Joe Biden’s decision to nominate Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as Labor Secretary will elevate a person to oversee the nation’s workplace who is not merely pro-union, but who sees the purpose of public office as working to represent the interests of unions. The interests of business leaders, entrepreneurs, independent workers and voters in general will take a back seat.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called Walsh an “exceptional choice” because he was going to increase the labor federation’s power. “He will have the ear of the White House, the Cabinet and Congress as we work to increase union density and create a stronger, fairer America.” Note the “we” part.
Walsh can honestly say he has been working for unions all of his life. He joined the Laborer’s International Union of North America Local 223 in 1988 at age 21 and 1997 won a seat as a state representative. Walsh remained active in the union, eventually becoming Local 223’s president in 2005, while also serving in public office. He remained in the union until getting elected mayor in 2013. Anyone who had a concern about Walsh’s dual role could always address their concerns to the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, which from 2011-2014 was State Representative Marty Walsh.
Walsh certainly never saw a conflict and helped his labor allies whenever he could, such as in 2003, when he co-chaired a Special Commission on Public Construction Reform. This was a major issue for construction unions, who were directly impacted by the rules. “[T]here was little doubt in anybody’s mind that Walsh was there primarily to aid and protect the interests of trade labor,” journalist David Bernstein noted in a 2013 Boston magazine article. The commission’s recommendations, which required no concessions on the part of the unions, were eventually written into law.
Successes like that helped Walsh became head of the Boston Building Trades, a union umbrella group, in 2011. The state lawmaker was now bargaining contracts on behalf of 35,000 union construction workers. “He wanted developers to hire only union workers — and wasn’t shy about saying so,” Boston Globe reporter Andrew Ryan reported in 2016. Unions had his back too, giving more than $46,000 to Walsh’s first mayoral campaign.
One year before being elected mayor, Walsh was recorded on a wiretap telling a company that it would have difficulty getting permits approved for a Boston high-rise project, according to the Globe. He added that the issue could resolved if the company agreed to use union labor at a separate project in Somerville. At one meeting, Walsh brought along the number two official at the Building Trades Council, who, as it happened, was also a member of the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal. This was not, Walsh later insisted, a pressure tactic. “I wouldn’t do that,” he told the Globe’s Ryan. “It’s not my style.”
Ryan added: “Many developers whose projects Walsh now wields influence over as mayor did not return calls or declined to comment on their dealings with Walsh during that era. Several former union colleagues also declined to comment. But those who would speak on the record said they never saw Walsh bully a developer.” So, there you go: The tiny handful of people who weren’t afraid to talk said they never saw nuthin’.
Accounts of Walsh’s negotiations on behalf of labor portray him as tough but pragmatic and primarily interested in getting the best possible result in a given situation. But as Labor Secretary in a Biden administration, that could change. Biden is committed to passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. That legislation would radically shift federal law in favor of unions through things like eliminating at state right to work laws. It would enact a nationwide version of California’s now-repealed AB5 law, forcing “gig economy” businesses like Lyft and Uber to classify their contractor workers as traditional employees. It would also prohibit most of the tactics used by companies to counter union organizing bids, ensuring that workers only hear what the unions tell them. It would codify the expansive “joint employer” rule that the Obama administration pursued, making a business liable if it could be said to exert vaguely defined “indirect control” over another business’ workplace policies, a potentially vast expansion of corporate legal liability.
Following the Democratic Party’s recent Senate victories in Georgia, the PRO Act might just get through. In Marty Walsh, Biden has nominated somebody who would enforce those changes the way unions want.