WASHINGTON—President-elect Joseph Biden has chosen a Laborer to be his Secretary of Labor.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whose nomination was announced Jan. 7, joined Laborers Local 223 in 1988, at the age of 21. The son of Irish immigrants whose father was also a Local 223 member, he moved quickly to the union’s administrative side. He was elected to the Massachusetts House in 1996, representing the Dorchester neighborhood where he grew up, and became Local 223’s president in 2005. From 2011 to 2013, he headed the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions, representing 35,000 workers in the metropolitan area.
He was elected mayor on 2013 and re-elected in 2017. A 2016 Boston Globe profile described him as “a union man, head to toe.”
The nomination drew a chorus of praise from labor unions.
“The 500,000 strong, proud, and united men and women of LIUNA are ecstatic and thrilled that President-elect Joe Biden has chosen a dues-paying, card-carrying, second-generation member of Laborers’ Local Union 223,” Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said in a statement. “Marty never forgets where he came from; he values hard work and those that do it; and he has seen, first hand, the power of the Trade Union Movement to transform lives. We are awed and inspired that the top labor post in our great country will be occupied by one of our own LIUNA brothers.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Walsh “will be an exceptional labor secretary for the same reason he was an outstanding mayor: He carried the tools.”
“It will take an unprecedented effort from the president-elect and the Labor Department to recover from the failed policies of the past four years,” he added. “But with Joe Biden and Marty Walsh, we are setting our sights high, starting with passage of the PRO Act so the tens of millions of workers who want to form a union can do so freely and fairly.”
“Walsh has fought for the interests of workers throughout his entire career—as a union organizer, as a legislator, and as mayor—and Boston communities have benefited tremendously from his leadership,” said Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang. “While, naturally, we have at times had disagreements, he has always committed to working through them and finding a solution. In negotiations, he has been supportive, fair and focused on what he feels is best for workers and the community.”
“Mayor Walsh is the exact right choice for Labor Secretary,” said North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey. “He is also keenly aware of the perils of health and safety facing workers in this country. He will make sure that America’s workers get the proper training and that America’s employers, in partnership, follow the rules so that workers arrive home after work in the same condition as they headed off to work in the morning.”
Walsh’s union roots, however, drew opposition from Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking Republican on the House Committee on Education and Labor. “Marty Walsh’s background in organized labor signals that he will work to deliver on left-wing campaign promises including a $15 mandated minimum wage, punitive one-size-fits-all regulations, forced unionization of small businesses, and eliminating the independent contractor model, among many others,” she said.
“I am not going to run away from unions,” Walsh told Boston Herald radio in 2016. “I grew up in that household, of unions being good, of unions advocating on behalf of working-class people, unions advocating for better benefits, better working conditions. That’s the house I grew up in.”
Stricken with a severe case of lymphoma at the age of seven, Walsh survived after several years of chemotherapy. A recovering alcoholic with 20 years sober, he set up a 24-hour hotline for recovery services on Boston’s 311 system. He calls alcoholism and drug addiction “a disease of isolation,” and supports holding outdoor 12-step meetings during the COVID-19 epidemic, because the lack of human contact “is really difficult on people.”
After Massachusetts legalized marijuana in 2016, Walsh initially resisted allowing retail shops to open in Boston. But in 2019, he signed an ordinance that requires half the city’s cannabis licenses go to businesses in neighborhoods that have been most affected by drug arrests and street dealing, an attempt to increase ownership by black people and Latinos.
As head of the Boston Building Trades, Walsh created Building Pathways, a six-week pre-apprenticeship program to prepare low-income Boston area residents to get into union construction jobs. He has called it one of his proudest achievements during his tenure. More recently, he helped midwife the “Construction Stops COVID” initiative launched last month by the building trades unions, three union construction companies, and two public-health organizations.
People in the labor movement had advocated several possible candidates for Secretary of Labor, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), California Labor Secretary Julie Su, and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer. But Walsh had a strong relationship with Biden. In April 2019, just before the former Vice President announced his candidacy, Walsh accompanied him to a rally supporting striking Stop & Shop supermarket workers in Dorchester.
“Marty Walsh is a trade unionist to his core and an excellent choice to lead the Department of Labor during this critical time,” the Communications Workers of America, which had endorsed Levin in November, said in a statement. “Having Marty Walsh as a member of the Cabinet means that working people will have one of their own in the room and at the table every time a decision is made that affects their lives.”