January 15, 2021
President-elect Biden has picked a consensus-seeking nominee for Secretary of Labor in naming former union leader and Boston mayor Marty Walsh. Nevertheless, an extremely pro-labor agenda is expected.
Union roots: Before serving as the mayor of Boston, Walsh led the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council and enjoyed a large swath of union backing in his campaign for Labor Secretary. The American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees—the two largest arms of the AFL-CIO—endorsed Walsh as part of considerable lobbying undertaken inside the labor movement. The labor push proved to be intensely divisive, as the United Auto Workers and Utility Workers Union of America both backed Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) over Walsh, as did the Communications Workers of America.
If confirmed, Walsh would be the first union leader to serve as labor secretary since 1977. His nomination is a major win for organized labor and in accordance with President-elect Biden’s demonstrated commitment to the labor movement and his pro-worker platform.
Despite his strong ties to organized labor and an undoubtedly pro-labor agenda, Walsh is perhaps—from a business community perspective—the most accessible and reasonable of the candidates considered by the Biden team. “It is significant that Walsh and the more pragmatic elements of organized labor prevailed,” noted Roger King, Senior Labor & Employment Counsel, HR Policy Association. “Walsh has a history of approachability which we think is particularly important as the fragile economy is in a state of recovery.”
Walsh will oversee the Biden team’s ambitious labor agenda, which includes a historic overhaul of federal labor law and policy. Even where legislative avenues may be closed to passage of the PRO Act or similar pro-labor bills, employers should expect the Labor Department under Walsh’s lead to promulgate several regulatory measures with significant scope. These will likely include rules on worker misclassification and joint employer liability and increased workplace safety enforcement actions. With more work being done from home, requirements to track hours and compensate for overtime will also be in play.
Outlook: Biden has long prided himself on his ties to the union community and campaigned on a substantially pro-worker platform, making his choice of former union leader Walsh unsurprising. Employers, many of whom are still struggling to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, should expect a slew of labor and employment regulatory efforts in the coming months.