WASHINGTON — Farm workers are gaining a well-placed ally with the selection of Los Angeles-area congresswoman Hilda Solis as the next secretary of labor.
Solis stands to become the department's first Hispanic chief, overseeing the most important laws regulating farm labor. She could soften or even reverse some controversial Bush administration policies, as she revealed when she denounced last-minute revisions to a foreign guest-worker program.
"There is no question that the guest-worker program needs significant overhaul, but slashing wages and reducing basic rights for the most vulnerable workers in our country, especially hardworking Latino farm workers, is not the answer," Solis said recently.
The foreign guest-worker revisions that Solis despises will take effect Jan. 18, two days before President-elect Barack Obama is sworn into office. Growers using the so-called H-2A program could in some cases pay lower wages and travel reimbursements for the 75,000 foreign-born farm workers recruited annually through the program.
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The guest-worker rules that consumed 154 pages in the Federal Register could take a long time to unwind, because of the administrative steps required, but they won't be the only farm worker-related part of the Labor Department portfolio.
If confirmed, for instance, the 51-year-old Solis will be in charge of the National Farmworker Jobs Program. This offers grants to organizations like the Visalia, Calif.,-based Proteus, which received $3.7 million for job training this year. She will also oversee funding for migrant and seasonal farm worker housing.
"We can help strengthen one of America's greatest assets, its labor force," Solis said at a news conference Friday, where Obama formally unveiled her as the nominee.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, raised in California's San Gabriel Valley, Solis said she will "work to strengthen our unions and support every American in our nation's diverse workforce." She delivered some of her remarks in Spanish.
As labor secretary, Solis will oversee the protection of child workers. She will maintain the list of banned farm labor contractors, which currently includes two from Stockton, two from Fresno and one each from Madera and Visalia. She will administer the wage-and-hour laws that, by some accounts, Bush administration officials have let slide.
"From 1997 to 2007, the number of (wage and hour) enforcement actions decreased by more than a third, from approximately 47,000 in 1997 to just under 30,000 in 2007," the non-partisan Government Accountability Office reported earlier this year.
The decline is even more pronounced in enforcement actions initiated by the Labor Department itself, rather than those initiated by an outside complaint. Labor Department-initiated enforcement actions fell from 16,502 in 1999 to 7,210 last year.
The Labor Department attributed the decline in part to a 20 percent reduction in the agency's investigative staff. The Labor Department also has been redirecting some of its efforts, significantly increasing the number of agriculture-related enforcement actions.
"We are pleased," Bruce Goldstein, executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, said Friday of the Solis nomination. "She has demonstrated a longtime interest in empowering migrant farm workers to improve their wages and working condition, and their health."
During her eight years in the House, Solis has heeded farm worker interests both substantively and symbolically.
In 2006, for instance, she signaled her sympathies by introducing a congressional resolution honoring United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. She introduced separate legislation honoring the late UFW President Cesar Chavez, through a study of adding lands associated with Chavez's work to the National Park Service system. President Bush signed the Chavez legislation last year.
Substantively, Solis earned a 100 percent vote rating from the AFL-CIO last year. Like most other House Democrats from California, she earned 0 vote rating from the National Council of Agricultural Employers.