Joe Biden has vowed to be “the most pro-union president” and helped back that up by choosing Martin J. Walsh, a former union leader, as labor secretary. But some progressives aren’t happy with Biden’s pick for another job — this one a labor policy position inside the White House — that is filled by a Washington veteran who they said brings troubling baggage on the key issue of expanding protections to gig economy workers.
Seth Harris, who spent a dozen years in the Labor Department and served as acting secretary for six months in the Barack Obama administration, was named in February as deputy assistant to the president for labor and economy. He was the principal labor policy adviser to Biden’s campaign and reportedly was a leading candidate for labor secretary. Union leaders who’ve known Harris for years have publicly supported the choice.
“He believes fundamentally in the power of workers’ voices, and in making workplaces stronger through unions and collective bargaining,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
But the appointment has raised alarms in parts of the progressive community because of work by Harris in recent years that they consider unfriendly to organized labor, particularly coauthoring a 2015 paper that factored into a rollback by voters last fall of groundbreaking protections for gig economy workers in California. They worry that he might try to dissuade the White House from expanding labor rights for ride-sharing drivers and other contract workers in an issue that is playing out in Washington as well as states like Massachusetts.
“We think Harris has been bad for working people,” said Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project, a public interest group that monitors the executive branch. “I’m hopeful that if labor and friends of labor are vigilant, Harris won’t be getting his way on the gig economy.”
But Harris said that he agrees on policy with Biden and Walsh and that the 2015 paper’s role in the California ballot initiative has been distorted.
“Secretary Walsh is the top labor adviser in the administration. He’s the voice of workers and labor in the Cabinet,” Harris said in an interview. “We’re in alignment on the president’s agenda.”
A Labor Department spokesperson also said Walsh and the White House were on the same page.
“Secretary Walsh has been laser-focused, and fully in sync with White House advisers including Seth Harris, on how best to execute the president’s agenda to better lift up, support and protect workers, including members of organized labor,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Harris actually could help Walsh by being a strong labor voice at the White House, said Ben Olinsky, senior vice president of policy and strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank.
“The most precious commodity in the White House is the president’s time,” said Olinsky, who was special assistant to the president for labor and workforce policy in the Obama administration. “Having someone as senior as Seth in a role at the White House where he will have access to the president is a good thing because it is an opportunity to elevate these issues and in my mind get more runway to have the Department of Labor act more aggressively.”
“Walsh is a very pro-labor, pro-worker, pro-union guy. That’s where Biden has always been and is, and that’s where Seth is and where the team is,” Olinsky said. “I see everything aligning really well for this to be a very pro-labor administration.”
Expanding unions is a priority for Biden and Walsh. A major battle on that front is playing out in Alabama as employees at an Amazon warehouse push to become the company’s first unionized workforce. Amazon has aggressively opposed that effort, and other major technology companies, such as Uber and Lyft, have fought attempts to organize gig economy workers or expand labor protections for them.
One of the biggest fights took place in California last year.
In 2019, the state made it more difficult for businesses to classify workers as independent contractors, as popular ride-hailing and food-delivery apps do, which denied them basic labor protections like a minimum wage, overtime paid sick leave, and workers compensation for injuries. A new law mandated that a worker for an app-based service would be considered an employee if their job is part of a company’s core business, the work is directed by the company, and the worker hasn’t established an independent business in the same field.
Uber, Lyft, Doordash and other gig economy companies aggressively fought back. They spent about $210 million to fund a ballot measure that California voters approved in November that exempted drivers for app-based companies from the law. The initiative, Proposition 22, created a new category of worker with limited protections, such as minimum pay when driving but not when waiting for a ride, that fell short of what was mandated under the 2019 law.
The idea of a third worker category — between independent contractors and traditional employees — with limited labor law protections was proposed in a lengthy 2015 paper titled “A Proposal for Modernizing Labor Laws for Twenty-First-Century Work: The ‘Independent Worker’ “ that Harris wrote with Alan Krueger, another former Obama administration official.
But some progressives were angry that Harris coauthored the paper, which was used as “a template for Proposition 22,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the the University of California, Santa Barbara. Progressives also were upset that Harris worked for Dentons, a giant law firm that has represented Walmart in labor disputes, although there’s no indication he was involved in those cases.
“There are things in Harris’s past that give legitimate concern to pro-labor people and activists,” Lichtenstein said.
Henry DeGroot, executive director of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild, an association of Uber and Lyft drivers, said Harris “should not be advising the president on labor issues.”
“Seth Harris’s work prior to joining the Biden administration suggests that he prioritizes megacorporations’ profits over workers’ rights,” said DeGroot, who is an Uber driver.
But Proposition 22 departed from the paper’s proposal in a significant way, effectively preventing app-based drivers from organizing and collectively bargaining.
“That article had at its core collective bargaining. That was the centerpiece of our solution, that these workers needed unions. Prop. 22 is nothing like the proposal that Alan and I put forward,” Harris said. “We talked about these workers being treated largely like employees. Prop 22 doesn’t do that.”
Biden opposed Proposition 22 and his campaign platform called for expanded protections for gig economy workers. Biden and Walsh also support the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a sweeping pro-union bill approved by the House in March that among other things would make it easier for gig economy workers to unionize and collectively bargain.
Harris’s role at the White House National Economic Council is to assist in advancing Biden’s labor policy. That involved helping write the script for a video the president made in February emphatically supporting workers’ right to organize amid the unionization effort at Amazon’s Alabama facility.
Tom Perez, who served as labor secretary from 2013-17 in the Obama administration, said the White House plays an important role in coordinating labor policy between departments. And he predicted Walsh won’t have any problems taking the lead on policy because of his longtime friendship with Biden.
“Marty Walsh has an independent relationship with the president,” Perez said. “He has the president’s trust. The buck stops with Marty.”