New U.S labor secretary meets unionists in Miami

MIAMI, March 2 Tue Mar 3, 2009 3:05am GMT

MIAMI, March 2 (Reuters) - After just five days on the job, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis made her first public speech as a member of President Barack Obama's cabinet at an open meeting with labor unions on Monday and said "there's a new sheriff in town."

Solis, a California politician with a working class background and immigrant parents, has been welcomed by American labor unions that complain workers' rights were trampled and worker protection laws ignored during the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush.

Solis heard pleas for jobs, health care, education and better protection for workers from a teacher, a nurse and a painter at the forum, held at a church in Overtown, an inner-city community in Miami.

"My goal and my dream in this country is to have my own home," said the painter, Natanael Aburto, a 28-year-old immigrant from Nicaragua who supports a wife and two children. "But I'm afraid that tomorrow I might not have a job."

It was a common refrain in Miami, a city where employment boomed during the peak of the U.S. housing frenzy, but among the hardest hit in the collapse. Florida unemployment has doubled in the last two years, reaching around 8 percent.

Solis made no new pledges on job creation during the forum, which was arranged by the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation representing unions with 11 million members.

Its executive council is holding its annual meeting in Miami this week. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled to address the council on Thursday, the union said.

HEALTHCARE AND "GREEN" JOBS

But Solis reiterated the Obama administration's vow to pump money into healthcare and "green" jobs, and said she intended to enforce labor laws ignored in recent years.

"We're there to help provide protection for those in the workplace, our employees. So yes, I think you can rest assured there is a new sheriff in town," she said to raucous cheers from the crowd of about 400 mostly union members, some of whom waved signs reading "Time for Change."

She told the union members she would fully implement the Employee Free Choice Act if it becomes law. The union-backed measure would allow workers to organize a union by signing authorization cards instead of holding a formal vote.

Asked after the forum what kind of message she was sending to big business by making her first public appearance at a union meeting, Solis said she was not going to "go after" companies but vowed to work in partnership with them to help workers get good-paying jobs.

"If you take care of an employee, that employee will produce. Productivity by our workforce, especially union members, has increased," she said. "But we don't see the same value in terms of their wages going up. So there has to be some morality placed there."

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said unions have high hopes for the new secretary of labor.

"I say the same thing about the secretary as I have said about Barack Obama. I trust Barack Obama," he said. "I believe what he told us during the campaign are promises that he's going to stick to, whether it's healthcare, financial security, employee free choice, education. The list is long."

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