On January 7th, President Biden announced the last of his cabinet. Included in that list was Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh to be the Secretary of the Department of Labor – a position that some believe Walsh has worked his whole life to prepare for.
Walsh is the son of Irish Immigrants who came to the United States in the late 1950s looking for a better life. His father, John, was the one of 14 children who went to England to work and send money home to his mother in Ireland before coming to the states. He found work as a member of Boston’s Laborer Local 223.
“The word ‘labor’ means everything to me,” Walsh said. “My mother and father came to this country as immigrants and they brought with them their willing hands, honest hearts, and hopes for the American dream. But all they needed, because my father joined the Laborers Union in Boston, was that opportunity. My parents were able to raise us with dignity and security in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial working-class neighborhood of Dorchester in the city of Boston.”
Marty joined Laborers Local 223 at the age of 21, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle (business manager for the local). He went on to be president of Local 223, and secretary/treasurer of the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades. He spent 16 years as a state representative before running for and serving two terms as mayor of the city of Boston, a position he will be giving up as Secretary of Labor.
When we look at the choice of Walsh as Secretary of Labor, we need to look at Walsh’s whole life. At age seven Marty was diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a rare, aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that primarily affects children. The doctors told his mother he would have between six weeks and two months to live. His church confirmation was rushed because they didn’t think he would live long enough to attend with his class. But after four years of treatment, during which he missed second and third grades and had to retake fifth, Walsh was declared cancer free.
It was those early years that instilled the motto that Walsh lives by to this day: “Perseverance, not quitting. Hard work, not giving up.” But that wasn’t the only obstacle he had to overcome. In his early 20s it became obvious to his friends and family that Marty was an alcoholic. He entered rehab, and he has been an advocate for recovery and people in need of treatment ever since.
His sobriety allowed him to move from work in the field for the laborers to working in the front office. In 1997 he ran for state representative, where he served for 16 years while also attending night classes at Boston College. he received his Bachelors degree in 2009 at the age of 42.
His drive and determination, as well as his passion to constantly keep working American’s needs at the forefront, have been Walsh’s role as a labor leader, state representative, mayor and now as secretary:
“We can defend workers’ rights, we can strengthen collective bargaining. We can grow union membership. We can create millions of good paying jobs with investments in infrastructure, clean energy, and in high-tech manufacturing, along with the workforce training to help get those people into those good jobs,” Walsh said.
Make no mistake, however, the task ahead of Walsh is enormous. Among the pressing issues he will have to deal with starting on day one are: record unemployment, an agency decimated by the Trump administration at every level, worker classification and protocols that need to be established and re-established, as well as wage protections for workers.
While he has the background, desire, and know-how to do the job, the question that remains to be answered is can the job be done in the current environment?
The three most commonly known agencies and offices within the Department of Labor (DOL) are the Wage and Hour Division (WHD), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), all of which have been quiet or hollowed-out over the last four years. Walsh will need to get these departments all back up and firing on all cylinders, and he will have to appoint leaders for these departments who are knowledgeable, passionate, and well-versed in their duties.
In addition to the role of cleaning up and restarting these agencies and offices, the DOL will also have a role to play with respect to family leave, joint employment, independent contractor classification, the gig economy, pay equity and immigration law. All of these are on the forefront of President Biden’s administration.
Workplace safety, which would normally have been front and center during a pandemic, but has been neglected under the Trump administration, will be one of the first issues that concern most employers and employees. Revitalizing OSHA, which has been virtually missing in action under the Trump Labor Department, and enforcing an expected national COVID-19 workplace safety standard, will be Walsh’s most urgent tasks.
Other issues high on the list for the Biden administration that Secretary Walsh will have a hand in is the passage of the Pro-ACT, $15 national minimum wage, and two-weeks paid medical and family leave.
Walsh has been a leader on the issues that are important to the Biden administration. From pushing for a $15 minimum wage or family medical leave, both of which he implemented as Mayor, to immigration, in which he openly sparred with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Boston’s status as a sanctuary city. No matter the size or difficulty of solving any problem Walsh is, and always has been, ready to get his hands dirty and do the work necessary.
The support that DOL can give states on some of these issues will be just as important and far-reaching. Last week a study by the Illinois Economic Policy institute found rampant worker misclassification and wage theft in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois:
To combat the problem, states can increase enforcement efforts or strengthen punitive actions against offenders, including making payroll fraud a crime. Payroll fraud from worker misclassification and illegal employment in the construction industry has severe negative consequences for workers, law-abiding contractors, and taxpayers. – IEPI, The Costs of Wage Theft and Payroll Fraud in the Construction Industries of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois Impacts on Workers and Taxpayers (January 2021).
This will need to be part of the advocacy that Secretary Walsh and the DOL will have to address in the coming months. His background in the construction trades will serve him well.
Secretary Walsh will also be working hand-in-hand with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The best way to turn the economy around will be to put people to work. With that goal in mind, the passage of a massive Transportation and Infrastructure Capitol plan will be key, along with the good paying prevailing wage jobs that come with it.
But make no mistake, Walsh, is not just going to advocate for the building trades. He will be an advocate for all workers unlike we have seen at the Department of Labor in decades. Organized Labor is set to work with the first union member to serve as Secretary in almost 50 years.
“Working people, labor unions, and those fighting every day for their shot at the middle class are the backbone of our economy and of this country. As Secretary of Labor, I’ll work just as hard for you as you do for your families and livelihoods. You have my word.”
Walsh puts other people first, as shown through a story from the start of his first term as Mayor of Boston. He was driving home, after hosting as Mayor the city’s New England Patriots Super Bowl victory parade, when he came along a car on the side of the road that was on fire. He pulled over, called the fire department, and waited with the family until the fire department arrived and the fire was extinguished. Walsh has always shown, be it personally, or professionally, that he is a compassionate, empathetic advocate for working men and women in all walks of life, in all professions, and in all situations. We applaud his nomination, and we look forward to a new era in worker advocacy and protections in the Biden administration.