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Obama Unveils Pick For Labor Secretary

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Hilda Solis, a Democratic congresswoman from Southern California will be nominated to serve as labor secretary. That's according to a Democratic source and to union officials. NPR's Frank Langfitt covers labor, and he's here to talk about the choice. Frank, what does Hilda Solis bring to this job?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, she's an interesting choice, Robert. First, literally a different face. I understand she's the daughter of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants, and she's well-versed in immigrant work issues. Labor observers I've talked to think she'll bring a different perspective to what's clearly a rapidly changing workforce. She's also strong on basic worker issues. Harold Meyerson - he's a well-known liberal, political columnist - he followed her in Los Angeles in the '90s. And he told me that at one point she took campaign funds out to sponsor a minimum wage increase on the ballot in California, spent between 50 to 100 thousand dollars of her own money, and won.

SIEGEL: This is a surprising choice.

LANGFITT: It is. She's not that well-known, even among some in organized labor. Some unions on the West Coast, they seem to know her pretty well and are happy, very happy, with this decision. But today I just spoke with an official with the chamber of commerce, and he admitted he really wasn't that familiar with her. And one question is without this kind of high profile, how she's going to use the bully pulpit of the Labor Department.

SIEGEL: Frank, how do you think the fact that we're in a recession and that unemployment is rising is going to affect the issues that Solis will face as secretary?

LANGFITT: Well this is - you know, this is going to be a tough job. I mean workers are struggling, we all know. And one of her jobs is going to be to find ways to help provide more security for people. She's also coming up against what was going to be probably a really big political battle. She supports a bill that's known as the Employee Free Choice Act. And it's pushed by organized labor. It would make it easier to form unions. Now businesses really hate this. And they're going to argue that it raises costs and is going to force more layoffs, and she could become the point person in this battle.

SIEGEL: Organized labor has been very critical of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the sitting secretary of labor in the Bush administration. How would Solis be different?

LANGFITT: I think this is going to be a dramatic difference. Chao was seen largely as pro-business. She was criticized at times for not policing minimum wage laws, overtime laws, things like that. I think what you're going to see out of Solis is something that's much more focused on workers, workers' rights, workers' safety, those sorts of things, as we go forward.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt on Congresswoman Hilda Solis, who is President-elect Barack Obama's choice to be secretary of labor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.