The Obama administration is winning cheers from labor unions for proposals to increase spending and staffing at the Labor Dept. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis says the department will toughen enforcement of labor laws and is requesting funds in fiscal year 2010 to add 670 investigators, inspectors and other staff.

Speaking on May 18 before a friendly audience at the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept. legislative conference, Solis said the administration believes the government has a fundamental responsibility to protect workers from unsafe workplaces and “unjust” labor practices. “You better believe there’s a new sheriff in town,” she said.

Solis told a House appropriations subcommittee on May 12 that Labor is seeking to boost the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget by about 10% in 2010, to $563.6 million. The increase would include money for 130 more OSHA safety and health inspectors and 20 new full-time slots in OSHA’s rule-making office.

If Congress agrees to the administration’s budget proposal, it also would fund 288 new positions at Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. In addition, its Office of Federal Contract Compliance would see a boost in the number of compliance officers and other field staffers.

She also noted President Oba-ma’s executive order to encourage agencies to consider requiring project labor agreements on major federal construction projects. That overturned a Bush administration ban on PLAs.

On the legislative front, unions’ top priority is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for them to organize non-union companies. BCTD President Mark H. Ayers calls the legislative fight “the most important battle we’ve faced since common situs picketing in the 1970s.”

In 2007, during the last Congress, the Employee Free Choice bill cleared the House but was blocked in the Senate. The measure, which critics call the “card check” bill, was reintroduced in the House and Senate in March. No votes have occurred yet. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told building trades’ meeting attendees the chamber would be able to pass the bill at any time.