Former congresswoman Hilda Solis returned to California on March 16 in her new role as US Secretary of Labor—and the state’s union leaders loved every minute of it. Solis was greeted as a hero during her appearance at the Legislative Conference of the California Labor Federation, attended by IBEW Local 1245 President Mike Davis and Vice President Art Freitas.
“She said there was a ‘new sheriff in town’ and she talked about enforcement of labor laws,” said Davis. “We haven’t had much enforcement for eight years.”
The need for stronger unions, and stronger enforcement of labor laws, was made very clear on March 24 when the Government Accountability Office released a new report charging that the Labor Department regularly fails to protect workers who say their bosses are cheating them on overtime pay and other wage issues. The GAO probe said agency officials often took too long to respond to complaints, failed to record them and, in one instance, lied about investigative work that was never performed.
To test the agency’s intake process, GAO investigators posed as workers or companies on 10 occasions. The Labor Department mishandled nine out of 10 fake complaints.
In one of the fictitious complaints, a meatpacker reported children using heavy machinery at a California company. But four months later, officials had not begun to investigate and never even recorded the complaint in a database, as required, according to the GAO, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.
Freitas said the speakers at the conference were optimistic about prospects for change under Solis. “Finally we have backers of labor in California and Washington and it is now our turn to make sure we get the things done for the working families, whose situation has eroded over the past 8 years,” said Freitas.
Employee Free Choice Act Art
Conference speakers made it clear, said Freitas, that union members can make a real difference right now by pressing Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the right to have a union when a majority say in writing that they want one.
“We should be working hard to make sure this gets to the President for his signature,” said Freitas.
Prospects for the Employee Free Choice Act are excellent in the US House of Representatives, where it passed by a large margin in the last sessions of Congress. But it hangs by a thread in the US Senate, where 60 votes are required to end debate and bring the measure to a vote. On March 24, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—a Republican who has previously tilted in support of Employee Free Choice—announced that he would not support the bill in this session of Congress. This setback added new urgency to labor’s efforts to keep California Senator Dianne Feinstein from turning her back on the bill. Like Specter, Feinstein supported the measure in the past but has recently begun to waffle on the issue.
Davis, Freitas and other union members were treated to a high-power line-up of speakers at the Legislative Conference, including Darrell Steinberg, Senate President Pro Tem; Karen Bass, Assembly Speaker; and State Controller John Chiang. Workshop of particular interest to IBEW were “Renewable Portfolio Standards and Green Energy” and “Federal Stimulus Package and how it relates to Energy,” said Freitas, who also attended a hearing by the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications regarding what the federal stimulus package will bring to California.