A recent article in the New York Times looks into the life and history of Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, the first Hispanic woman to serve in the president’s cabinet. The article begins with a quote from the speech she gave at Hunter College’s commencement in Manhattan:
Hilda L. Solis often recalls some advice her high school guidance counselor gave her mother: “Your daughter is not college material. Maybe she should follow the career of her older sister and become a secretary.”
Telling that story recently at the Hunter College commencement in Manhattan, Ms. Solis roared into the microphone that she, the daughter of immigrants, did become a secretary — the nation’s labor secretary. The crowd thundered with applause.
Ms. Solis’s life seems to have prepared her perfectly for this position, and she is confident to take it on.
Growing up as one of seven children, the daughter of two hardworking parents, and witnessing poor working conditions and worker treatment made Solis an ally for labor from the very start. Her mother worked in a toy factory, and her father worked in a battery recycling plant where he contracted lead poisoning. Both her parents complained about conditions and worked hard to improve them.
“My father spoke to management and fought for the workers’ health and safety,” she said. “That is something I bring to the Department of Labor. Those values my father shared with me.”
Her mother, an immigrant from Nicaragua who often stood 10 hours a day at the toy factory, was so outspoken about working conditions that she would have been fired if the union had not protected her, Ms. Solis said.
She has since committed her life to advocating for immigrants, workers, minorities, and women. She was the first Latina senator in the California State Senate when she was elected in 1994. Six years later, she became the first woman to receive the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Foundation for her landmark environmental legislation. She had been raised in a small town outside Los Angles burdened by the smell of the eight landfills nearby and the Superfund site. She boldly sponsored a bill requiring the EPA to exercise fair treatment towards people of different races and incomes with respect to environmental laws.
Her life and her career have been marked by dedication, commitment, and hard work. Her plans for improvements to the Labor Department include better follow up on complaints of minimum wage, overtime, and child labor violations; hiring 250 more investigators; and better outreach to workers so they are aware of their rights and employers know their obligations.
“There are so many people I knew when I was growing up who were not even paid the minimum wage,” Ms. Solis said. “People wouldn’t know where to go to lodge a complaint. And if you didn’t speak good English, forget it.”
All workers, men and women, can be hopeful that the issues that matter to them will be addressed and more effective programs will be developed during Secretary Solis’s tenure.