Marty Walsh’s quarter-century career in Massachusetts politics and organized labor is defined by a reputation for seeking compromise and building consensus, attributes that will be tested if he’s confirmed as U.S. labor secretary.
The two-term Boston mayor’s confirmation hearing Thursday offers a preview of the immense pressure he would face as head of the U.S. Labor Department to secure deals around hot-button issues favored by unions, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding unemployment benefits, and upping occupational safety enforcement.
While the Democratic edge in the divided Senate is likely to result in his approval, the hearing will give Walsh an opportunity to showcase his pragmatism and penchant for bringing opposing groups together to forge timely action. Being a dealmaker is part of his brand, and it’s a skill set that could allow him to take on a wider role in helping to sell the Biden administration’s labor and employment agenda—including pandemic recovery issues—on Capitol Hill.
Walsh’s reputation for mobilizing support to advance worker protection policies, dating back to his time as a local construction union leader and Massachusetts legislator, explains why many in organized labor are enthusiastic about the prospect of him joining President
But underlying his political rise is a somewhat paradoxical ability, given his union roots, to develop allies in business. His willingness to listen to industry concerns—not exactly a standard quality for a union leader—won him allies in Boston’s business community and, in recent weeks, has helped him avoid a concerted GOP effort to derail his nomination before a formal hearing.
That certainly could change when he appears Thursday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
In a sign of the polarizing climate he’d face on the federal stage, where bipartisan support on labor issues is rare, the top Republican on the House labor panel unloaded when asked about the potential to collaborate with Walsh as labor secretary.
“In my experience, compromise for Big Labor means intimidation and arm twisting,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement. “Now more than ever we need an advocate for free-enterprise at DOL. Pushing radical, anti-worker policies like the PRO Act, and job-killing political schemes like a $15 national minimum wage are non-starters.”
Yet Walsh’s supporters from both sides of the aisle believe his ability to relate with members of the opposing party could pay political dividends for the Biden administration.
“He has a real opportunity to lay down groundwork to build relationships with members of the House and Senate down there that maybe somebody else would struggle with,” said Massachusetts state Rep. Paul Frost (R), who joined the Massachusetts House the same year as Walsh, in 1997, and worked opposite him in the chamber for the next 17 years.
If confirmed, Walsh would run a department Biden is entrusting with a wide range of pandemic recovery responsibilities—all of which engender partisan discord. That includes writing a new emergency regulation to protect workers from on-the-job coronavirus infection, adding flexibilities for workers to remain on jobless benefits after getting a work offer they feel is unsafe, and guaranteeing federal contractor employees a $15 minimum wage and paid leave.
The Labor Department can advance those initiatives without congressional approval, but Republicans could make implementation more difficult via litigation and appropriations hurdles.
Although the labor secretary’s job responsibilities don’t expressly cover legislative wrangling, Walsh’s political skills make him uniquely suited for Biden to dispatch him to the Capitol, his supporters say.
“He understands at a visceral level how important legislation is,” said Monica Halas, a veteran attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services, who’s teamed with Walsh on worker-friendly bills since he was a state legislator. “Yes, he’s excellent at retail politics, he knows how to bring people together, he knows how to get his message heard.”
Walsh was the point person for labor issues during his time in the Massachusetts House, and throughout his mayoralty he continued to leverage his legislative muscle in the state Legislature.
For instance, Walsh as a legislator approached Halas to ask her to write a bill to prevent employers from denying reinstatement to new parents who’ve taken extended leave, Halas said. She drafted the language, which was eventually enacted in 2015 as part of a state law providing eight weeks of paid parental leave to mothers and fathers. Walsh was mayor by the time it passed, but still worked the state House to help the bill overcome business opposition, she said.
He also fought to reach an accord to protect public-sector union bargaining rights in 2011, a tense state legislative battle in the aftermath of the Great Recession, said Ed Kelly, general secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Another factor in favor of Walsh potentially focusing more on congressional issues than past labor secretaries is his personal friendship with the president, which dates back to 2007. This would give him extra clout because “people will know that the president will listen to him,” said Brian Kennedy, who was the Labor Department’s chief congressional liaison under former President Barack Obama.
In addition to work on pandemic-specific DOL priorities, the Biden administration could deploy Walsh to help deliver votes on pension reform and an infrastructure package, said Kennedy, now the policy director for the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers.
He also could serve as a voice to promote the PRO Act, Kennedy added. The bill to overhaul labor law has strong union backing but faces a tough road to passage.
Appeal to Moderates
To be sure, even the most savvy Capitol Hill operators would struggle to find a single GOP vote on a bill like the PRO Act, which would make comprehensive changes to the National Labor Relations Act, including penalizing employers who retaliate against unionizing drives.
And some workplace policies included in Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief stimulus package, such as an extension of supercharged unemployment benefits, could be on track for Senate approval absent any Republican support as Democrats prepare to wield a parliamentary technique called reconciliation.
But on other labor measures, such as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act or a permanent bill entitling workers to paid-leave days, there’s more room for across-the-aisle maneuvering.
Walsh’s origins in construction labor, having once led the Boston building trades federation, may give him some pull with the Democratic Party’s centrist Blue Dog wing, whose members have proven tough hold-outs on workplace policies endorsed by their conference.
Moderate Democrats “might not have relationships with all unions, but the moderates have relationships with the building trades,” said Suzanne Beall, vice president of government relations and public policy at the International Franchise Association. “That’s good experience for a consensus-builder.”
Walsh surprised Boston industry titans following his election in 2013 by becoming an approachable mayor who facilitated city development without being beholden to unions.
Whether his consensus-building brand would endure if he were serving a president who’s already made firm pro-union commitments is an open question. Moves to broker deals may well provide the answer.
“He’s somebody who labor can trust and business can work with. Marty Walsh can sneak up on those parties in ways that can facilitate outcomes,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “He would not be the sexy Cabinet head with all the big speeches, but his outcomes, I think, to labor would be pretty sexy.”