Labor secretary steps out in Wisconsin union fight

President Obama is staying mostly quiet about the union battle going on in Wisconsin. His labor secretary, Hilda Solis, is not. “The fight is on!” Solis told a cheering crowd at the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting over the weekend in Washington. Giving her support to “our brothers and sisters in public employee unions,” Solis pledged aid to unionized workers who are “under assault” in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

It's no surprise Solis sympathizes with the unions against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget reform proposal. After all, Solis often tells audiences how proud she is that her father was a Teamsters shop steward and her mother belonged to the United Steelworkers union. “Admittedly, I am a little biased,” she told the DNC, “because … I come from a union household.”

But is it the role of the secretary of labor to take sides in a fight that pits public employee union members against workers and taxpayers who support Walker's reforms? After all, the Labor Department mission statement says its purpose is “to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States.” It doesn't say anything about unionized wage earners, job seekers, and retirees.

“The Labor Department should not represent only that part of the work force that is unionized,” says Elaine Chao, labor secretary under George W. Bush. “It should be responsible for the overall welfare of the entire American work force.”

Solis' open advocacy for union protesters in Wisconsin appears at odds with the Obama administration's strategy to stay away from the conflict, at least in public statements. The president attracted some criticism when he said early in the standoff that Walker's plan was “an assault on unions.”

He has since been almost completely mute on the issue, although on Monday he told a meeting of the nation's governors that “I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon.”

Likewise, the DNC has tried to distance itself from early reports of involvement in the Wisconsin demonstrations. After first confirming those reports, the DNC has repeatedly said, as a spokesman did Monday, that “This is a story about the grass roots, not a story about what's going on in Washington.”

Solis, on the other hand, is speaking out loudly on behalf of the unions, and doing so in the frankly political atmosphere of a DNC meeting. Her remarks over the weekend instantly made her the most outspoken member of the Obama administration on the issue. But it turns out her Labor Department colleagues are not eager to discuss the secretary's position.

In response to an e-mail inquiry, department spokeswoman Evangelina Garcia directed any questions about Solis' speech to the DNC. When asked whether Solis was speaking in her role as labor secretary — after all, she began the relevant part of her DNC speech by saying, “As your secretary of labor, I've been following the developments in Wisconsin …” — Garcia did not respond.

Asked whether Solis supported the actions of Wisconsin Democratic state senators, who have fled the state to prevent a debate and vote on Walker's proposal, Garcia again did not respond. Later, another spokeswoman also directed inquiries to the DNC. Reached by phone, a DNC official said, “I'm going to let the speech speak for itself.” In other words, no comment all around.

The reticence at Labor reflects the fact that the Obama administration is trying to thread a particularly tiny needle in the Wisconsin controversy. Everyone knows the president and his administration are firmly behind the protesters; union support was critical to Obama's election in 2008 and will be critical to his re-election effort in 2012.

But we have just had an election in which voters nationwide sent the message that they want their public officials to do something about federal spending, and in Wisconsin in particular, voters concerned about spending elected a Republican governor, state Assembly and state Senate. The White House is in no mood to alienate all those voters, at least over Wisconsin.

So administration officials are trying a light touch. And so far, union leaders have cut them plenty of slack. When asked on NBC Sunday whether Obama should be doing more on the unions' behalf, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “I think he's doing it the right way.”

But Solis, passionate advocate for unions, apparently didn't get the memo. And from her, it appears, we are hearing the administration's true voice.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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