When Marty Walsh leaped straight from the top of a trade union federation to Boston City Hall in 2014, local businesses braced for the impact of a labor leader and his progressive policies.
They had little to fear from the new mayor. The following year saw “arguably the biggest building boom in the history of the city of Boston,” as one city official described it, with a record 70 development projects under way by July 2015 — including a rising rate of new construction using nonunion jobs. Walsh would go on to convince companies including Reebok, GE and Lego to relocate their headquarters to the city, as well as to draft the city’s first small business plan.
It’s that track record that has many national business leaders today optimistic that they will have Walsh’s ear when he assumes the helm at the U.S. Labor Department despite the fact President Joe Biden, who nominated him, ran on a platform that was widely panned by corporate America as potentially the most labor-friendly in history.
“He does have this reputation for bringing people together,” Glenn Spencer, senior vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of Walsh, who will have his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate HELP Committee. And “his background is in the building trades, which tends to focus on getting things done, as opposed to some other parts of the union movement.”
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to get the outcome we’re always seeking. But we hope that there’s an opportunity to weigh in and perhaps move things in a more positive direction.”
Unions and trade associations alike point to Walsh’s experience in Massachusetts, where he served as a state representative and head of the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council before running for mayor in 2013, as grounds for optimism.
Walsh “is a pragmatist, and he wants to get stuff done,” Drew Schneider, director of labor and employment policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said. “He’s been in government for a long time, and the reviews we’ve heard are positive.”
Local labor officials were surprised at the talks he facilitated as mayor “that would never occur between big business, between unions, between environmentalists,” Sean O’Brien, president of Boston’s Teamsters Local 25, said. “So he has a strong, strong characteristic of bringing people together; listening before making decisions. He’s got the ability to broker relations and or mediate any potential conflict.”
Unions that backed Walsh for the job preached his consensus-building abilities as they lobbied for his nomination.
“Workers really need real clout, but I don’t think it’s an either-or situation,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said. “Ultimately, just like in the 1940s when business understood that worker clout could actually help their bottom line, the same is true right now.”
The issues of workforce training, vaccine incentivization, unemployment insurance and multiemployer pension plans are all areas where businesses say they anticipate being able to find middle ground with a Walsh-helmed Labor Department.
“The [unemployment insurance] system needs some upgrades, and that’s a place where we think there could be some bipartisan support and we could work together on fixing that,” Spencer said. And “the secretary-nominee comes out of the union world; he understands these multiemployer [pension] plans and how important fixing them is.”
But on other issues, including the overtime rule and independent contractors, employers anticipate some disagreement: “Just look at the fights we had with the Obama administration,” Ed Egee, vice president of government relations and workforce development at National Retail Federation, said.
And certain legislative priorities like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act — which would rewrite decades-old labor laws to strengthen unions — that Walsh will be responsible for shepherding on the Hill are nonstarters.
“The PRO Act is so beyond the pale of reasonable legislation,” Egee said. “That is completely unworkable for any employer, large or small. And it would have an absolutely devastating impact on workers.”
“I mean, at some point, they have to decide whether they want a relationship with the business community, or do they want the PRO Act? They can’t, probably, have both.”
The first hump will undoubtedly be the issue of workplace safety, which Biden has vowed to address rapidly amid the pandemic. The president has signed an executive order directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to examine whether issuing an emergency temporary standard, which would create an enforceable set of guidelines for employers, is necessary — and if so, to issue one by March 15. Trade associations are jostling to make their voices heard as they look to ensure that any standard takes into concern the businesses it will affect.
Should the agency deem a standard necessary, there are various forms it could take that would be more amenable to employers. Illustrations of this can be found at the state level, where local governments have in some cases taken the matter of workplace safety into their own hands.
“The Virginia standard, the Michigan standard take [employers’] efforts into account,” Egee said. “They’re workable standards.”
But California has “a completely unworkable standard,” he said. “Even the best-intentioned employer could not possibly comply with the black-letter law of the California regulation.”
With California Labor Secretary Julie Su — who steered the agency while the state’s standard was implemented — being tapped by Biden as deputy U.S. Labor secretary, it’s not unlikely the agency will choose a similar path.
Some are expressing skepticism that Walsh will be able to appease business while still acting as Biden’s labor chief.
Former Labor Secretary “Tom Perez … said a lot of the same things and wanted to have everybody at the table and welcomed all views, and at the end of the day, we don’t think any of our concerns were reflected in their actions,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “So we would hope that Secretary-to-be Walsh listens to our concerns, and maybe gives them a little bit more attention than what we saw in previous Departments of Labor that opened up with the same message.”
And those on the left are cautioning against even attempting to negotiate with companies, in a manifestation of the thin line Biden will have to walk as he attempts to appease business and unions.
“The United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Restaurant Association and other trade associations will cut him off at his knees if he attempts to do anything bold,” former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said. “In other words, my advice to him is: Don’t negotiate.”
“Washington is a different place than Boston or Massachusetts. You’ve got to be extremely tough.”
This blog originally appeared at Politico on February 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.