President-elect Joe Biden has picked Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former top union leader, to serve as his Labor secretary, according to four sources, ending a selection process that split the labor movement and stoked diversity concerns among Democrats.
Walsh beat out a host of other names floated for the position, including Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), former Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris, California Labor Secretary Julie Su and AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs. His selection suggests that Biden was willing to overlook calls for a more diverse choice, since Walsh is a white man, and Asian American and Pacific Islanders had been lobbying heavily for Su. Spriggs is Black.
Biden was widely expected to choose a Labor Department head who enjoyed the support of unions, given the president-elect’s long-standing ties with labor leaders, his support for the right to organize and the key role the agency will play in implementing the sweeping pro-worker agenda he campaigned on.
Walsh and Biden also have strong personal ties. Not only did Biden speak at the mayor’s 2017 inauguration, but the two have been spotted together in Boston at the anniversary of the marathon bombings, at a Stop & Shop workers rally and at dinner.
“He’s a friend and knows Joe: They’ve worked together on numerous occasions,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told POLITICO in November. “They have the relationship I think is necessary.”
The decision to nominate Walsh deals a significant blow to the AAPI lawmakers and outside groups, who have been highlighting for weeks that Biden has yet to tap an Asian American for any secretary-level position in his Cabinet. Labor secretary appeared to be one of his last opportunities and perhaps the most likely one.
Biden has already nominated two Asian American women, Neera Tanden and Katherine Tai, to Cabinet positions at the Office of Management and Budget and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, respectively. But neither of those positions is at the secretary level, where at least one AAPI candidate has held a seat for more than two decades.
If confirmed, Walsh would step into the job at one of the most critical points in history for American labor, with millions of people out of work and facing the loss of jobless benefits, and a narrowly divided Congress poised to stand in the way of many of Biden’s labor initiatives. Still, the Labor secretary has the power to enact regulatory changes that can make the workplace more safe and secure and empower employees.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Walsh’s connection to Biden and his own track record would make him effective. “Marty comes to this with a closeness to the president-elect and an ability to get things done,” she told POLITICO.
The AFL-CIO’s two largest affiliates, the AFT and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, threw their weight behind Walsh, a onetime leader of the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group for unions.
“Marty is a star, and he could hit the ground running as far as dealing with the issues and impact on working families,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in December.
Trumka, while stopping short of formally endorsing Walsh, said in November that he would be a “great choice” who “has strong union bonafides; he has executive experience, and a record that would make any working person very, very proud.”
The support, however, was not unanimous: United Auto Workers and Utility Workers Union of America sent letters to Biden’s transition team backing Levin, and National Nurses United and Communications Workers of America threw their weight behind Levin, as well. The United Farm Workers of America spoke out in favor of Su.
Three of the biggest unions in the U.S. — the National Education Association and Service Employees International Union, and Teamsters — are not part of the AFL-CIO and did not endorse candidates for the top job.
In fact, the rift between the AFL-CIO affiliates and the Asian American, Pacific Islanders’ push for Su fostered some doubt that Biden would choose Walsh.
But he had support from the bulk of organized labor the whole time, Saunders said. “Each individual union makes its own decision, but the overwhelming majority supports Marty to be Labor secretary,” he said.
Current and former union officials have raised some concerns about revelations of corruption under Walsh’s watch as mayor, an office he has held since 2014. These include one city employee who pleaded guilty in September 2019 to accepting a $50,000 bribe. But Trumka was quick to dismiss those: “It’s nonsense,” he said. “It had nothing to do with him.”
Walsh, for his part, stayed tight-lipped throughout the process.
“I’m excited about what a Biden-Harris administration means for Boston," he said in November. "While it’s an honor to be mentioned among the many highly qualified individuals being considered for a role in the Biden administration, I am focused on my job as mayor."
Until the announcement, Walsh was widely expected to run for a third term in 2021, despite not having announced his plans. In November, he told reporters he was looking forward to working with the Biden administration “as mayor for the many years to come,” quashing speculation that he could be headed to Washington.
Walsh also raised more than $323,000 in November and recently spent $40,000 on polling, signaling that he was going to take another run for the mayor’s office. He also didn’t endorse Biden in the Democratic primary, choosing instead to stay neutral.
Megan Cassella and Stephanie Murray contributed to this report.