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DJ Labor Nominee Would Bring Union Advocate to Cabinet -- Update 1

· 02/04/2021 14:07
By Amara Omeokwe

WASHINGTON -- President Biden's pick for Labor Department secretary, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, would bring a champion of organized labor to the White House cabinet if he is confirmed.

Mr. Walsh, who testified at a Thursday Senate hearing on his confirmation, is expected to pursue the administration's labor goals, including efforts to recover millions of jobs lost last year, expanding who qualifies for overtime pay and pressing Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

He also is expected to pursue the administration's plans to boost labor unions, a promise Mr. Biden made while campaigning for president.

Thursday's hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee brought Mr. Walsh one step closer to a full Senate confirmation vote. Committee Republicans are mostly expected to support Mr. Walsh's nomination, a GOP aide said. Ranking member Richard Burr (R., N.C.) signaled during the hearing that he would vote in favor of moving the nomination forward.

In testimony, Mr. Walsh connected his experiences growing up in an Irish immigrant family, working blue-collar jobs and joining a local union to his advocacy for policies that protect workers. "These are not just policies to me. I've lived them. Millions of American families right now need them," Mr. Walsh said in prepared remarks.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate panel, and other Democrats raised questions about how Mr. Walsh would boost worker protections amid the coronavirus pandemic and work to address challenges minorities and women face in the labor market.

Republicans pressed Mr. Walsh about his support for increasing the federal minimum wage and raised concerns about how such a move could negatively impact businesses and workers.

GOP committee members also signaled they would push back on Democratic-led efforts to pass legislation, known as the PRO Act, that seeks to increase union membership and boost employee protections. Ms. Murray said she would introduce the legislation Thursday.

Mr. Walsh during the hearing said he supports the bill, but that he would be willing to consider opposing perspectives on it.

The hearing came against the backdrop of a health crisis that has caused millions of job losses and complicated workplace safety. Mr. Biden has already directed the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set a temporary standard to require employers to develop coronavirus safety protocols.

Mr. Walsh on Thursday said work at OSHA, including increasing the number of the agency's inspectors, would be a priority for him should he be confirmed.

"If we increase standards and don't increase inspectors, then we don't really protect the American worker," Mr. Walsh said.

The Labor Department has a range of responsibilities, from investigating employers for illegal wage practices and worker-safety violations to conducting statistical analysis and facilitating job training programs. It also has some oversight of unions and oversees registered apprenticeship programs, many of which are run by labor unions.

Before his election as Boston's mayor, Mr. Walsh forged strong union ties as president of Laborers Local 223, which his father was also a member of, and as head of the Boston region's Building and Construction Trades Council. His recent financial disclosure suggests he has modest assets compared with others nominated for Mr. Biden's cabinet and individuals who served in former President Donald Trump's cabinet.

"He grew up with not a lot and the union structure allowed his family to put food on the table every day. And I think it all goes back to that perspective," Daniel Koh, who served as Mr. Walsh's chief of staff from 2014 to 2017, said.

He is in his second term as Boston's mayor, where the economy and job growth were priorities. He has also garnered a reputation in the city for balancing worker advocacy with business collaboration on economic development projects, according to Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Walsh played a key role in negotiating deals with well-known companies, such as General Electric Co. moving its headquarters to Boston.

"He found a path with the business community towards mutually shared objectives in the form of jobs," Mr. Rooney said.

Some business groups and Republican lawmakers have said they would push back on parts of Mr. Biden's labor-related agenda.

Matthew Haller, senior vice president of government relations at the International Franchise Association, said he expects the Biden administration to move to alter the so-called joint-employment rule, which determines when two businesses could simultaneously be liable for complying with labor laws such as minimum wage and overtime rules.

"We're fearful that uncertainty may creep back in if some of these priorities that we know labor unions are going to be advancing are put forward," Mr. Haller said.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color and Mr. Walsh would be leading an agency that could use policy and enforcement actions, among other tools, to help combat racial and economic inequality, central priorities for Mr. Biden.

Atyia Martin, who reported to Mr. Walsh as Boston's chief resilience officer until 2018, said Mr. Walsh should consider why racial disparities persist and how he will make addressing them central to his work, should he be confirmed.

"It can't be an extracurricular thing on the side," Ms. Martin said. His policy-making should "embed racial equity into it, so that we're not expecting equity to happen by accident or when we have time to get it."

Mr. Walsh during Thursday's hearing pledged to work with lawmakers and across the federal government to address racial and economic gaps.

He had previously supported a push in 2017 to raise Massachusetts's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023. The labor secretary plays a key role in rallying support around the president's labor priorities.

Mr. Walsh has previously taken on worker-safety issues. In response to a 2016 trench collapse in Boston that killed two workers, he created an ordinance requiring firms receiving permits to work within the city to affirm their work safety history.

Mr. Walsh early in the pandemic also announced a pause in nonessential construction in Boston aimed at slowing the spread of the virus among industry workers. Boston later implemented new policies for the construction firms, including requiring them to submit plans for protecting workers during the pandemic.

Eric Morath contributed to this article.

Write to Amara Omeokwe at amara.omeokwe@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 04, 2021 14:07 ET (19:07 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.