WASHINGTON — Martin J. Walsh dreaded the phone call to President Biden.
Walsh had decided to accept a plum job as head of the union for National Hockey League players last month, allowing him to return to the ranks of organized labor. But that meant resigning as labor secretary after just under two years, an early departure from a Cabinet post that his good friend Biden had tapped him for ― despite strong pressure for a more diverse nominee — to help fulfill a pledge to be “the most pro-union president” ever.
“It was a hard conversation because I have so much respect for President Biden,” the former Boston mayor said Wednesday in an interview in his soon-to-be vacated Labor Department office overlooking the National Mall. “I didn’t want to be . . . the first Cabinet secretary to depart because I know the area he asked me to run is so near and dear to his heart.”
But Walsh said Biden, whom he’s known since 1997, told him that the job was “an incredible opportunity” and that he understood the decision. Biden subsequently showered Walsh with praise at the White House last week when the president announced he was nominating Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su to replace him. Walsh watched from the front row, next to Vice President Kamala Harris, with whom he’s also developed a close bond.
“Thank you for standing up for labor. Thank you for standing up for ordinary people. And thank you for having my back, pal,” Biden said after ticking off Walsh’s accomplishments, including expanding registered apprenticeships and helping avoid a potentially devastating national freight rail strike. “If I ever want anybody in the foxhole with me, I want Marty Walsh there.”
Walsh’s last day is Friday before starting his new job later this month. He’s preparing to pack up his office, including two mementos he brought from Boston to remind him of his roots — the white hard hat his late father wore as a union laborer and a framed black-and-white photo of a construction worker’s hand gripping a piece of rebar.
But he’s also bringing some of D.C. back to Massachusetts. He’s written a personal check for $1,467 to purchase the Cabinet chair he sat in during meetings at the White House to take with him as a souvenir. And he’s deciding the details of his official portrait, which one day will hang with those of previous Labor Department secretaries in the agency’s headquarters.
While Walsh, 55, never really took to Washington, a going-away party Monday night at the posh home of Washington power couple Jack and Susanna Quinn showed the town had taken a liking to him.
A display of hockey pucks spelling “Go Marty” over a pair of miniature red hockey sticks was arranged before a massive charcuterie board that spanned the length of the dining room table. Guests included fellow Cabinet members, top White House staff and advisers, and, of course, leaders of organized labor.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Walsh joked when asked about the reception. “I’ve arrived!”
But Walsh never put down many roots in Washington to begin with. He has acknowledged the job was a tough adjustment, and most weekends he would fly back to his Dorchester home at his own expense, an unusual arrangement for a Cabinet secretary that some congressional Republicans criticized.
But Democrats who are active on labor issues praised Walsh’s job performance, including Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent whom Biden reportedly had considered for labor secretary.
“I think he did a very, very good job,” Sanders said. “I think he was extremely accessible, got his hands dirty, worked hard. I applaud his efforts.”
Sitting in a black leather chair in his office, Walsh said his departure from the Labor Department won’t be as emotional as leaving Boston’s City Hall in 2021 after seven years.
“It took a long time for the mayor to leave me. . . . It was like a year. I thought about the city all the time,” Walsh said. “I didn’t have the longevity here I did, but I will miss aspects of this job that I didn’t realize coming into it, like traveling across the country and talking to workers.”
Walsh visited 44 states as labor secretary, expanding the perspective of a lifelong Bostonian who hadn’t traveled all that much before joining Biden’s Cabinet. One trip last summer made a lasting impression. He had gone to the delta region of Mississippi and met with six Black farmers who said they were being underpaid and pushed out of their jobs by foreign workers.
“There was a gentleman to my right and I just looked at his hands and it reminded me of looking at my father’s hands,” Walsh said. “I realized who’s here to fight for him. Mississippi doesn’t have a Department of Labor and they needed somebody to fight for them. And that was one of the moments I realized the impact that we can have . . . not just here at the Department of Labor but across the federal government.”
And with those men in mind, Walsh helped set in motion more than 50 investigations by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division into wage theft and illegal displacement of American workers in that area. It announced in November the recovery of $134,532 in wages for 45 workers in the Mississippi delta and $122,610 in civil penalties for violations by 11 employers.
Walsh said he made sure to travel to red states as well as blue ones to stand up for workers regardless of politics or party.
“It didn’t matter to me when I went to Alabama, when I went to southern Georgia, when I went to Nebraska, when I went to Idaho, when I went to Oklahoma,” he said. “I didn’t go there as a Democrat . . . I went there as a labor secretary appointed by the president to represent all American people. I think that that’s the one thing that’s missing down here.”
“Down here” is Washington, and he still refers to it like a guy from Dorchester. But Walsh rejected the suggestion that two years in the nation’s capitol in this ultra-partisan era drove him out of politics.
“This opportunity presented itself to me,” he said. “It happened suddenly. It wasn’t something I was looking for.”
Walsh said he was approached about possibly becoming executive director of the NHL Players’ Association in late December. The new job means he’ll once again be a union president, the same position he held at the Laborers’ Union Local 223 in Boston after joining when he was 21. He went on to head the Boston Building Trades Council, an umbrella group of 20 construction unions, before entering politics as a state representative in 1997.
It doesn’t hurt that heading the hockey union apparently will pay much more than the $235,600 salary he earned as labor secretary. Walsh wouldn’t disclose his new salary, but The Daily Faceoff, a hockey publication, reported he will earn about $3 million a year.
The career change might not be permanent.
“I’m always gonna be in and around the political game because it’s in my blood. It’s been in my blood since I’ve been a little kid,” he said. “Will I ever run for office again? I don’t know. I can’t say yes or no to that. But this is a new chapter for me to go out and explore.”