Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Dept. of Labor, faced some pointed questions from Republican senators but was praised by Democrats at his confirmation hearing. He seems to be on the road to Senate approval.
In his Feb. 4 appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Walsh, a long-time member of the Laborers' International Union of North America and a former president of a LIUNA Boston local, hewed closely to Biden’s views on a range of labor issues.
[View committee's video of the hearing here.]
For example, he said he supported boosting the number of federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration inspectors and backing an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, from $7.25 now.
Walsh also appeared to endorse a new emergency workplace safety standard related to the coronavirus pandemic.
In his opening statement, Walsh recounted his story, including his father's joining the laborers' union, which he called his family's "way into the middle class," a cancer diagnosis at age seven, and later, his joining his father's local.
He listed the main duties of the Labor Dept. as he sees them, including protecting workers on the job, as well as their pay, benefits and pensions. He also cited continuing education, job training and access to treatment for mental health and substance use.
Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in her opening statement, "After four years of the Trump administration's attack on working families and a pandemic that continues to push them to the brink, we desperately need a Secretary of Labor like Mayor Walsh, who will fight for workers, not against them."
Shortly after opening the hearing, Murray announced that she later that day would reintroduce the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act. it calls for a variety of union-backed changes in federal labor law, including ending the prohibition against secondary boycott. Biden supports the bill and so does Walsh.
PRO Act Reintroduced
Walsh said that the Pro Act "is one step towards helping people to organize freely." He added, "I do believe in the right of organizing. I do believe in the right of people being able to join the union if they want to join the union."
In the construction industry, positions are split deeply on the legislation. The measure has the strong backing of the building trades, but faces fierce opposition from Associated Builders & Contractors and the Associated General Contractors of America.
Mike Bellaman, ABC's president and chief executive officer, said in an interview, "We believe in the right for employees to choose a union—and not to join a union."
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) blasted the PRO Act, saying that it would be a major blow to the 27 "right to work" states, like his own and said it would be "devastating for the economic future of the nation."
But perhaps to ease fears of business and GOP lawmakers that he would hold to organized labor's point of view, Walsh at times struck a conciliatory tone. He said, "Throughout my career, I've led by listening, collaborating and building partnerships," adding that, if confirmed he would continue that way.
Walsh also pledged that "commerce and labor will work together." He added, "I promise you we are going to work together for the American worker and the American economy."
OSHA: Not 'Us vs. Them'
Regarding jobsite safety, Walsh said, "OSHA should not be an 'us versus them." Rather, he said the administration and Congress should aim to have OSHA be "an agency that is there to help workers and to help employers—and not be put in the middle of both."
From Walsh's comments at the hearing, Bellaman says, "We see a lot of shared passions around safety and workforce development," as well as helping those with addictions. Walsh noted at the hearing that in this 20s, he was treated for alcoholism and said he is "a proud member of the recovery community today."
Bellaman added, "The guy's from the [construction] industry. So he knows the industry, and I think that that is positive."
Among other topics, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) told Walsh that for months she has been calling on OSHA to issue an emergency temporary safety standard related to those working during the pandemic. "This is really long overdue," Baldwin said.
Walsh praised grocery store workers, first responders, nurses custodians and other workers on the front lines of keeping the economy operating during the pandemic. Appearing to side with Baldwin, he said, "If I don't protect those workers....then I don't have a right to be sitting in that [Secretary's] seat."
He went further, saying that the number of OSHA inspectors has decreased by more than 500 over the past four years and added, "if we increase [safety] standards and don't increase inspectors, then we really don't protect the American worker."
Citing worker safety in March 2020, Walsh was the first mayor of a major U.S. city to temporarily halt construction during the COVID-19 outbreak. (ENR named Walsh one of its Top 25 Newsmakers last month.)
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), citing comments from Teamsters' union General President James P. Hoffa, brought up Biden's decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, resulting in the loss of about 8,000 union jobs.
Like Biden's nominees for other Cabinet-level posts, Walsh said workers who lost their jobs at the Keystone project will be able to find new ones in other energy-related areas, through his Build Back Better plan. But Cassidy said the Keystone jobs were lost immediately, adding, "The jobs you're describing are in the by and by."
Walsh also got pushback on the proposed boost in the federal minimum wage. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) noted the difference between Boston and his home state in indicators such as the average cost of housing and said a $15 minimum wage "would kill a lot of jobs in Kansas."
Walsh said the wage issue would be subject to discussion in Congress and said that if the higher wage were approved, there would be "many conversations" about how it would be implemented.
The committee's top Republican, Richard Burr (N.C.), said near the end of the hearing, "I look forward to the chairman expediting your confirmation and look forward to supporting you."
Later in the day, Murray announced that the committee will vote on his nomination on Feb. 11.