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May 2021

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Walsh Sworn in at DOL;
Pro-Union Deputy Awaits Senate Vote

Six weeks after soaring through his U.S. Senate hearing, Marty Walsh was sworn in as the nation's new labor secretary March 23, the first union member in 45 years to helm the agency charged with protecting workers' rights.

A day earlier, 18 Republicans joined all Democrats to confirm Walsh in a 68-29 vote, filling the 15th and final seat in President Biden's executive-level Cabinet.

"I spent my entire career fighting for working people, and I'm eager to continue that fight in Washington," Walsh said that evening in Boston as he stepped down as the city's two-term mayor.

The son of Irish immigrants, Walsh followed his father and uncle into Laborers Local 223 and its leadership. He went on to head the Greater Boston Building Trades coalition, while also serving 16 years in the Massachusetts Legislature.

Before the vote, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown noted the importance of having a union member leading the Department of Labor.

"Too many people in this town don't know what it's like not to have a voice on the job," Brown said. "They don't understand collective bargaining and the power that a union card gives you over your career and your finances and your future.

"Marty Walsh does understand it. Like President Biden, he's not afraid to talk about the labor movement; he doesn't recoil from using the word 'union.'"

The last labor secretary with union roots was William Usery Jr., a Machinist who founded and led his own local. He was appointed in 1976 to serve the final year of Gerald Ford's presidency.

Walsh will have a dynamic, pro-union partner at the office if the Senate confirms Julie Su as his deputy labor secretary. Her confirmation was pending in early April.

Su has been California's labor secretary since 2019, the latest step in an activist career. Previously the state's labor commissioner, she set records for labor-law enforcement, cracking down on wage theft and other exploitation.

She caught the public's attention as a young lawyer in the 1990s, when she fought for 70 Thai garment workers enslaved near Los Angeles, winning them millions in back pay.

Her resume is the polar opposite of Patrick Pizzella's, deputy labor secretary in the last administration. While Su was exposing sweatshops, Pizzella was working with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to help abusive factories in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth, evade federal labor laws.

Foxes in the henhouse were common in the previous DOL, Brown said on the Senate floor, describing a "department full of people who made their careers fighting for corporate boards and CEOs trying to squeeze every last penny out of workers and skirting labor law."

International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said Walsh's selection is one more way Biden has kept his promises to workers.

"President Biden chose someone from the union movement, not just someone who supports us from the outside," he said. "As much as we greatly need and appreciate every ally we have, there's a difference when you understand something because you've lived it. All workers, union and nonunion, are better off now that Marty Walsh has their backs."

Terry O'Sullivan, the president of Walsh's own union, called him a "dues-paying, card-carrying, second-generation member of the Laborers' International Union of North America whose dedication and devotion to the cause, the purpose, and the mission of the labor movement is unwavering."

Walsh's advocates say it's a win for the economy as well as workers.

"We have a tremendous opportunity to rebuild our economy with workers at the center," Brown said, citing Biden's sweeping Build Back Better plan, which he rolled out March 31. "If you love your country, you fight for the people who make it work. As secretary of labor, that's what Marty Walsh will do."

Even a Republican sang Walsh's praises.

"Why is a guy from North Carolina here to encourage my colleagues to vote for the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts?" Sen. Richard Burr said before the vote. "It's quite simple: Mayor Walsh has the background, the skills and the awareness for the need of balance in conversations between labor and management."

At his hearing in February, Walsh talked about the origins of his blue-collar values.

"I thought about my uncle and my father talking at the kitchen table on Sundays about fighting for the rights of workers," he said. "About making sure that jobs were there so that people wouldn't be unemployed, making sure that they didn't have to have benefit dances to support union brothers and sisters because their kids were sick or somebody died."

He invoked his improbable journey again as he bid farewell to Boston to start his new job. "My mother got a call about a month ago from a person who drove her to the airport when she was 17 years old in Ireland," Walsh said. "She didn't know this person was still alive.

"He called to tell her, 'Mary, I never would have expected the day I dropped you off at Shannon Airport that someday your son would be the secretary of labor.'"


Vice President Kamala Harris swears in former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as U.S. labor secretary, one day after the Senate confirmed him 68-29.


Julie Su, nominated for the No. 2 post at DOL, is a career workers' rights champion.

2020 BLS Data Demonstrates the Difference a Union Makes

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report on unionization rates in 2020 shows how a union can make a real difference in a working person's life, even — or especially — during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.

According to the numbers, which were released in January, the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of unions in 2020, also known as the union membership rate, increased by 0.5 percentage points to 10.8%. This occurred despite historic unemployment numbers overall because union workers suffered fewer job losses than nonunion workers did during the pandemic.

"These numbers show just how critical the protections of a union are," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "Having a voice and being able to negotiate terms like furloughs, paid sick time and severance are incredibly important. And in a year like 2020, that was on full display."

In addition to the power of a collective voice and a contract, the Economic Policy Institute points out that another reason for the increased unionization rate is because of a "pandemic composition effect." This phenomenon is exemplified by certain industries, like hospitality and leisure that have low unionization rates, experiencing more job loss than industries like the public sector, which have higher concentrations of union workers.

Yet, even within the same industry union members fared better. The wholesale and retail trade, one of the hardest-hit sectors, shed more than 700,000 positions but still gained 46,000 union members.

"One of the headlines from this is that union membership provides protections against the harshest layoffs at a time of economic crisis," Rebecca Givan, professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, told the Washington Post.

In the construction industry, the BLS reported that the number of wage and salary construction workers with union membership declined from just over 1 million in 2019 to 993,000 in 2020, but the percentage increased slightly from 12.6% to 12.7%. Additionally, nonunion median weekly wages in 2019 were almost 29% less than the average union wage.

EPI also noted that while the unionization rate for public sector workers at the state and local levels increased, the opposite happened at the federal level, which they attribute to then-President Trump's anti-union actions including multiple executive orders aimed at weakening unions.

Government Employees Director Paul O'Connor also points to a lack of support in Congress, particularly in the Senate, then controlled by Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.

"Presidential executive orders do not require U.S. House or Senate concurrence, but our elected officials didn't stand with the IBEW or other federal labor unions to fight the rampant, widespread injustice of Trump's orders," O'Connor said. "This became a deflating reality for our federal sector brothers and sisters. Apathy rose as morale diminished."

O'Connor said that lack of support hampered the efforts of IBEW leaders and allies to fight back, which some members then misinterpreted as the unions not doing enough, so they took advantage of their open shop status and left.

"Our local union leaders tirelessly, day in and day out, displayed grit and determination, and the IBEW administration supported them every step of the way," O'Connor said. "The degree of their success was not a reflection of the intensity with which they defended their membership. Instead, it was more of a reflection of the values agencies placed on our federal workforce and the intrinsic nature of quality labor-management relationships."

The economic upheaval of 2020 may have laid bare the difference a union makes, but the desire to join one started before the coronavirus hit. A survey taken in 2017 by PBS and the National Opinion Research Corporation found that nearly half of workers would join a union if given the chance — a four-decade high for the question. As PBS reported, the scale of this shift indicates that 58 million American workers would vote for representation if they could, quadrupling the current union membership.

Union popularity was also found by Gallup in its 2020 poll that showed overall support at 65%, the highest in a decade.

As EPI noted, the union coverage rate is less than half of what it was roughly 40 years ago and this has coincided with rampant inequality, the worst in U.S. history according to Census Bureau data. From 1979 to 2019, the wages of the top 1% grew nearly 160.3%, while the wages of the bottom 90% combined grew just 26%.

"It's no coincidence that things get worse for working people when unions are under attack," Stephenson said. "Unions are the best tool we have for leveling the playing field and giving everyone a real shot at the American Dream. And the best thing we can do right now to get more people organized is to pass the PRO Act."

The Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO Act, is federal legislation that would make it easier for people to join a union while also keeping unscrupulous employers from meddling in the process. It's been called the most important piece of labor legislation in more than 70 years and it passed the House of Representatives in March. President Joe Biden has signaled his support, but it faces an uphill battle in the Senate.


New BLS numbers show how union workers faired better than nonunion workers during the pandemic, but overall low union rates are still main factor in a decades-long inequality gap.

Source: Economic Policy Institute