Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh cruised through his labor secretary confirmation hearing Thursday, calling for protecting workers, particularly those on the front lines of the pandemic, while pledging to collaborate not only with businesses and employees but with Republicans in Congress.
“If confirmed, you and the American people are going to get 100 percent out of me each and every day, and the American people are made up of workers, of businesses, of industry,” he told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee during the 2½-hour hearing. “If we advance the American worker, we’re advancing the American economy.”
Democrats praised Walsh for his background as a former union president — he’ll be the first labor secretary in decades with that — and talked of a shift to more worker-friendly policies after four years of the Trump administration. Republicans raised no serious objections and indicated they expected the nomination would be approved.
Walsh expressed strong support for key Democratic priorities, including passing legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and strengthening the rights of workers to organize, as well as establishing stronger temporary workplace safety standards because of COVID-19 through the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“During this pandemic, Mayor Walsh has . . . continued to show a deep commitment to the front-line workers who have kept this country running, by providing funding for emergency child care and other resources essential workers need to weather this pandemic,” said Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington and the committee’s chairwoman. “It is clear Mayor Walsh has the right experience, leadership, and priorities to protect workers during this critical moment. "
Walsh made a point of thanking those essential workers, specifically pointing to grocery store employees, nurses, ambulance drivers, and custodians.
“If I don’t protect those workers, if we don’t protect those workers, then I don’t have a right to be sitting in that seat,” he said of the labor secretary position. “And those are my people.”
Walsh, 53, was nominated to head a Cabinet department with a broad portfolio, including overseeing federal laws covering overtime, workers’ compensation, and workplace health and safety for more than 150 million workers. A longtime friend of President Biden, Walsh will play an important role in pushing some of the administration’s top priorities, including transitioning workers to clean energy jobs to fight climate change.
Some Republicans sparred lightly with Walsh on the minimum wage, union organizing, and the loss of jobs from Biden’s decision to revoke the permit for construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s top Republican, told Walsh that the country “can never afford to have a labor secretary that will ever be accused of being in cahoots with union bosses or beholden just to management.”
Senator Roger Marshall, a Republican from Kansas, tried to lay a trap for Walsh on the $15 minimum wage, asking the cost of the last cup of coffee he bought in Boston. But Walsh appeared to surprise him.
“The last cup of coffee I paid for in Boston was probably at Doughboy Donuts and I think it was $1.75,” Walsh said, referring to the South Boston shop. Marshall responded, “That’s a good deal,” but continued to make his point that the cost of living is much higher in Boston than in his state.
“If you want $15 an hour in Boston, knock your socks off, but in Kansas that would be a pretty big . . . job-killing wage,” Marshall said. Walsh reiterated his support for the $15 minimum wage, but noted that Congress will make the decision.
No Republican signaled opposition and most said they looked forward to working with Walsh, an acknowledgment that the narrow Senate Democratic majority can confirm him without their support. Burr said at the end of the hearing that he would work with Murray to expedite Walsh’s confirmation. Murray said she intended to schedule a committee vote “as quickly as possible.”
If approved as expected, Walsh’s nomination would head to a vote by the full Senate. It’s unclear when that would take place because several Cabinet nominees are ahead of Walsh in the process and the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, set to begin Tuesday, will take up much of the Senate’s time for a week or longer.
Walsh avoided one potential problem. The hearing came the morning after he put newly appointed Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White on leave and announced the city would hire an outside group to investigate after the Globe made inquiries about a 1999 allegation of domestic violence involving White. Although Walsh touted his experience running the city, no senators asked him about it Thursday. But the issue could arise as his nomination moves forward.
Since he was nominated early last month, Walsh has been doing virtual outreach to Democrat and Republican senators. Heading into the hearing, he had connected with 23 senators, including 16 members of the committee, according to a person involved with his preparations.
Walsh told the committee that his background, including the role unions have played in his life, has shaped his “understanding of the struggles working people and families face each and every day.”
He said his parents, who emigrated from Ireland, were able to achieve the American dream because his father joined the laborers union, Local 223 in Boston. When Walsh was diagnosed with cancer as a 7-year-old, he was able to beat it because of the health insurance that came with his father’s job. And that same health insurance when Walsh was a member of the union in his 20s provided him with treatment for alcoholism.
Walsh later became president of the local, and then headed up the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council.
Those experiences “inform my deep beliefs in the work of the Department of Labor” to protect all workers and ensure equal access to good jobs, including the right to join a union and collectively bargain, he said.
“These are not just policies to me. I’ve lived them,” Walsh said. “Millions of American families right now need them. And I’ve spent my entire career at different levels fighting for them.”
Walsh was introduced at the hearing by Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“After four years of a Trump Labor Department that did its best to undermine workers, Marty will be a secretary of labor who actually supports labor,” she said.
Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.