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New Labor Secretary’s Ex-Boston Aides Line Up to Lobby in D.C.

April 6, 2021, 8:58 PM

Three former senior aides who served under Labor Secretary Marty Walsh when he was Boston’s mayor are now lobbyists seeking to promote business interests in matters facing the U.S. Labor Department.

In a high-profile example, Walsh’s former chief labor counsel, Alexis Tkachuk, was retained by Uber Technologies Inc. to lobby on “issues related to the future of work and the on-demand economy,” according to a lobbying registration posted online March 30. One of the biggest questions Walsh must answer is whether to crack down on Uber and other gig companies that classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees who are entitled to workplace protections.

Eugene O’Flaherty, the chief legal officer for all seven years of Walsh’s mayoralty, and Joe Rull, who was political director for Walsh’s 2013 mayoral campaign and then was his chief of operations, also have entered the ranks of lobbyists soliciting work on federal labor issues.

Such career pivots are common in Washington, where businesses prize individuals who have working relationships with policymakers. There’s no indication that the trio of former Walsh staffers will have an easier time than any other company or union representative in gaining access to the new labor secretary.

But the Walsh acolytes’ shift to labor lobbying highlights the business community’s desire to tap into the new secretary’s penchant for pragmatism and receptiveness to employer concerns despite his roots in organized labor. Industry’s interest in swaying Walsh’s policy moves is heightened by President Joe Biden‘s dedication to advancing workers’ rights and decision to choose the labor secretary as one of five Cabinet officials tasked with selling the administration’s top-priority infrastructure push.

At the same time, Walsh’s background in the Boston building trades and as a Massachusetts legislator focused on labor policy has given him a large network of union contacts who also may try to gain an audience on issues relevant to their members. That includes Ed Kelly, a former Boston union ally who was recently elected general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

‘Not For Sale’

Uber, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, isn’t the only company interested in allying with connections to Beantown’s former mayor.

Some two dozen business representatives joined a virtual presentation Rull hosted Monday. Rull, who left Boston politics in 2015 to work as a consultant and lobbyist, briefed attendees on Walsh’s reputation as a politician who will give businesses a fair shake. The free event was promoted by Dean Heyl, DOL’s public liaison director during the Trump administration. Details of the call were confirmed by three participants and a copy of an invitation shared with Bloomberg Law.

Rull, now a senior vice president at Boston-based Benchmark Strategies, isn’t currently registered as a federal lobbyist and didn’t state an intention of lobbying DOL. He said it’s natural that former associates will “try to go along with the ride” when a new Cabinet secretary is confirmed.

“One thing I can tell you about Marty Walsh, the person, is that he’s not for sale,” Rull said in an interview. “He believes in making sure that the American principles are upheld in that every resident, every business, has a say in the future of our country.”

A DOL spokeswoman, in a prepared statement, said Walsh is “committed to continuing his longstanding approach to governing by being collaborative and accessible to a broad range of stakeholders sharing diverse points of view.”

Striking a Balance

Walsh, who is serving in the federal government for the first time, is in the early stages of meeting with various DOL officials and outside groups to assess the labor and employment landscape.

He has repeatedly downplayed his ties to organized labor, committing to balancing the perspectives of unions and commerce, and future decisions that favor moderation over aggressive measures to boost worker power would test his support among union leaders. Still, Walsh has voiced a determination to bolster workplace safety standards and address racial and gender inequalities.

“In Boston he has had a great reputation within the business community of not always being necessarily 100% supportive of certain initiatives, but understands the importance of business and unions together,” O’Flaherty, Walsh’s former top lawyer, said in an interview.

The attorney exited City Hall while Walsh was awaiting Senate confirmation, telling his hometown newspaper in February that he turned down Walsh’s offer to join him at DOL as an adviser. The following month, Ballard Partners, a prominent lobbying shop founded by a fundraiser for former President Donald Trump, announced it had hired O’Flaherty to its Washington, D.C. office, and promoted his ties to Walsh on the firm’s website.

O’Flaherty said his portfolio remains undetermined but will include matters centered on DOL. He predicted Walsh will find solutions that are workable for unions and business, as he did in Boston.

Yet achieving that balance in Washington will be tough amid contentious debates over employment law issues such as independent contractor status. Plus, Walsh is now serving a personal friend, Biden, who’s vowed to be the most pro-union president in history.

Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen said he believes Walsh will be “a voice for working America,” noting that the new secretary has been readily available to talk during his brief tenure.

“There’s no better member of the Cabinet to be able to convey that to the corporate interests that are in play opposing the policies of Joe Biden,” he said.

Room for Compromise

Businesses expect clashes with Walsh’s department over regulatory and enforcement policies, but are hoping to forge connections with Walsh on areas where they see room for compromise, such as in apprenticeship training and employee pensions.

They also intend to plead with him to take a moderate position on independent contracting and joint employment liability—two areas where DOL has already moved to withdraw Trump-era interpretations but has yet to replace them with new policies.

In Walsh’s first week in office, a coalition of business groups—whose members include Uber—sued Walsh over a decision his department made to delay the Trump rule on gig-worker status. Tkachuk, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, adds to Uber’s aggressive, multi-pronged government advocacy efforts to preserve its workforce model.

Worker advocates are also lining up to get their priorities in front of Walsh, realizing that business groups are mobilizing.

“The way we think about it is we know that individual businesses don’t feel the same way necessarily as these big associations,” said Vasu Reddy, senior policy counsel for workplace programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Walsh recently discussed the need to support women workers of color, but translating talking points into specific initiatives remains a work in progress that outside lobbyists will now attempt to shape.

Rull, the former Walsh aide now at Benchmark, said his firm has largely focused on local advocacy in Massachusetts, growing its business by 50% during the pandemic.

“We’re continuing to expand that growth,” Rull said, “and if that brings us to D.C., where we do have an office, that’s great.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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