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New White House Labor Adviser Isn’t Looking For a Fight: Q&A

Aug. 18, 2022, 5:27 PM

Celeste Drake is drawing on her experience at the nation’s largest federation of unions to bring the White House’s labor agenda to fruition.

Drake is wearing “two hats,” as she put it, working both as the National Economic Council’s labor expert and as “Made in America” director for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

In an interview with Bloomberg Law—her first since taking the job as Biden’s top labor adviser in July—she said she plans to use her experience at the AFL-CIO, where she was a trade and globalization policy specialist, to deliver on the president’s goal to be the most pro-labor administration in modern history.

Drake takes over during a contentious period in labor relations, but made it clear she won’t come out swinging for unions just yet. Workers at West Coast ports and those operating the nation’s railroads are in the middle of contract negotiations that threaten to cripple the nation’s supply chains. Drake said the administration views collective bargaining as the least economically disruptive way to settle disputes between workers and employers. But she didn’t say whether the administration would back a rail workers strike if unions don’t agree to the recommendations recently issued by a presidential emergency board.

Drake replaces Seth Harris. At the time of his appointment in 2021, there were was some concern from the left about the direction the White House would take based on his work at the global law firm Dentons and a 2015 paper he co-authored proposing a new classification for gig workers that wouldn’t offer the full protections of employment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In what direction do you want to take the role given your experience? What major issues are on your radar within the labor market and among labor unions?

I’m in a position where I can help translate these concepts and what I’ve learned into policy, and help really advance that agenda, where [Biden] really is the most pro-labor president in history.

On the Presidential emergency board’s report on the labor conflict in the nation’s railroads: Do you, and does the president, identify with or see the union complaints as valid? And how, if at all, will you stand by them as they go into this next round of 30 day negotiations, and potential strike after, if it doesn’t work?

So, look, the president’s role here in the PEB process is really to create the PEB. And he did that and named three people to the presidential emergency board, who are respected by both sides as neutral arbiters and had vast amounts of experience in this arena. And the president is optimistic that the report will provide a good framework for successful negotiations between the parties over the next 30 days.

It’s really important that the parties use the report as a framework for their further talks, and we believe it will be a useful step to help them resolve their own differences.

And we understand that the parties are already talking, and we are standing by to support that process if needed. But really, it’s about the employers and the employees negotiating together to find a mutual solution. And if they do that, not only will both sides benefit, but the nation will benefit because our rail system will continue to run.

What do you see the administration’s role being in navigating major disputes like at the Port of LA, and some of these smaller bursts of action, like at Starbucks?

One of the benefits that the president sees in unions is that it provides an organized way for workers and employers to talk together and to negotiate in ways that are less disruptive to the economy.

So supporting unions is supporting employers. Employers and unions work together. And that’s clear in the very text of the National Labor Relations Act.

The president has hosted organizers at the White House to show the value in what they do and how they can contribute to the economy. And negotiations between workers and employers are typically negotiations between those parties. And all of the administration is working together to, if necessary, provide support and do what we can to support parties reaching a mutually acceptable agreement.

Given that you’re wearing two hats as the “Made in America” director, how do you feel about the progress you’ve made in making sure that federal agencies buy US products, and how are you planning to continue that in your new role?

It’s really been like running a startup. It’s standing up a new office from scratch. So far, the Made in America office has issued some major pieces of policy and guidance for agencies for how they should think about implementing this new Made in America policy.

We stood up the madeinamerica.gov website. We’ve created a Made in America council that all agencies can participate in and share best practices, lift up challenges about how we can approach things, and made major steps toward implementation of “build America by America.”

And it also supports America’s businesses by saying ‘We’re gonna send you a market signal and to invest here you’re gonna have to have opportunities to supply the federal government and to supply the federal government’s financial assistance recipients.’ So there’s much, much more work to do.

When the president came in, Covid had really exposed weaknesses in our supply chain, from semiconductors to critical health products. Building those up is not something that will happen overnight, or within a single year.

Any updates on the president’s worker empowerment task force?

I would say stay tuned.

To contact the reporters on this story: Rebecca Rainey in Washington at rrainey@bloombergindustry.com; Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Genevieve Douglas at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com