Patt Morrison Asks: U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis

Some employers would like to keep the cost of paying employees very low. I believe they're misusing the [visa] program if that's what their priority or objective is. These programs are not meant to supplant American workers. We have unemployed who can easily fit into some of these jobs or be retrained.We're making investments [in] that workforce that's available here.

What about the lower end of the wage spectrum, farm workers?

I'm not against implementing H-2A programs [which issue temporary visas for agricultural workers], but many people have abused this program. Our priority: to see if we can get U.S. workers who might want to take the jobs that pay $9, $10, $15 an hour. If not, then make sure the employer follows some guidelines: adequate transportation and decent housing. Before, they put 10 or 12 people in a shed. These things still happen today, and that's why we have to have good standards and rules and make sure contractors who bring in these folks aren't hurting farmers who are playing by the rules and paying the right wages. .

You come from a stalwart pro-union and pro-immigrant back-ground. I've read that Cesar Chavez complained that people coming here illegally were breaking strikes and undercutting the United Farm Workers' ability to negotiate.

I can understand. Undocumented dry-wall construction workers -- the employer's going to be able to pay them maybe $5 an hour as opposed to $11 or $12. I get that. I would rather have these people understand their rights, what the standard of pay should be. We have a lot of people here who remain in the shadows and don't understand there's a law that you have to be paid the minimum wage. We get these complaints all the time, not just in the field [but] the garment district, hotel, motel areas, and not just Latino but Asian.

When the economy's bad, someone's always willing to work for five cents less an hour.

Oh, it's not five cents, it's $5!

You had concerns years ago about NAFTA. Now Mexican trucks are getting long-haul access to the U.S. and the Teamsters have vigorously opposed that.

[Transportation Secretary] Ray LaHood is doing the right thing: Make sure we have safety and protection in place because the country is being penalized when we are not allowing for those goods and services to be transported. These were agreements signed by the previous administration, by the way.

What are you doing for Labor Day?

I'm going to be with the president in Detroit. It's my week!

In L.A. we say Latino. In D.C. they say Hispanic. Have you had any luck converting them?

Not all of them! The president, in his different speeches, he'll say Latino. As you know, a lot of good things start in California and L.A. and make their way [to Washington]!


This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of past interviews is at latimes.com/pattasks.
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