Labor Secretary Hilda Solis Recounts Sobering History in Defense of Unions

The Labor Secretary doesn't shy away from calling out the anti-immigrant fervor of today's anti-labor landscape.

By Jamilah King Mar 22, 2011

In case you missed it, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis penned an op-ed in the Washington Post last week on the utility and importance of collective bargaining. Solis uses the upcoming 100 year anniversary of deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed nearly 200 Italian girls and women as a reminder that so-called "entitlements" like collective bargaining have come at a steep price in America’s labor history.

It’s an important statement given the recent anti-union attacks that have pockmarked the national political landscape, and the Obama administration’s relative silence on the issue. She compares the Triangle disaster to her moment of political awakening in 1995, when she encountered a Southern California sweatshop. As Solis recalls it, the so-called factory confiscated the passports of 75 Thai immigrants and forced them to work, eat, and sleep in the factory where they made name-brand clothing for less than $2 a day.

I met them shortly after they were freed and heard their stories. And at that moment, the unthinkable became real for me. I had assumed that sweatshops were a thing of the past. But they had just spread — from Perkins’s New York City to my Los Angeles, from the Italian and Eastern European immigrants victimized in her day to the Asian and Latino immigrants victimized in mine.

Later, she narrows in on her point:

Collective bargaining still means a seat at the table to discuss issues such as working conditions, workplace safety and workplace innovation, empowering individuals to do the best job they can. And it means dignity and a chance for Americans to earn a better life, whether they work in sewing factories or mines, build tall buildings or care for our neighbors, teach our children, or run into burning buildings when others run out of them.

What’s most interesting about Solis’s piece is that she doesn’t shy away from calling out the anti-immigrant and highly racialized elements of today’s anti-labor climate. Last month, during Arizona’s latest round of anti-immigrant legislative attacks, Elizabeth Barajas-Román of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health told our gender columnist Akiba Solomon that such harsh bills create a climate of fear in immigrant communities:

[Undocumented] female immigrants are already forced to work in industries that are undervalued, underpaid and hazardous to their health.They often lack basic worker protections and health and unemployment benefits. SB 1611 would force them into the shadows even more."

And we we’ve seen in Arizona, that climate can turn deadly.