Hilda Solis Resignation Means Diversity Problems in Obama's Cabinet

In a surprising move, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has resigned her position. Solis made her decision after her Christmas vacation at home in Los Angeles, California. She said, “After much discussion with family and close friends, I have decided to begin a new future, and return to the people and places I love and that have inspired and shaped my life.”

Solis was the first Hispanic woman to serve as a regular U.S. cabinet secretary, and the first cabinet secretary of Central American descent. She also became the first Hispanic secretary of labor. Solis’ resignation leaves a big hole to fill in the Obama cabinet. Solis was a triple threat of diversity support, representing three central groups in Obama’s coalition – Hispanics, women of color and big labor. Her resignation couldn’t have a come at a worse time for Obama. Replacing her with someone who appeals to the coalition of Hispanics, women, women of color and big labor will not be easy.

Obama announced that immigration reform was a top priority for 2013, and that he would introduce reform legislation this year. To be meaningful, immigration reform has to include some elements of labor reform, notably a guest worker program and an immigration employee verification program, e.g. eVerify. Solis’ extensive and deep relationship with big labor unions like the AFL-CIO and SEIU would have been critical to raising support for the effort.

Solis was known to be a friend and huge supporter of labor unions. AFL-CIO Richard Trumka has stated Solis is “on the side of working families.” Furthermore, she “talks tough and acts tough on enforcement, workplace safety, wage and hour violations and so many other vital services.”  The Service Employees International Union called her “an unwavering supporter of workers’ rights and ... the embodiment of the type of public servant that our country needs.” Her resignation comes at a time when collective bargaining rights and big labor's influence is beginning to wane in America. Wisconsin and Michigan are two states that have recently enacted legislation reducing the role of unions and making it more difficult for people to join and fund unions. Fox News reported “Organized labor viewed Solis as a determined advocate for measures making it easier to boost union membership by giving employees the right to sign union cards to form unions instead of holding secret ballot elections.”

Solis is the third high-ranking woman to resign her position, following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson. Obama’s administration has been touted for its diversity, particularly in his appointment of qualified women. His first term administration was the most diverse in history; about 43% of his appointments have been women, not including two Supreme Court justices.

However, his second term appointees are shaping up to be an all-male club and that has drawn some criticism. Critics have pointed out that Obama is a “guy’s guy,” enjoying basketball and golf which makes it difficult for women to join his intimate circle and develop a personal relationship with the president outside of the office.

So far, Obama has named three men to replace outgoing senior officials – John Kerry (secretary of state), Chuck Hagel (secretary of defense) and John Brennan (CIA director). A fourth, Jack Lew, is expected to be named secretary of the Treasury. That means there will be no women in the line of succession to the presidency, and no women in the big four secretarial posts of State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice (Eric Holder).

Obama’s appointments at Labor and the EPA will be under heavy scrutiny by the coalition that sent a record number of women to Congress. Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, explained, “It is concerning at a time when you have a gender gap that put (Obama) over the top, and that gap was a diverse gender gap.”

In announcing her resignation, Solis reminded the president what she represented in his administration. “As the daughter of [Mexican-American] parents, who worked in factories, paid their union dues and achieved their goal of a middle class life and as the first Latina to head a major federal agency, it has been an incredible honor to serve.”

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