As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the economy, with job losses mounting, work norms upended, and employees fearful for their safety, the country’s next labor secretary will be thrust into the spotlight as never before.
President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to be the strongest labor president in American history, and as his pick for the crucial Cabinet position, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh could significantly improve the lives of working people across the country. He’s poised to lead the charge in restoring rules rolled back by the Trump administration, which steered employment regulations toward corporate interests, and to push for new safety regulations and other benefits for a workforce that has been battered by the coronavirus.
As part of the National Economic Council, Walsh could even extend his influence beyond the Department of Labor to address child care, early education, racial inequities, and other matters closely tied to the workforce that the pandemic has thrown into disarray.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan,” unveiled Thursday, includes a number of worker-focused provisions, including increasing federal unemployment benefits to $400 a week and extending them through September, mandating paid sick and family medical leaves, boosting funding for child care, and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
At a time when the weaknesses of the country’s workplaces have been exposed, the labor secretary could be an architect of major change. Whether Walsh, a veteran of old-school labor activism before becoming mayor in 2014, will take on the monumental task of modernizing decades-old labor laws, and has the support to make it happen, remains to be seen.
Walsh is uniquely suited to speak to the many concerns raised by labor organizations, business groups, and worker advocates. Unlike many other Democratic leaders, he has blue-collar roots as a laborer and head of the Building and Construction Trades Council, a working-class background that could appeal to disaffected Trump supporters. As a leader of notoriously conservative construction unions, he created a progressive program to employ more low-income women and people of color. And as mayor, he won over business groups skeptical of his labor advocacy while providing job training and financial coaching for low-income residents, supporting efforts to reduce the gender wage gap, and declaring racism to be a public health crisis in Boston.
Walsh is also a longtime friend of Biden’s, positioning him to be an influential adviser, buoyed by Democrats controlling the House and Senate.
But the challenges he — and, ultimately, Biden — face are daunting. Even before the pandemic, income inequality was soaring, with earnings rising much more quickly at the top. And now nearly 16 percent of workers are either unemployed or working fewer hours than they were before, many of them Black and Latino, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Essential employees at nursing homes, grocery stores, and other public-facing workplaces have been dealing with shortages of protective gear and a lack of federal COVID-specific safety regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a Labor Department agency charged with enforcing workplace safety laws, has issued citations for coronavirus-related violations from 300 inspections, out of more than 12,000 complaints made to the agency, causing former OSHA chief David Michaels and others to repeatedly declare the agency “missing in action.”
The Trump administration has shifted power toward employers — relaxing joint employment designations for companies that use subcontractors, clarifying a rule to expand employers’ ability to classify workers as independent contractors, and making it more difficult for salaried employees to earn overtime pay, in addition to issuing executive orders that weaken federal workers unions. And this adds to the uphill battle Walsh faces, labor authorities say.
“The problems are huge,” said John Logan, chair of the labor and employment studies department at San Francisco State University. “It would have been a tough job anyway, but you combine this neglect and the deliberate . . . sort of running [labor] agencies into the ground that took place during the Trump administration, you combine that with the incredible importance that we have in protecting workers from COVID . . . It’s an enormous job.”
Walsh was not available to comment. He’s expected to appear before a Senate committee considering his nomination in the coming weeks.
It has been nearly 50 years since the country had a labor secretary with union ties: Peter Brennan, a housepainter turned labor leader who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. A number of progressive unions whose political leanings don’t often align with those of construction labor groups endorsed Walsh for the post, and this crossover appeal could help the Biden administration gain support from both sides of the aisle.
“What strikes me as important about the Walsh choice is that it’s somebody with a clear commitment to the labor movement and the importance of unions and the importance of worker power, and that’s not always true about Labor secretaries, even Democratic ones,” said Benjamin Sachs, a labor professor at Harvard Law School.
But with only slight Democratic majorities in Congress and a deeply divided country, Walsh may not be able to make the kind of historic changes made by fellow Boston-born Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who served under Franklin D. Roosevelt and helped draft the Social Security Act, supervised the Fair Labor Standards Act, and successfully pushed to establish a minimum wage, maximum work week, limits on employing children, and unemployment compensation.
“It’s not FDR time,” noted Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Clinton and a professor at the University of California Berkeley.
But expectations are high.
During the presidential campaign, Biden laid out a plan to protect essential workers, including establishing rules requiring employers to control the spread of infectious diseases and doubling the number of OSHA investigators. And workplace safety advocates note that Walsh’s background in construction makes him well suited to dealing with occupational hazards. During the pandemic, Walsh “set the highest standards for worker protections in the nation,” according to the head of the Greater Boston Labor Council, Darlene Lombos, including establishing emergency child care for essential workers and meeting with unions about safety protocols.
Boston labor leaders also praise Walsh for cracking down on wage theft and convening a task force to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“It’s a world of difference from where we were under Trump,” said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, who served in President Obama’s Department of Labor. “I mean, that’s the lowest bar imaginable, but [Walsh] will prioritize workers over corporate executives and shareholders, which was the absolute opposite under Trump.”
Walsh has also demonstrated a commitment to addressing income inequities by strengthening and implementing programs to help get people of color and former offenders into the workforce, creating the Office of Financial Empowerment to help low-income Bostonians find better jobs and launching free salary-negotiation workshops for women. In his final State of the City address on Tuesday, he called fighting racism “our deepest moral obligation.”
Walsh, whose parents came from Ireland, has also been a strong supporter of immigrants, opening the doors of City Hall and his own office to people fearing deportation.
“Someone who is labor secretary in 2021 will have to incorporate the rights of immigrant workers in their agenda, or they’re not relevant,” said Mark Erlich, former head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters.
Walsh has plenty of detractors, on both the left and the right. Some local labor activists say he hasn’t done enough to address racial injustice, noting the gentrification and high rate of displacement in Boston’s communities of color. The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington has expressed concern that Walsh will put union interests first. And Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, Republican leader of the Committee on Education and Labor, said in a statement that she is concerned “the Department of Labor under Walsh will crush our economic recovery by strangling business owners with an onslaught of job-killing regulations.”
Logan, the San Francisco State labor professor, noted there is skepticism of “this white guy from the building trades who got the job because of his relationship with another white guy who’s president.” But given Democrats’ difficulty connecting with white working-class voters, having Walsh as the face of the Labor Department could help. “I think Marty Walsh is seen as someone who comes from the same universe as those people,” he said.
Still, the challenges facing Walsh are formidable. What vision he ends up bringing and the changes he can enact are very much up in the air.
“I hope he has it in him,” Reich said. “The American workforce desperately needs a secretary of Labor who’s going to take all this on.”