Mayor Walsh joins Biden Cabinet

“It’s a little bittersweet,” says Brian Doherty, general agent for the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions, referring to the appointment of former Mayor Martin J. Walsh as labor secretary. “He’ll be great for the country, but he’s going to leave awfully big shoes to fill here in Boston.”

When Walsh was first elected mayor in 2013, Doherty succeeded him at the helm of the Building Trades Unions organization. Walsh was a state representative for 16 years as well. His legislative experience along with his role as chief executive of a major city will serve him well in his new Cabinet position. But Walsh’s bona fides as a union worker and leader make him uniquely qualified to be secretary of labor. He is the first union member in nearly 50 years to hold the position.

At age 21, Walsh followed in his father’s footsteps and became a member of Laborers Local Union 223 in Boston. He later served as president of the construction union, a position his uncle had previously held. Organized labor has been a constant throughout Walsh’s life and its cause has remained near and dear to his heart. As mayor, he demonstrated that he is a champion for working men and women. He remains committed to continuing the fight as secretary of labor.

“Working people, labor unions, and those fighting every day for their shot at the middle class are the backbone of our economy and of this country,” Walsh said on Twitter following the announcement of his nomination. “As secretary of labor, I’ll work just as hard for you as you do for your families and livelihoods. You have my word.”

In his post, Walsh will oversee federal labor laws that cover issues such as workers compensation, overtime, and workplace health and safety. For its announcement of Walsh’s nomination, the Biden administration stated that he “has the necessary experience, relationships, and the trust of the president to help workers recover from this historic economic downturn and usher in a new era of worker power.”

Among his accomplishments heading the city, Walsh obtained a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and secured an additional $15 million in funding to establish the Greater Boston Apprenticeship Initiative. That led to Building Pathways, a pre-apprenticeship program that helps women, people of color, and other under-served communities pursue careers in the construction trades. Local 12 participates in the program and has welcomed members who have graduated from it.

Walsh was also instrumental in the push to increase the minimum wage to $15 in Massachusetts. And the city’s Office of Financial Empowerment, which was established under his watch, provides financial coaching for Boston’s low-wage workers and helps them improve their credit. Walsh’s “Imagine Boston 2030” creates a roadmap to provide new opportunities for working-class people in the city as well as the development of more affordable housing for its residents.

Affordable housing is part of Walsh’s larger plan to build 69,000 housing units by 2030. During his tenure, he also oversaw a tremendous wave of commercial construction in the Seaport, downtown, the Fenway area, and other parts of the city. The activity is transforming Boston and positioning it well for the future. It is also fueling one of the largest building booms the city has ever seen and has kept GBPCA contractors, Local 12 members, and the all of the trades exceptionally busy.

“Marty has long been a champion of the working class,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. But in his role heading the Building Trades Unions, Fandel says that Walsh gained a lot of insight about how good development can help labor. “As mayor, he’s been pro-development, but not at the expense of the worker. He’s been pro-worker, but not at the expense of development. Marty understands that balancing act.”

“He’s a consensus builder,” adds Doherty, who has worked with Walsh on many labor issues. “One of his greatest strengths is his ability to bring everybody to the table, make sure their voices are heard, and to help figure out how to develop solutions.”

As an example, Doherty points to the leadership Walsh has exhibited as the pandemic took hold in the city. He says the mayor gathered representatives from labor, universities, hospitals, community advocates, and others to hammer out ways to address the crisis. It was Walsh, Doherty says, who reached out to the public health organization, Partners In Health, and the Building Trades Unions and suggested that they work with one another to help reinforce health and safety measures for the construction industry. As a result, they developed the initiative, Construction Stops COVID. (See article elsewhere in this issue.)

Doherty is confident that Walsh will bring the same kind of forward thinking and can-do spirit to the Department of Labor. “He’s the perfect person for the job. He will make difficult, courageous decisions. Throughout his entire career, Marty Walsh has been guided by a profound commitment to pursuing policies, reform, and progress that help to advance the public good and the needs of working people.”