What Biden’s Pick for Labor Secretary Could Mean for Employees

A few months ago, we outlined what each presidential candidate’s platform meant for employees. With President Joe Biden now sworn in as president, we’ll now take a look at the potential implications for employees as a result of Biden’s pick for labor secretary.

While COVID relief has dominated the news, we would like to take a look at the labor policies that are likely to come to fruition now that Democrats control the White House, House of Representatives, and the Senate.

In this article, we will take a closer look at:

  • Biden’s pick for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, Marty Walsh
  • Walsh’s background
  • Biden’s labor-related campaign goals, and
  • How the new administration’s policies might impact employees

Of course, we can only speculate what the future holds at this point. There is no way to truly know what the Biden administration will do for employees over the next four years. But Biden and Walsh’s respective backgrounds provide key clues to help us imagine what the future holds for U.S. employees.

Let’s dive right in with a brief background on the next likely Labor Secretary, Martin J. “Marty” Walsh.

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Biden’s Pick for Labor Secretary

For months, many speculated that Biden might pick Senator Bernie Sanders as Labor Secretary. Many progressive Democrats supported Sanders’ campaign for presidency and wanted to see his inclusion as part of Biden’s cabinet. However, partly out of fear that Democrats might lose ground in Senate races, Biden and Sanders felt it was safer that Sanders remain in the Senate.

Ultimately, Biden announced that Walsh, former Mayor of Boston, would be his pick. During the press conference announcing his pick, Biden mentioned that Walsh “would work to protect and encourage unionization.” At 53, Walsh will be a relatively young cabinet member, and hopefully one that brings fresh ideas to the Department of Labor.

Walsh’s Background

To better understand what Walsh brings to the table, it helps to know a bit of his history. The son of immigrants, Walsh comes from an Irish American working class background. He is a former union worker who once served as President of the Laborers Local 223 (in Boston) and led the Boston Building Trades.

Aside from his lengthy history with labor unions, he served as a Massachusetts state representative for more than a decade before being elected to two terms as mayor of Boston.

Walsh is staunchly pro-Union, and even found himself amidst a scandal when two of his aides were accused of extorting vendors (withholding permits unless they agreed to hire union). A federal judge tossed the convictions of the two aides, and the scandal largely fell by the wayside. However, the incident may speak to just how much Walsh supports labor unions.

Walsh also convened a task force for the purpose of increasing the minimum wage while serving as mayor. He claims a desire to “put power back in the hands of working people all across this country.” Walsh and Biden have both expressed an interest in increasing the federal minimum wage, as well as expanded paid family leave.

Has Biden’s Platform Changed?

Little, if anything, has changed about Biden’s labor platform. The major change is not to Biden’s goals, but to the composition of Congress. When Republicans held a majority in the Senate, it was unclear how many of Biden’s objectives would ever make their way into policy. With Democrats holding a slim majority in both the House and the Senate (the latter only with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris, who also serves as the president of that chamber), there is a greater chance the Biden administration will be able to follow through on their promises.

One new development is Biden’s plan to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. He announced his plan to raise the minimum wage as part of his coronavirus relief package. The Biden administration will have significant work to control the spread of coronavirus during his first days as President. Some of his relief package, however, is aimed at helping workers. The health of the American public is entwined with financial relief and economic programs, so both play a huge role in the $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan. His plan includes increased unemployment insurance benefits, aid to small businesses, increasing the minimum wage, funding childcare, and boosting the Earned Income Tax Credit from $530 to $1,500.

Aside from the proposed stimulus package, Biden’s labor platform remains intact, although it may take time to see some of the labor goals come to fruition given the urgency of coronavirus relief (and now a second impeachment trial). Once the administration overcomes these initial hurdles, there will likely be some major changes within the Department of Labor. One change that Walsh is almost certain to implement is the creation of a working group designed to bring industries to the bargaining table with unions – to set wages and working conditions industrywide.

What This All Means for Employees

There has been a lot of talk about the revival of unions. Already this year, Google workers announced a plan to unionize and some theorize a surge in unions similar to the New Deal era. Even in firmly conservative Texas, newsroom employees of the Dallas Morning News voted to join the Communications Workers of America union.

With pro-union Walsh at the helm of the Labor Department as labor secretary, as well as Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, a more union-friendly era could be on the horizon.

This could have wide-ranging implications for the growing number of gig workers for companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and other growing companies whose workers are independent contractors and have few protections given to employees. California passed a law requiring such workers to be classified as employees, but California voters overturned that law when they voted for an industry-backed ballot initiative, Prop 22, that provides gig workers with more benefits than they previously had, but stopping well short of those afforded to employees. The key question will be whether Walsh may be able to secure protections for gig-workers at the federal level.

Another anticipated change will be stricter rules regarding COVID-19 in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is overseen by the Labor Department. OSHA has been criticized for lax standards and poor worker protections in the wake of the pandemic. With Biden’s promise to take pandemic safety seriously and Walsh’s track record of standing up for workers’ rights, there is a good chance we will see some major changes within OSHA.

We Can Help You Navigate Changing Policies

At Jackson Spencer, we are well aware that we cannot predict the future. There is no way for us to know exactly which of Biden’s campaign promises will make their way into law or executive orders. But we can make educated guesses based on our decades of experience as employee rights lawyers. If you need any help navigating changing employment policies or need advice regarding your rights in the workplace, we are here to help. Check out our blog for more information or contact our office today for a free consultation.