By  on February 25, 2009

WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Rep. Hilda Solis (D., Calif.) as President Obama’s secretary of labor on Tuesday after overcoming opposition from Republicans, who were concerned with her connections to organized labor.

The 80 to 17 vote makes Solis, the daughter of a Mexican father and Nicaraguan mother, the first Latina ever elected to the cabinet position. As labor secretary, Solis will enforce wage, hour and worker-safety laws, such as overtime and minimum wage. She will oversee an agency of 17,000 full-time employees with an annual budget of $53 billion.

Solis’ confirmation ran into opposition from Republicans at a Senate committee hearing in January when some senators raised issues about her serving on the board of the pro-labor America Rights at Work and her support of a controversial bill that would make it easier for workers to form a union, known as the Employee Free Choice Act.

Her confirmation was further delayed after revelations her husband had recently settled liens filed against his auto repair business in California. But Solis was ultimately able to overcome the obstacles.

Solis was elected to the House in 2000 and is a proponent of increasing the minimum wage, having spearheaded the effort in California as a state senator to raise the state’s minimum wage to $5.75 from $4.25 an hour in 1996.

She also has ties to sweatshop issues in the apparel industry. As a California state senator in 1995, she represented the city of El Monte, which was the center of one of the most egregious sweatshop abuse cases in the U.S. apparel industry.

Solis led hearings on the El Monte case, in which federal officials uncovered more than 70 Thai immigrants working in virtual slavery sewing clothing for several U.S. apparel brands. The case spawned a national movement against apparel sweatshop abuses headed by then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich in the Clinton administration.

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