Outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh says his only regret during his time at the Biden administration was the learning curve he faced when it came to the intricacies of policy-making within Washington.
In one of his last interviews as a member of the Biden cabinet, the former Boston mayor told Bloomberg Law he will be officially stepping down on March 11. Walsh added that businesses shouldn’t be concerned about his successor Julie Su, and that he was encouraging groups potentially opposed to her nomination to meet with her.
Walsh has served as labor secretary since March 2021, earning a reputation as a negotiator who was willing to come to the table with both business and labor unions throughout his tenure at the agency. He embraced a more public-facing role as secretary compared to some of his predecessors—traveling to 39 states in 2022 alone—an approach that garnered some criticism from Republicans who said he didn’t spend enough time in Washington.
During his time as secretary, Walsh found himself having to navigate through two major national crises: the labor market walloped by a once-in-a-century pandemic, and a potential supply chain crisis caused by a dispute between freight rail companies and their unions.
Walsh is leaving the administration for the top post at the NHL Players’ Association, which represents professional hockey players in Canada and the US. In the interview with Bloomberg Law Thursday, Walsh suggested he was potentially open to having the hockey union join the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the US.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
If there was one issue you faced as secretary that you could go back and do differently knowing what you know now, what would you change?
I think in a perfect world, having a better understanding of what Washington life was like. So I came from being a legislator, in Massachusetts, to mayor of the city of Boston, and then you go into an administration. This isn’t about the party, this is not about the president, this is about you going into an administration in a process that’s been set up for a long time. And if you didn’t grow up in it, you have to learn it. And there’s no really teaching that, you have to live it to learn it.
It’s about relationships. I came at the beginning of a new administration, so there’s growing pains for everyone. But, I really had no idea the intricacies in the interaction of how the White House works with the cabinets, the cabinets work with each other, and all work with the Congress. It’s very different life, a very different job than I’ve ever had.
So I think what would I have done differently if I had known a little more insight into the Washington political organizations, not Democrat, Republican, but understanding the process? I would have hit the ground running quicker.
As far as issues go, I’m not looking back and regretting, per se, something that we didn’t do or didn’t move. I think some of the process, like rulemaking, is slow intentionally. And even though you want to make it quicker, it’s intentionally slow, because it’s a process of change for an industry. So you have to have all of the timelines there so you can hear all sides.
Have you nailed down your exact departure date yet?
My official last minute will be Saturday at five o’clock.
Some business groups are concerned about how Julie Su may take a different approach than you leading the department. What are you doing to talk with those groups to assuage their concerns?
I’ve talked to a lot of businesses. I mean these same business groups that are concerned about Julie, were concerned about me. And both of us lead the Department of Labor. I take pride in the fact that we kind of co-lead the Department of Labor, I’m the secretary, she’s the deputy secretary, but we spent a lot of time talking about what’s going on there. And we try in everything we do to make sure everyone has a voice at the table.
You can’t promote workers without understanding business. And Julie understands that, I understand that. It’s not one or the other. So I’m asking businesses to talk to her. Everyone was like you know, Julie said this, Julie said that. Julie did a lot of work with businesses too when she was in California and certainly as deputy secretary. So, I’m not concerned about Julie ending business in America.
You also have an agenda. I don’t know what the governor’s agenda in California was when Julie worked for him, but the president has an agenda here too. And it’s been a collaborative agenda. The president has reached across the aisle on major pieces of legislation. We’ve all worked with people. I mean, I spent as much time talking to Republicans on the Hill as I did Democrats on the Hill. Julie understands that she’s going to represent not just Democrats, and not just progressive Democrats, but she represents the whole country. So it’s important to have those understandings.
I know you’re not quite in the door yet, but there’s been a lot of sports players unions joining the AFL-CIO, is that something that you would consider in your leadership at the NHLPA?
Liz Shuler has done a really amazing job of attracting members, there’s now a whole sports division. So it’s certainly something that I’ll explore in the future. You’ve got to realize like, these are workers, they work for employers. Now, granted, they get paid differently, but not every athlete is a millionaire. Some of the athletes are working for minor contracts, their career’s three years, four years long, they might get hurt. And now what do you do for them? So it’s just like any workplace.
So I think at some point, we’ll explore it. I have to have a conversation before that, but it’s really something that I’m very curious and interested about.
How do you want to be remembered in your work as labor secretary?
As somebody who was a collaborator. Somebody who collaborated across the aisle and improved workers’ stature, if you will, in the workplace.
I think something that’s important is that we strengthened American workers, and as the president said, created a pathway to the middle class.
There’s a lot of different areas that were really important to me. Job Corps, it’s not going to get the headlines, but it’s something that is such an opportunity to help young people in this country. The Women’s Bureau, really making sure that we’re fighting for paid family leave, fighting for strong childcare, fighting for pay equity. Our veterans, making sure that we’re onboarding our veterans when they come out of the service so that they have an opportunity, pathway into a job. Safer job sites, safer mines.
I want them to think I was here really to support every American in this country that needs support from the Department of Labor.
To contact the reporter on this story:
To contact the editor responsible for this story: