Former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was sworn-in as U.S. labor secretary Tuesday evening, the first union member in 45 years to lead the Department of Labor.
Marty Walsh was a building trades member and leader in Boston who served as the city’s mayor for seven years until being confirmed Monday as the nation’s labor secretary.
On Monday, 18 Republicans joined all Democrats to support Walsh’s nomination, voting 68-29 to confirm him.
"I spent my entire career fighting for working people, and I'm eager to continue that fight in Washington,” Walsh said afterwards in his hometown as he formally stepped down as mayor after seven years.
Walsh’s confirmation as an unabashed union advocate is historic — an irony that Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown pointed out on the Senate floor before the vote.
“Too many people in this town don’t know what it’s like not to have a voice on the job. They don’t understand collective bargaining and the power that a union card gives you over your career and your finances and your future,” Brown said.
“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, the son of Irish immigrants, 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.
IBEW leaders in the region hold Walsh in the highest regard, saying he’s “one of us” and has never forgotten where he came from.
"There isn't anything that we have asked him that he hasn't responded to, going back as a state rep and as mayor," said Boston Local 2222 Business Manager Myles Calvey, who also serves on the International Executive Council. "He's always thinking about the workers."
International President Lonnie R. Stephenson that choosing Walsh is one of the many ways that President Biden is keeping his campaign promises to help American workers.
“He 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.”
Stephenson and IBEW leaders who’ve worked directly with Walsh for decades in Massachusetts stress that by standing with workers he has spurred economic progress and development, not hindered it.
"Marty understands both sides,” said Second District International Vice President Mike Monahan. “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.”
That wasn’t lost on Sen. Richard Burr, who gave a three-minute floor speech strongly encouraging his Republican colleagues to join him in backing Walsh.
“Why is a guy from North Carolina here to encourage my colleagues to vote for the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts?” Burr asked. “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.”
Burr reminded them of the DOL’s “immensely important role” in helping the nation’s job market recover from the pandemic.
“This is a job that needs filling,” he said. “Mayor Walsh emphasized during his nomination hearing that he wanted to work with us collaboratively to help the American workers improve and expand opportunities… He is committed to making sure commerce and labor work cooperatively.”
Brown didn’t disagree but was clear that Walsh’s first loyalty is to workers.
“For years we’ve had a Department of Labor full of corporate lawyers. In fact, the secretary of labor was a corporate lawyer who made millions of dollars attacking labor unions in court,” Brown said of Walsh’s predecessor. “The department was 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.”
He drew a direct line between economic growth and good-paying, safe, union jobs — such as hundreds of thousands of building trades jobs that the administration’s Build Back Better plan is expected to create.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to rebuild our economy with workers at the center,” Brown said. “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.”
As Walsh told senators at his confirmation hearing in February, his values were forged in his blue-collar childhood in Dorchester, the Boston neighborhood that’s been his lifelong home.
“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.”
His improbable journey was still on his mind as he bid farewell to his constituents in Boston on Monday night, just before flying to Washington to take the oath of office and begin 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 my mother 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.’”