With all due respect to Thomas Wolfe, who says you can’t go home again?
Marty Walsh, the erstwhile mayor of Boston, came home this week to take part in a labor forum downtown.
And unlike George Webber, the protagonist in Wolfe’s novel whose former neighbors were resentful of his success after he left his provincial home for the big city, Walsh returned to Boston as a favored son who has done well in the big smoke of Washington, D.C.
It is not a hard case to make that Walsh has been the most successful Cabinet secretary in a Biden administration that has struggled mightily at times with rising inflation and falling poll numbers.
If Republicans take back control of the House and Senate in November, it won’t be Marty Walsh’s fault.
When Joe Biden was elected, he pledged to be less partisan, less divisive. That’s a hard thing to do in the hyper-partisan environment of the Potomac, which really was a swamp before it became The Swamp.
But if anyone has demonstrated an ability to bridge ideological and philosophical chasms in a very divided country and polarized political system, it has been Walsh in his role as labor secretary.
As he noted Wednesday, speaking at a forum hosted by MASSterList and the State House News Service, the future of work in this country has to be charted in a collaboration between workers and employers.
While much is made of Walsh having been a laborer and labor leader, he was also, as mayor, a manager who oversaw a $3.6 billion budget and 22,000 employees. He had to work with business to get things done, the same point his successor, Michelle Wu, made to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.
Walsh’s emphasis on respectful, give-and-take dialogue is straight from the bargaining playbook he has used in negotiations that have resolved labor disputes, most recently the marathon talks he stewarded which avoided a national freight and commuter rail strike that would have made current supply chain problems and inflation infinitely worse.
“That would have caused devastation to the US economy,” Walsh said.
Walsh also helped save the Major League Baseball season and resolve the Worcester nurses strike. His successes led some Republicans to preposterously claim that he is too cozy with labor, when in reality his input was welcomed by both workers and management.
In all these endeavors, Walsh has avoided the appearance of siding too openly with workers, even as he has visited some on the picket line. That is a fine line to walk, especially as he and the administration he works for support workers organizing and see unions as essential to maintaining a viable middle class.
The pandemic has dramatically altered the way many Americans regard work and workers. Supermarket and warehouse workers became more appreciated as essential workers.
Walsh says the COVID crisis brought more clearly into focus the legitimate demands of front-line workers, requiring changes in the workplace environment which can only be successfully implemented in a collaborative spirit between workers and employers.
With Walsh as labor secretary, there has been a surge in union organizing. Amazon workers who kept supplies flowing during the worst days of the pandemic have organized in some markets. So have some workers for Starbucks and, closer to home, Trader Joe’s.
The labor shortage, especially in the service industry, has given ordinary people a greater appreciation of some workers who previously were figuratively invisible.
As Walsh sees it, the demise of organized labor has been greatly exaggerated.
Speaking to reporters after the forum, Walsh demurred when asked if his success as labor secretary has him eyeing higher political office, saying he’s taking things “one day at a time.”
That’s not false modesty. That’s his personal philosophy, one rooted in those same self-effacing words that guide his recovery from alcoholism. They reflect a humility bred into him in the home he can and does go back to often.
In the Dorchester where Marty Walsh grew up, if you got a big head, they’d knock it off.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.