WASHINGTON — Former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh did not travel all that much before joining President Biden’s Cabinet as labor secretary in early 2021. But since then, he’s been a road warrior for the White House.
A straight-talking (and r-dropping) emissary to blue and red states alike, Walsh has carried a message of the administration’s labor successes — a strong job market and the promise of more work to come from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law — as Democrats try to counter the pervasive economic gloom many Americans feel from rapidly growing inflation.
In his 15 months on the job, Walsh has visited more than 80 cities in 37 states, adding Arkansas and Mississippi this past week. And his experiences have been as varied as the accents he’s heard in his effort to learn more about improving the nation’s workforce and fixing the pandemic-damaged supply chain.
He’s ventured deep into a coal mine in West Virginia with one of the state’s senators, Joe Manchin; ridden shotgun next to a trucker in Pennsylvania; met with tribal leaders at a Native American pueblo in New Mexico; and received a personal tour of a Tesla factory in Texas by chief executive Elon Musk.
“He’s not sitting behind some desk in Washington only looking at the stats,” said Randall Woodfin, the mayor of Birmingham, Ala., who hosted a visit of his fellow Democrat Walsh last fall. There to announce a $15-an-hour minimum wage for federal contract workers and see the city’s workforce development efforts, Walsh impressed Woodfin with his ability to listen and talk honestly about the challenges of providing more good-paying jobs.
Traveling around the country is part of a Cabinet secretary’s portfolio, but Walsh has been particularly itinerant. He said the trips help him better understand the nation and its workers after taking the helm of a department with about 15,000 employees, tasked with overseeing federal labor laws and occupational safety. His tenure got off to an uneven start, caused by pandemic restrictions and questions about his last days as mayor when he appointed Dennis A. White to be police commissioner.
On the road, Walsh has hit his stride.
“We have a very diverse country . . . but at the end of the day I find the commonality between Americans is they want to be able to support their family and create opportunities for their family,” Walsh said in a recent interview in his Labor Department office, which overlooks the National Mall. “They want to be able to have a house. . . . They want to put their kids on a pathway to success, whether it’s a farmer in Pennsylvania or a hospital worker in Phoenix.”
When he travels, Walsh said, his job as labor secretary is to avoid politics and focus on problems and solutions. One of his major projects is modernizing state unemployment benefit programs, which were overwhelmed during the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan gave the Labor Department $2 billion for the effort that encompasses blue and red states.
“I represent union workers. I represent nonunion workers. I represent Democrats. I represent Republicans,” he said. “I say, ‘How do we make sure Americans have access to good jobs?’ ”
But his roving has stirred some controversy, as well — not for where he goes on official travel during the week, but for where he goes on most weekends. In a highly unusual step for a Cabinet secretary, Walsh has not moved to Washington. Instead, he pays out of his own pocket to stay in a hotel when he’s in the capital during the week and then flies back to Boston on the weekends when he does not have work obligations.
Two House Republicans wrote to Walsh in December criticizing what they called his “atypical living arrangement.” But Walsh said his extensive travels around the country and his family back in Boston — his longtime partner, Lorrie Higgins, and his mother still live there — mean it doesn’t make sense financially for him to get a place in Washington. The arrangement hasn’t hindered his ability to do the job, Walsh said.
“As a matter of fact, it gives me the opportunity to kind of recharge and kind of do my thing at home and be active and talk to people on the ground,” he said.
Republican criticism has faded and Walsh was not asked about his weekends in Boston during recent congressional hearings about the Labor Department budget. A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request about concerns over his living arrangements. But Biden, who has called Walsh a friend, has been clear he approves of Walsh’s performance, telling the annual convention of the AFL-CIO last month that “he’s doing a hell of a job.”
Walsh said he believes Biden is doing a great job, too, brushing off criticism from some Democrats about the president’s advanced age and low approval ratings, which have prompted questions about whether he should run again in 2024.
Walsh said Biden remains “upbeat” and described him as “laser-focused” when they met at the Port of Los Angeles last month with officials from the dockworkers union and shipping companies as they try to avoid a strike that could further snarl the supply chain and push prices for some goods higher. Preventing any disruptions after the union contract expired Friday is a major challenge for Walsh, who has been monitoring the negotiations and said Thursday that the continuing talks were going smoothly.
“President Biden knew that this was not going to be a job you go into and just have all successes,” Walsh said. “Quite honestly, any time I’ve spoken to him about the poll numbers I tell him not to worry about them. Just run the country because that’s what the American people wanted you here for.”
Walsh, a former union president, and Biden both strongly support organized labor. Walsh has cheered recent successful efforts by Amazon and Starbucks workers to unionize and is a supporter of legislation that expands federal protections for workers trying to organize and collectively bargain. He also has expressed concerns about companies classifying some gig economy workers as independent contractors instead of employees, which often entitles them to fewer benefits. Last year, the Labor Department withdrew a pending Trump administration rule that would have made it easier for companies to classify workers as contractors.
Last week, @POTUS shared some of our progress in supporting our trucking workforce - including the nationwide expansion of Registered Apprenticeship programs.— Secretary Marty Walsh (@SecMartyWalsh) April 11, 2022
I hitched a ride with Steve Fields to @Yellow_Trucking's apprenticeship program launch to chat about what this means. pic.twitter.com/3oal3Vxin7
Walsh has pushed to expand private apprenticeship programs and the Labor Department recently reduced the amount of time it takes to get one approved in the worker-starved trucking industry, leading to more than 100 new programs launched in a 90-day period this year. His emphasis on apprenticeships and other initiatives to help businesses find more workers resonated with members of the Austin Chamber of Commerce when he spoke with them during their annual trip to Washington last month, said Laura Huffman, the group’s president.
“I felt like it was the beginning of a conversation. It wasn’t just a one-hour speech and then we moved on,” she said, noting that he offered to travel to Austin to learn more.
Walsh has the benefit of being able to tout one of the administration’s few recent bright spots as prices rocket up and stocks tumble: a strong labor market that has produced record job growth. He acknowledges the challenge of high inflation, although he downplayed fears of a recession as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to try to bring down prices.
“The reality is this is a global inflationary issue,” Walsh said, blaming supply-chain problems and the war in Ukraine for sending prices higher. He remains optimistic about the economy, citing his observations traveling the nation with an eye out for construction cranes as a former building trades worker.
“I see a lot of cranes across the country,” he said. “Raising the interest rates might have a bit of an impact on financing some of these projects, but there’s enough projects in the ground right now moving forward that growth is going to happen.”