WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden on Friday introduced Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh as his nominee for Labor secretary and Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo as his choice to head the Commerce Department, saying they would be part of an economic team tasked with mitigating the devastating impact of the pandemic on American workers and businesses.
The nominations came as the federal government reported the nation lost 140,000 jobs last month, the first decline since May, as coronavirus cases and deaths have surged.
“The anxiety and fear of the women and men out there reminds me of when President Obama and I were sworn in during the Great Recession in 2009,” Biden said at a Wilmington, Del., news conference, as he urged quick Senate confirmation of all his Cabinet picks. “With the pandemic raging, people are losing work and losing hope.”
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris appeared in Wilmington alongside Walsh, Raimondo, and Isabel Guzman, a former Obama administration official nominated to head the Small Business Administration. They will join an economic team that also includes Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen and others who Biden said would be focused on rebuilding unions after four years of hard-fought confrontations with the Trump administration.
Among his priorities are increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and aiding small businesses — particularly those owned by women and Black, Asian, Latino, and Native American people — that have been hurt by an unequal distribution of resources under previous pandemic stimulus aid packages.
Biden described Walsh, 53, and Raimondo, 49, as skilled economic leaders who hailed from immigrant and working-class families and rose through the ranks through sacrifice and hard work after overcoming hardships. He said he gave “serious consideration” to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for the Labor post, but the two decided not to put the fate of Democratic control of the Senate in jeopardy.
Biden called Walsh, a Boston Democrat in his second term as mayor, “a good friend and a standup guy.”
“I know him. Tough as nails,” Biden said, listing some of Walsh’s life milestones: He was diagnosed with cancer at age 7, beat it at 11, and joined the Laborers Union Local 223 at 21. He graduated from college at age 42 after he was elected to the state Legislature and became union president.
Biden said Walsh understood the importance of unions and how their workers keep the nation running.
“They deserve a secretary of Labor who knows how to build their power as workers, who knows that when I say our future will be made in America, it will be a future built by American workers — a future with historic investments in infrastructure, clean energy, manufacturing, and so much more,” Biden said.
If confirmed as expected, Walsh will oversee federal labor laws, workers compensation, and workplace health and safety for more than 150 million workers. Accepting the nomination, he pledged “to put power back into the hands of working people,” defending workers’ rights, strengthening collective bargaining, and boosting union membership.
Walsh described American workers as feeling the crippling impact of the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis, which have wracked cities like Boston. But he stressed that working people have been struggling for a long time, under deep inequalities of race, gender, and class and an erosion of their rights under the outgoing administration.
“For the last four years, they’ve been under assault — from attacks on their rights, their livelihoods, and the unions that built the middle class,” he said.
Walsh also paid tribute to his parents, who came to the United States as immigrants from Connemara, Ireland, and raised him and his brother, John, “with dignity and security in the multiethnic, multiracial, working-class neighborhood of Dorchester.”
“All they brought with them were willing hands, honest hearts — and hope for the American dream,” he said. “But that’s all they needed — because my father joined the Laborer’s Union in Boston.”
By following in his father’s footsteps, Walsh said, he “learned what it took to turn an honest day’s work into an honest day’s pay,” and saw the impact of “fighting for good jobs, good benefits, and safe workplaces.”
“The word ‘labor’ means everything to me,” he said.
Raimondo, Rhode Island’s first female governor, also paid tribute to her working-class roots, saying her grandfather came to the United States on a boat when he was 14 years old, learned English at the Providence Public Library, and started a family — “the first chapter of a new American story.”
“I was the youngest of three kids — there were six of us, including my grandfather, living in a small house and sharing one bathroom,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot, but we had everything we needed. Until one day, my dad came home, and told us that the factory was going to close.”
Raimondo, a former venture capitalist, will take over a department that handles business relations, tech policy, and the gathering of economic data, among other responsibilities.
A pro-business, moderate Democrat, she has been criticized by some on the left for her Wall Street ties and efforts to overhaul the state’s pension system. But she’s been credited with a dramatic reduction in the state’s unemployment rate before the pandemic struck.
“We invested in our people, in their skills, their opportunities, and their dreams,” Raimondo said. “We helped new businesses launch and we sparked others to hire and grow responsibly. That’s the same vision, the same faith, in American workers, in American entrepreneurs, that I see in the Build Back Better agenda.”
On Friday, Biden also touted the diversity of his Cabinet, saying it will be the first ever that is evenly composed of women and men and the first ever with a majority of people of color. It also includes the first woman Treasury secretary, the first Black Defense secretary, the first openly gay Cabinet member, and the first Native American Cabinet secretary, among other historic appointments.
Yet, Walsh’s nomination had been tied up as congressional Democrats pressured Biden to pick an Asian American or Pacific Islander Cabinet secretary.
The Biden team has three AAPI members in Cabinet-level positions: Harris, Katherine Tai as US trade representative, and Neera Tanden as head of the Office of Management and Budget. But no APPI members are represented among the 15 nominees for secretaries who serve as heads of executive branch departments.
The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus had pushed for California Labor Secretary Julie Su for the post Walsh got. On Friday, Representative Judy Chu of California called Biden’s decision not to pick an AAPI secretary “incredibly disheartening.”
“The glaring omission of an AAPI Cabinet Secretary in the self-declared ‘most diverse Cabinet in history’ is not lost on us and sends a demoralizing message to our nation’s fastest growing racial group and voting bloc that AAPIs do not need to be counted the same as other key constituency groups,” she said in a statement.
But she said it was important to work with the Biden-Harris administration regardless given the crises facing the nation and President Trump’s efforts to undermine democracy.
California Representative Mark Takano, second vice chairman of the Asian Pacific American caucus, said he and caucus members were ready to work with Walsh on issues such overtime pay, fair wages, workers’ organizing rights, and protections for immigrant workers. Ultimately, he added, there is minimal difference between Su’s and Walsh’s progressive credentials.
“I know that Marty Walsh is going to be an excellent Labor secretary for all working people,” Takano said.