Quick Take: Walsh Well Received in Senate Confirmation Hearing for Labor Cabinet Post

Photo by Ajay Parthasarathy on Unsplash

In a crisp hearing that lasted a little over two hours earlier today, a key Senate panel gave high marks for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as the Biden administration’s nominee for Labor Secretary.

The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, led by Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), reviewed the nomination of Mayor Walsh, a 53-year old former union leader and elected official known for his ability to forge bipartisan consensus at the bargaining table and in the halls of government (*Disclosure: I have negotiated labor agreements with Mayor Walsh as a management representative and was a mayoral appointee during his administration).

The Mayor began the hearing with earnest introductory remarks that touched on his life experience in the labor movement — as a child of immigrants, his early childhood cancer felled by union-provided health care, recovery from alcoholism, and own career working in the construction trades. He also cited his work with a number of sitting senators on both sides of the aisle over a number of years as a mayor, legislator and advocate. The committee’s wide discussion focused on the employment issues confronting American workers amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Walsh’s work to address those barriers and the Biden administration’s road map to recovery.

Broad support. Walsh’s nomination has been supported by a broad coalition of labor advocates, including the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka and American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten, and has received favorable reviews from business representatives like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in recent media coverage. That cross-sectional support was evident in today’s hearing, where Senators from both parties found common ground for progress with the new administration.

Cordial Exchanges on Traditional Issues. Worker safety was a frequent topic, with calls for the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) to step up enforcement and training in the workplace and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey (D) calling for renewed focus on the safety of mine workers. The federal minimum wage was another frequent topic, with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) applauding the City of Boston’s efforts to support a living wage ordinance under Mayor Walsh’s leadership, while Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and other colleagues raising concerns about the effects of minimum wage hikes on small business.

Several light moments were evident of a smooth confirmation process, with a cordial approach by several Republican members on display: Ranking Member Burr (R-NC) and one of the Senate’s newest members, former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) connected with Walsh on strengthening links between industries and vocational education through community college programming. Boston has worked to promote the concept of “free” community college for high school seniors in the city, and has developed a number of career technical pathways in its schools during the Mayor’s seven-year tenure. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who has a brother living in the Boston suburb of Randolph, made a dinner date with Walsh for his next visit to the city — and perhaps the best moment was when Sen. Roger Marshall (R) of Kansas attempted a gotcha moment when he questioned Walsh about the current price of a cup of coffee, and the Mayor’s response gave a shout out to Dorchester Avenue’s Doughboy Donuts (the white and orange cup is typically omnipresent on the fifth floor of City Hall).

Consistent with executive actions taken on race and diversity during these early days of the Biden administration, Sen. Murray urged efforts to protect and defend inclusion measures across the workforce, particularly for women and BIPOC workers. Mayor Walsh highlighted his work with the Building Pathways program and pay equity workshops for women in Boston as examples of programs that can be brought to scale nationally, along with traditional defenses for worker rights.

Sens. Murphy (D-CT) and Casey also spoke about the need to protect the rights of disabled workers, particularly as individuals return to the workforce during the nation’s ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and as employers adjust to the post-pandemic workplace. Pandemic recovery was top of mind for a number of the committee members today, with many reinforcing economic recovery through wages and worker safety protections in their comments on the current state of the workplace.

Next up: confirmation. The full Senate will now take up Walsh’s nomination to the Labor post, in a vote that should come sometime in the next week and is expected to be favorable given today’s committee hearing.

If confirmed, Walsh would become the 29th Secretary of Labor for the United States of America; at least the fourth Bay Stater to hold the role (preceded by the first female cabinet member, Frances Perkins, appointed by FDR; Maurice Tobin, a former Boston mayor and Massachusetts Governor, appointed by President Truman; and Ford’s Labor Secretary and former Harvard Law School professor, John Dunlop); the second Boston mayor to hold the role (Tobin); and one of many to emerge from the union ranks.

In the coming weeks, we will follow up with a survey of the Biden administration’s outlook for labor issues over the next four years, and Walsh’s vision for the Department.

February 11 update: Walsh’s bid for Secretary of Labor will move to a full vote of the Senate following an 18–4 committee vote earlier today in favor of advancing his nomination. He is expected to be confirmed following the conclusion of the second impeachment trial of the former president, which has delayed all other Senate business.

Michael Loconto is a Boston-based attorney and consultant who provides focused thought leadership on labor issues and workforce strategies. Follow Mike on Medium and subscribe through Substack to keep up to date on emerging policy and compliance issues in labor, employment and education.

Boston, MA attorney and consultant specializing in labor and employment law, dispute resolution and government relations.

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