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Atop the list of President Joe Biden’s pro-worker hires and appointments is Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former Laborer and building trades leader who is the first union member in a half-century nominated to run the Department of Labor. Clockwise from left: Walsh with Local 103 members and Business Manager Lou Antonellis during an annual toy drive; firing up workers at a labor rally; riding with Local 2222 Business Manager Myles Calvey in a Labor Day parade; and testifying Feb. 11 at his confirmation hearing.

Seats at the Table:
Biden Appointees Give Workers, Unions New Clout in Washington

March 9, 2020

Leaders shaped by deep and personal union roots are filling jobs at every level of the Biden-Harris administration, signaling a new era inside the federal government for America's workers.

A second-generation Laborer rising to be U.S. Secretary of Labor. A Steelworker helming the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. An IBEW member bringing her passion for good, union jobs in a green economy to the Department of Energy. And many others.

"This is a turning point that goes beyond righting the wrongs done to workers the past four years," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. "We've been fighting an uphill battle for decades to protect workers' rights, let alone strengthen them, even when we've had allies in the White House.

"Now, we've got people on the inside who are hardwired to fight for us, because they are us," he said. "They know the difference a union makes because they've lived it."

Starting at the top, here's a snapshot of some of those hires.

Labor Secretary nominee Marty Walsh sailed through his Senate
confirmation hearing in February, winning the panel’s approval
18-4. A final vote by the full Senate is expected soon.

Marty Walsh

The popular mayor of Boston, former state lawmaker and President Joe Biden's nominee for labor secretary, Marty Walsh is as grounded and genuine as he's always been, say IBEW leaders in New England who've known him for decades.

"He's just got a great heart. He helps everybody," said Boston Local 2222 Business Manager Myles Calvey, who also serves on the International Executive Council.

By and 18-4 vote, Walsh’s nomination was approved Feb. 11 by the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He is awaiting a vote by the full Senate in order to begin his new job.

After being elected mayor in 2013, Walsh asked Calvey how he could help members of his largely telecom local.

"By getting Fios into Boston," Calvey told him. "And that's what he did. He convinced Verizon to bring Fios here," putting Local 2222 members to work installing and servicing the fiber-optic network.

"There isn't anything that we have asked him that he hasn't responded to, going back as a state rep and as mayor," he said. "He's always thinking about the workers."

That's never in doubt, Boston Local 103 Business Manager Lou Antonellis affirmed.

"Marty is one of us," he said. "He never forgot us as he climbed the ladder. He's never forgotten where he comes from."

The son of Irish immigrants, Walsh followed his father and uncle into Laborers Local 223 and its leadership, going on to head the Greater Boston Building Trades coalition.

"The word 'labor' means everything to me," Walsh said, accepting the nomination in January. "Working people have been struggling for a long time under the erosion of their rights, and the deep inequalities of race, gender, and class. … Now we have the opportunity to put power back in the hands of working people all across this country."

By choosing Walsh, Biden kept a campaign promise that his labor secretary would come from labor, not just be a supporter of unions, said Second District International Vice President Mike Monahan.

"There's a difference," he said. "You'll never have to worry about Marty compromising his beliefs or cutting a deal. He is always, always going to be for the worker."

But he said Walsh, who grew up a few blocks from Monahan in the Savin Hill area of Dorchester, is practical, too.

"He gets the economics of labor. We have to be competitive in the building trades. We have to be the best trained, but our contractors have to be competitive if they're going to win work and keep creating jobs," Monahan said. "Marty understands both sides, and he'll run a Labor Department that looks out for working people and our jobs."

Today, in another section of Dorchester, Walsh lives around the corner from Antonellis. But they were labor allies and friends long before they were neighbors.

"When you first meet Marty Walsh, you can't help but like him," Antonellis said. "He's not a pompous guy at all. He's a very down-to-earth person, very easy to talk to."

Both he and Calvey have known Walsh since his first run for the Massachusetts House in 1997. He won and kept winning, always the "go-to guy" for pro-worker legislation, they said.

In 2013, Walsh traded the statehouse for the mayor's office, and was re-elected by a two-thirds majority in 2017. He enacted policies and programs to help lift people out of poverty, while his development plans spurred construction that continues to create good, union jobs for the building trades.

He's aggressive about protecting the people he serves, Antonellis said, pointing to his swift, bold action as COVID-19 struck Boston — an ongoing crisis in American workplaces that the new labor secretary will need to address urgently.

"I don't think there's a mayor in the country that did more on COVID-19 than Mayor Walsh," he said. "He made it an absolute priority."

Walsh even risked the ire of the city's building trades by shutting down construction for a period last spring.

"He said, 'I'm doing it for your members … the jobsites are not safe right now,'" Antonellis said. "He wouldn't let them reopen unless contractors signed a six-point directive about PPE, social distancing, temperature checks, that kind of thing."

Despite criticism from some quarters, he believes Walsh would win a third term in a landslide if he were on the 2021 ballot. "Marty's been a fixture in union halls" throughout his public service, he said, always accessible and ready to listen.

Antonellis recounts with a laugh being asked who he contacts first in the mayor's office when he needs to reach Walsh.

"There's nobody in between," he said. "I call him, I text him, and usually he gets right back to me."

Antonellis does the same when Walsh calls, sometimes looking for mentors for neighborhood kids curious about the trades or seeking the union's hand with charitable works, such as the toy drive that Local 103 takes on enthusiastically each year.

One day Walsh called after hanging up with the White House. "He was talking to President Biden and now he's on the phone with me," Antonellis marveled. "You kind of get lost in the moment for minute. But he never makes you feel like you're any less important."

He has no doubt that his friend will make workers across the country feel the same way.

James S. Frederick

An activist who spent 25 years at the United Steelworkers fighting to protect workers' safety and health is President Biden's choice to head OSHA as a deputy secretary of labor.

James Frederick is tasked with restoring OSHA to its core mission after four years of erosion that allowed law-breaking employers to cut corners with near impunity, including in workplaces with widespread and lethal COVID-19 outbreaks.

"There is no stronger advocate for worker safety in this country than Jim Frederick," said USW International President Tom Conway. "He brings not just a deep commitment to safer workplaces for all Americans, but the expertise and experience to get the job done right."

The USW said Frederick often testified at congressional hearings and federal agencies, leading progress on issues that include workplace violence, beryllium, silica, hazard communication and ergonomics.

On the COVID-19 front, a Biden executive order gives OSHA new tools to combat workplace spread of the virus. The agency now has the power to require employers to provide PPE, enhance cleaning, bring back workers who fall ill and other protections that were merely suggestions under the previous administration.

Jennifer Jean Kropke

A Los Angeles Local 11 activist, Jennifer Kropke
is now part of the Department of Energy’s
leadership team.

One of the IBEW's own, Jennifer Kropke has been named Director of Energy Jobs at the Department of Energy, bringing her fight for green, union jobs to the national stage.

Kropke served Los Angeles Local 11 and its NECA partners as the first director of workforce and environmental engagement, focused on creating union jobs in clean energy, port electrification and zero-emission transportation.

But her labor roots go even deeper: Her father, Marvin Kropke, was Local 11's business manager for 21 years. Now his daughter is the DOE's first Director of Energy Jobs.

Joël Barton, the local's current business manager, recommended her when the incoming Biden administration was compiling a list of candidates for the DOE team.

"We're so excited to have Jennifer there," Barton said. "She's a card-carrying member of Local 11 and she's also a great mom who cares about a clean environment for her children. She knows it has to be a slow transition, with opportunities for retraining and new jobs that provide good wages and good benefits. Jobs that can sustain a family.”

Jessica Looman

Formerly the executive director of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, Jessica Looman now has a vital role enforcing federal laws protecting workers' wages.

Looman started her new job on Inauguration Day, officially the deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division.

"Jessica has dedicated her life to the labor movement and has been a pivotal voice in fighting for working families in Minnesota," said Harry Melander, trades council president. "We look forward to watching her bring that same passion and leadership to the Department of Labor.”