On Thursday, after a long and somewhat contentious process, President-elect Joe Biden chose Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as his nominee for secretary of Labor. Walsh may not initially have been the most obvious choice, but he emerged as a favorite early in the process, and for the final two weeks, it came down to a choice between him and Julie Su, California’s Secretary for Labor and Workforce Development. Along with being the only Asian-American Cabinet member, Su would have been an excellent choice for Labor secretary, and she may yet play a pivotal role in the Biden Department of Labor. But there’s also good reason to believe that the Boston mayor may surprise some of his critics who favored a different candidate and prove to be one of the most effective secretaries of Labor in many decades.
Here are five reasons why Marty Walsh might excel as Labor Secretary:
Walsh has a close personal relationship with President-elect Biden, which will give him leverage within the Cabinet. Walsh served as an effective surrogate for Biden during the presidential election campaign, and he shares Biden’s blue-collar, Irish-Catholic background. Walsh’s close relationship with Biden has attracted criticism from some as a reason for his selection. But it’s not like the two met while students at Harvard Law School — Walsh gained a degree as an adult at Boston College’s program for non-traditional students, while Biden graduated from the University of Delaware — and the relationship should enable Walsh to elevate the importance of labor issues. Labor advocates generally want a secretary who will have clout in the Cabinet and on the Hill, and who can be an effective public face on key issues. Walsh has proven an effective communicator as Boston mayor, and could excel at all of these roles.
Walsh can bridge the various sections of the labor movement, which is currently more divided than almost ever before. Walsh himself comes out of the building trades. He started as an official of the Laborers Union and secretary treasurer for the Boston Building Trades Council. The building trades have traditionally been viewed as the most conservative bloc within the labor movement, and many of its members likely voted for President Trump in both 2016 and 2020. Walsh understands the culture of the building trades, but he is significantly more progressive than many former building trades officials. After emerging as a potential nominee, Walsh immediately gained the support of not only Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor confederation, but also that of Lee Saunders, the African-American president of AFSCME, the country’s largest public sector union, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in big cities such as Boston. The AFT, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, and building trades do not agree on too much; but they all agreed on Marty Walsh for Secretary of Labor. Plus, anyone who has the support of Boston’s Dropkick Murphys must have something special going for them.
Walsh’s life experiences enable him to understand and empathize with the struggles of millions of ordinary Americans currently facing severe financial hardship, unemployment and dangerous working conditions. Walsh has stood in unemployment lines; he has struggled with addiction; and he has worked in construction, an industry plagued by high rates of underemployment and workplace injuries. And one of Walsh’s first major tasks will be coordinating states' payment of extended unemployment insurance. Walsh made his labor and working-class roots central to his campaign when he was first elected to mayor of Boston in 2013. Many of the other potential candidates for Biden’s Labor Secretary position boasted impressive Ivy League credentials, but Walsh will bring to the position life experiences that cannot be easily learned at Harvard or Yale Law Schools.
Walsh has more, and more diverse, experience than some of his critics realize. As Boston Mayor and a longtime Massachusetts state representative, Walsh has a deep understanding of the public sector, health care sector, public schools, higher education, biotech, finance and insurance, transportation and others, which will serve him well as secretary of Labor. Moreover, he has generally received high marks from the Boston labor community, and from the city’s working-class residents, for his leadership on key economic and social issues. He has enjoyed strong support from the majority of the city’s large Black community, and has supported many progressive causes, such as greater police accountability, declaring racism a public health issue, tackling wage theft, championing workplace safety in the construction industry, using city contracts to promote diversity, and pushing parental leave for city employees.
Walsh will be assisted by a talented group of experts who will serve as heads of wage and hour, occupational safety and health and other key positions. Indeed, one of Walsh’s most urgent tasks will be to revitalize the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — which has been virtually missing in action under the Trump Labor Department — and enforce an expected national Covid-19 workplace safety standard. During the Trump administration, many of these positions either went unfilled for lengthy periods or were occupied by political operatives with little true expertise on labor and employment issues. This will not happen in the Walsh Labor Department, and outstanding candidates are already being discussed as potential division heads.
Marty Walsh comes from humble beginnings in Boston’s working-class Dorchester neighborhood, and he lacks the Ivy League undergraduate and law degrees that were common among most Obama-era senior Labor Department Officials. But the Boston mayor has many outstanding qualities, and may be the perfect candidate to transform the moribund Trump Labor Department into one that once again protects American workers.