The news that Marty Walsh will be stepping down as Secretary of Labor seems to reflect the diminished agenda that Joe Biden will have for his labor allies in the latter half of his administration. Without a Democrat-controlled House, it is highly unlikely that any major legislation, like the deceptively named union wish-list bill the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, would ever become a reality. Walsh, himself a former union leader, probably didn’t want to spend the remainder of the administration offering apologies to other labor leaders. Taking over as executive director of the NHL Players’ Association union probably seemed like a lot more fun. Who can blame him?
Walsh was as a strong a union advocate as has ever served in a presidential cabinet. He joined the Laborer’s International Union of North America Local 223 in 1988 at age 21 and 1997 won a seat as a Massachusetts state representative. Walsh remained active in the union, eventually becoming Local 223’s president in 2005, while still serving as an elected official. He used his elected office to aid unions in various ways. 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. He only stopped being an official member of the union after getting elected mayor of Boston in 2013. He left that office to join the Biden administration in 2021.
As Labor Secretary, Walsh proposed rewriting the rules for when a worker is an employee as opposed to a freelancer. Unions have aggressively sought to declare workers in the gig economy traditional employees to make them easier to organize. There are limits to what a cabinet secretary can do however. To really change policy requires Congress.
The centerpiece of the administration’s labor policy was the PRO Act, which was primarily focused on boosting union numbers by restricting the ability of individual workers to dissent or opt out. Replenishing union numbers has been the focus of the labor movement for years as its numbers have steadily declined. The share of unionized workers has fallen to 10.1 percent of the workforce, the lowest on record.
The PRO Act would have, among other changes: abolished state right to work laws, undermined entrepreneurs by broadening the definition of “joint employment,” limited freelance and contract work by redefining the word “contractor” to resemble “employee,” forced employers to give out worker phone numbers and email addresses to unions mounting an organizing bid regardless of whether the worker wants the information to remain private, and made unions automatic winners in disputed elections.
The PRO Act was so nakedly about boosting union numbers that it was a tough sell in the last Congress. It is almost certainly dead in the current GOP-led Congress. It is not clear what the administration will do to replace it. Walsh’s departure is a sign that the administration hasn’t come up with much.