union pension assistance has been attacked using an emotional appeal to the negative union stereotype. Union mismanagement, greed, corruption and dishonesty are blamed for the pension crisis, when is simply a matter of workplace demographics. The spin is misleading and uneducated. If the legislation is to be opposed, is should be done for real reasons.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 4, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Thanks to people like Secretary Solis’ father, many of the country’s domestic battery recyclers have achieved unbelievably low emissions and very safe occupational safety conditions. The application of new collection technologies in some facilities have reduced emissions so much that employees are no longer exposed to harmful toxins such as lead. And, thanks to the dramatic reduction in lead, cadmium, arsenic, and 1,3 butadiene, the environmental health risks have been reduced to almost zero. Domestic recycling of spent lead acid batteries (SLABs) is a “green” success story.

Unfortunately the dramatic increase in the exportation of SLABS, most of which happens illegally, to Mexico and other countries with lower environmental and occupational standards threatens the “green” union jobs offered by domestic recyclers. While EPA is aware of the issue and has taken a few steps to combat the problem, these workers need someone like Secretary Solis to stand up, protect their jobs and help a green industry to survive.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 8, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

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