The Senate on Monday confirmed Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh to be labor secretary, continuing a remarkable rise for the former union construction worker that has taken him from a triple-decker in Dorchester to the State House, City Hall, and now a presidential Cabinet position in Washington overseeing federal laws covering the nation’s workers and employers.
After seven years as mayor, Walsh, 53, officially resigned at 9 p.m. Monday. Kim Janey, who was Boston City Council president, took over as acting mayor until an election in November, making history as the first Black person and first woman to hold the job. Janey has not said if she will run for a full four-year term in a race that already features five major candidates, including three of her council colleagues.
“I’ve spent my entire career fighting for working people and I’m eager to continue that fight in Washington,” Walsh said at a farewell news conference at Faneuil Hall in which he became emotional at times while reflecting on his tenure as mayor.
“For a kid who grew up on Taft Street in Dorchester, from a family whose parents … immigrated to this country, being elected mayor of Boston was a dream for me,” he said. “I am proud of what we’ve been able to do together over the last seven years in moving our city forward.”
Now, Walsh will travel to Washington Tuesday to be sworn in as labor secretary.
The 68-29 Senate vote came after weeks of delays as Republicans slowed the confirmation process for some of President Biden’s Cabinet nominees, although Walsh drew significant GOP support. He is the final department secretary to be confirmed and his influence at the White House is likely to be enhanced by his longtime relationship with Biden.
“Because he’s a friend of Joe Biden, he’s going to have a higher standing at the Cabinet table and at the White House with the president,” Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions, said in an interview. “We’re really excited about him being there, about everything we can get done.”
Much of that excitement is because Walsh is a union man himself.
At 21, he became a laborer in the same Boston union as his father and uncle. Walsh rose to become president of Laborers’ Union Local 223 as well as head of the Boston Building Trades Council, an umbrella group of 20 construction unions. He will be the first former union leader to serve as labor secretary since 1977.
Walsh has spoken passionately about the importance of unions in his life. He said his parents, who emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s, got their ticket to the middle class when his father joined the laborers union. It helped ensure fair wages, a safe workplace, and a pension. It also provided the health insurance Walsh needed to get treatment for cancer when he was 7 years old and for alcoholism in his 20s.
“Workers protection, equal access to good jobs, the right to join a union, continuing education and job training, access to mental health and substance use treatment, these are not just policies to me,” Walsh told senators at his confirmation hearing last month. “I live them. Millions of American families right now need them. I’ve spent my entire career at different levels fighting for them.”
Robert Martinez Jr., president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said his union is looking forward to a “worker-friendly” Labor Department under Walsh.
“Marty’s character will uplift the plight of working men and women throughout our nation and provide the necessary safety measures that allow them to return home at night,” Martinez said. He cited Walsh’s public support for unionized bus maintenance workers in 2017 when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was looking to privatize much of the work.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said Walsh will provide a needed change in leadership at the department, which under the Trump administration “too often sided with corporate America.”
In Walsh, “American workers will finally have one of their own leading the Department of Labor, someone from working America who will fight for working America,” said Schumer, Democrat of New York.
Walsh and Biden share a reverence for the organized labor movement. And it has provided strong political support for both of them, helping Walsh become mayor and Biden win the presidency.
“Marty understands like I do that the middle class built this country and unions built the middle class,” Biden said in introducing Walsh as his nominee on Jan. 8.
Biden made the pick despite pressure from some congressional Democrats to choose California’s labor secretary, Julie Su, so an Asian American or Pacific Islander would be among the 15 secretaries that serve as heads of executive branch departments. But unions pushed hard for Walsh. Biden nominated Su to be deputy labor secretary and her confirmation is pending.
Trumka described Walsh as “a blue-collar guy who grew up in a triple-decker in Boston and he never forgot that.”
“I think Marty’s going to be an exceptional labor secretary for the same reason he was an outstanding mayor, because he carried the tools. He’s a union member and he knows that collective bargaining is essential to building back better,” Trumka said, referencing Biden’s slogan for moving beyond the pandemic.
Some Republicans expressed concerns that Walsh would favor organized labor. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said he opposed Walsh’s confirmation because “the Biden administration has already signaled they will ask him to implement a variety of policies that do not serve the long-term interests of a majority of workers.”
“Pro-worker prosperity does not entail having big-government politicians or big-labor bosses micromanage every aspect of the economy to suit liberal fads,” McConnell said Monday.
But Walsh also built a reputation as Boston’s mayor for balancing the needs of workers and businesses. He touted that collaborative approach in his confirmation hearing and it helped him win the votes of 18 Republican senators. Richard Burr of North Carolina was one of them, and he took to the Senate floor on Monday and urged his fellow Republicans to confirm Walsh.
“Now why is a guy from North Carolina here to encourage my colleagues to vote for the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts?” said Burr, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “Well, it’s quite simple: Mayor Walsh has the background, the skills, and the awareness for the need of balance in conversations between labor and management.”
One of Walsh’s first orders of business will be related to the pandemic.
Biden has directed the Labor Department to consider whether new nationwide rules are needed to safeguard workers from COVID-19 and, if so, to issue them. The measures, which could include requiring employers to provide high-quality masks and air-filtration systems, would be enforced by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Biden set a March 15 deadline, but OSHA is still working on the matter. Walsh is expected to issue new rules and follow-up with tough enforcement.
“He’s been a real champion of workers’ safety because in the end what the president knows and what Marty Walsh knows is if you want to reopen the economy you have to protect workers at work,” said Deborah Berkowitz, a top OSHA official during the Obama administration who now heads the Worker Health and Safety Program at the National Employment Law Project. She worked with Walsh in 2016 on a Boston ordinance he proposed after a deadly construction accident. The measure allows city officials to deny, revoke, or suspend a permit for any contractor with a poor worker safety record.
Anthony DeMaio, a lobbyist with consulting firm ML strategies, said Walsh will need to rebuild the department’s ability to enforce labor laws through OSHA and the Wage and Hour Division, which ensures workers receive the pay they are owed. Enforcement staff shrunk during the Trump administration.
“Challenge number one is the pandemic, and challenge number two, which also is immediate, is restoring credibility and confidence in the Labor Department, particularly in enforcement,” DeMaio said. “If you listen to the critics, OSHA’s like a punchline the last few years. There’s no teeth to it.”
Walsh also will play an important role in pushing some of Biden’s top priorities, including advocating for Congress to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 and helping transition workers to clean energy jobs to fight climate change.
“He’s got a full plate, and it goes beyond the pandemic,” DeMaio said.