Democratic Factions Line Up To Lobby for New Labor Secretary
Mr. Walsh played a pivotal role in labor negotiations and advocated for workers’ unionization.
As President Biden prepares to lose his first cabinet secretary, powerful individuals and advocacy groups are lobbying the White House to choose their hand-picked candidate. Given the declining union membership and Mr. Biden’s avowedly pro-union reelection message, the Secretary of Labor position will be a high-profile spot.
According to Politico, Secretary Walsh will leave the administration in the coming weeks to take a job as executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association — the union that negotiates on behalf of professional hockey players. Mr. Walsh, a former trade union president and Boston mayor, has yet to comment on his future.
During his tenure, Mr. Walsh played a pivotal role in labor negotiations and advocated for workers’ unionization. The secretary led negotiations between rail workers and their managers in a dispute over wages, staffing shortages, and paid sick leave. He also implemented new guidelines encouraging federal workers to join unions.
The leading candidate to replace Mr. Walsh is reportedly Deputy Secretary of Labor Julie Su, according to NBC News. At the same time Mr. Walsh was cutting his teeth as a construction worker and union leader in Boston, Ms. Su was winning court cases on behalf of California workers who had wages stolen by their managers.
In 1995, Ms. Su’s legal work led to the freedom of 72 Thai factory workers in Southern California who had been found to be working in slave-like conditions.
Ms. Su led the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement during the administration of Governor Jerry Brown and served as Secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency under Governor Newsom.
Asian-American members of Congress are aggressively pushing for Ms. Su to be named the new labor secretary. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus penned an endorsement letter that called Ms. Su a “stellar, exceptionally qualified” candidate.
“Deputy Secretary Su has dedicated her career to the promotion of workers’ rights and fair labor practices and to advancing equity and opportunities for all workers, including ones from historically underserved communities,” the statement said.
The caucus also noted their concern that Mr. Biden has yet to name an Asian-American to a cabinet-level position. It is the first time since 2000 that no Asian-American is serving in the cabinet.
The Congressional Black Caucus has also endorsed Ms. Su’s candidacy for the department’s top job. “Deputy Secretary Su has been an unwavering advocate for workers’ rights since she started her legal career enforcing workplace laws,” the group said in a statement. “She has been a trusted partner of the CBC and advocate for underserved communities.”
Another candidate with powerful support is a recently defeated Democratic congressman, Sean Patrick Maloney. According to NBC News, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has relayed her preference for Mr. Maloney to the White House.
“Speaker Emerita Pelosi would love to see Sean Patrick Maloney continue in public service, including in the administration,” Ms. Pelosi’s office said in a statement. Mr. Maloney, however, has no prior experience as either a union member or labor lawyer.
Mr. Maloney has already faced fierce opposition to his candidacy. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who has publicly sparred with Mr. Maloney in recent years — said on Twitter that she “could not think of a more divisive candidate for the job.”
The Revolving Door Project, a liberal advocacy group, also said Mr. Maloney is the wrong person for the job. “Nothing in his record indicates any unique relationship with labor, but he has quite strong relationships with the CEOs and executives who often try to undermine labor,” the group’s spokesman wrote in a statement.
Former New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio is also pitching himself as a successor to Mr. Walsh. “The mayor has had his eye on the Biden administration for a long time and now he sees an opening and he’s making his case for labor secretary to the White House,” a source told the New York Post.
The labor secretary position is a critical one in this administration. During Mr. Biden’s tenure, the Labor Department has been at the center of high-stakes contract negotiations, legislative proposals to protect collective bargaining, and advocating for increased union membership. But despite high-profile union drives at Starbucks and Amazon in the last few years, union membership as a share of total jobs has been cut in half since 1983.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total union membership fell to 10.1 percent in 2022, down from 10.3 in 2021. Public sector workers constitute the majority, with 33 percent of those workers in unions compared to just six percent of private sector workers.
The total number of union workers in the United States increased by 273,000 last year, but because of the more rapid growth of non-union workers, the total share decreased nationwide.
“Many media outlets wrote headlines saying union membership went down, when it actually went up,” Mr. Walsh wrote in a blog post following the release of the union membership numbers.
“Others focused on the overall share of the workforce who are union members, which fell slightly because the growth in union membership was dwarfed by unprecedented job growth during the Biden-Harris administration, including a record 4.5 million new jobs in 2022 alone,” Mr. Walsh said.
Mr. Biden ran an aggressively pro-union campaign in 2020. A staple of his messaging was that “the middle class built America, and unions built the middle class.”