The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘People shouldn’t be afraid of the word white privilege’: New labor secretary talks inequality, racism and union power in first interview

Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Marty Walsh as Labor Secretary at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

New labor secretary Marty Walsh has his work cut out for him.

Some 18 million people are unemployed. The Labor Department has been criticized for doing few workplace safety inspections during the pandemic. And income inequality and race-based disparities — in wages, unemployment levels and other measurements — continue to worsen.

Walsh takes the reins of the agency at a moment when workplace issues are more central to the national political discussion than any other time in recent history.

The preferred candidate of many influential labor unions, he is the first labor secretary with a union background since the 1970s, a notable choice for a president who has vowed to be the most “pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” The son of Irish immigrants, Walsh dropped out of college and worked his way up through the ranks of Boston’s construction trade unions before becoming mayor of the city in 2014. (He later returned to school, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Boston College in his 40s). He had cancer as a child and sought treatment for alcoholism in his 20s.

Walsh sat down with The Washington Post for his first interview since being sworn in Tuesday. He talked about how systemic racism effects workers of color, about why gig companies may not be able to count on government support for their workers indefinitely and what the Biden administration can do to get women back in the labor force after a brutal year.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You have a unique backstory. What are some lessons you’ve learned about work over the years that you bring to your new position?

A: Aside from being a paperboy [for the Boston Globe], the first job that I got a check from was Dunkin’ Donuts in South Boston. That was in my early teens. The first job that had a real big impact on my life that I remember the best was I worked at a stationery store when I was in high school. And that job was really where I started to be curious about who I was and what I want to be like as I got older and working-wise.

Q: Tell me about your relationship with President Biden. In your conversations, what has he told you about your mission at the Labor Department?

A: My relationship to the president goes back quite a while. I met him when he was a United States senator, in Boston. I know that his priorities and my priorities are about the working people. Lots of conversations about the pandemic, lots of conversations about getting the economy back on track, getting workers protected, workers’ rights protected, and moving forward.

Q: Union popularity is at a 30-year high. Are unions important? And why do you think they have a bad rap in so many parts of the country?

A: I feel unions are important because they built the middle class, and they can preserve the middle class.

The reason why I got involved in labor was, quite honestly, my uncle was a business agent for the laborers union and he fought for his membership, he fought for jobs for them, helped provide them with health care and pensions at the time. [He] dealt with unemployment and how do you get more jobs for people.

People have different views and opinions of unions, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a bad rap. I just think that the American labor movement does have some work to do.

Q: Only 10.8 percent of workers are part of unions. That number has been declining for decades. Can the administration reverse that trend?

A: I don’t necessarily think it’s up to the administration or me to do that. It’s about organized labor. That’s their role and responsibility to do. But I do think the Labor Department has an opportunity to have a bigger role. There’s an administration now in Washington that is labor-friendly.

Q: Would it be beneficial to the country if more people were members of unions?

A: I don’t have the science behind this right now, but if you look at the decline of the middle class and you look at the decline of the labor movement, there’s a correlation between the two of them. And I think that when you see more people joining unions and getting into them, you’ll see more people in the middle class.

Q: A major union campaign is underway at an Amazon facility in Alabama. Do you support the workers unionizing there?

A: I’ve heard that organizing drive is going on. I look forward to seeing what the result of that is. The president recently talked about the choice to join unions should be up to the workers. I feel the same. If workers want, they deserve a seat at the table to talk about workplace conditions and policies. So we’re going to see what happens there. I certainly support workers organizing in Alabama and across the country.

Biden hails Amazon workers pressing to unionize in Alabama in unusual sign of support

Q: Frances Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary, used to meet with workers in the midst of disputes with management. Do you have any plans to meet with the Amazon workers?

A: Well, there’s no strike there, so I don’t know if we’d be able to do that. I certainly would be willing to help try and pull sides to the table. It’s been done in the past in this office. I’ve done it in my previous roles. I don’t think we should be the first call, to be honest with you, to try and resolve disputes. But I think that if it comes to a point where the issue is impacting people and impacting the economy, I think there’s a place for us at the table, a place for me to be able to try and be helpful.

Q: There is a lot of frustration with teachers unions over the fight to reopen schools. Whose side are you on?

A: I don’t fall on anyone’s side. I went through it myself in the city of Boston not too long ago. It’s not about opening schools. It’s really about workplace safety. It’s about making sure that there’s a proper ventilation, proper PPE, proper social, physical distancing, making sure that there’s proper protocols in place. That’s really what it came down to in Boston because you had a lot of people with preexisting conditions, some teachers that were older.

In Boston, two-thirds [of schools] were built prior to World War II, so we didn’t have these upgraded technologies and the ventilation and all that. So I don’t think it’s not wanting to come back to school. I think it’s about wanting to make sure that you’re safe.

Q: This could be a major issue facing the Biden administration in the fall. What role do you think the Labor Department could play in resolving this? And do you plan on being involved in that debate at all?

A: I don’t think there’ll be the tension in the fall. I think that as we continue to move forward, as we get more people vaccinated, as we continue making sure that we have the safety protocols in place across this country, we’ll be in a lot different place in September than we would be today. The virus is unpredictable. We don’t know. But that’s our hope.

Sanders brings Amazon union battle to D.C., calling warehouse worker to testify at income inequality hearing

Q: Let’s talk about gig work. Companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Lyft that poured millions of dollars into funding Prop. 22 in California are now taking their campaign to exempt workers from employee protections nationwide. Do you believe that gig workers should be classified as employees or contractors?

A: What I’m going to do is, on that question, I would ask you to give me that question next time we talk, because I’m being briefed on it [Thursday]. I have a briefing binder on my desk that’s about 18 inches deep. And I’m supposed to know it all and all the acronyms and all that. And I’m still trying to figure out where the front door is sometimes.

Q: Most companies pay into the unemployment insurance system. Gig companies don’t. So Congress footed the bill for them by creating Pandemic Unemployment Assistance insurance last year. Should the government continue to pick up the unemployment tab for these companies?

A: I think it is something we have to take a good look at it. I don’t think the federal government has the ability forever to continue to pick up the tab there. So we’re going to have to take a real serious look at that.

Q: Wage growth has skyrocketed the last 40 years for people in the top 1 percent of earners. For the bottom 90 percent, it has been stagnant. What can the Labor Department do to reverse these trends?

A: Well, first and foremost, I think we have to continue to acknowledge that we have a problem. Income inequality certainly has worsened over the years, workers of color being worse off. In the wealthiest country in the world, every worker should be able to get a piece of the American Dream. It starts with giving workers a voice. Everything I want to do here in the Department of Labor will be about addressing inequality.

Q: During your confirmation hearing, you talked about how the United States is living with a legacy of systemic racism. How do you define systemic racism?

A: Well, first of all, it’s a system, and a system in a lot of ways that is broken down. You have to be very intentional about dealing with systemic racism. Systemic racism just didn’t come in since May of last year. Systemic racism has been here forever, if you want to be honest about it. But we have a unique opportunity when we talk about recovering from covid-19 to be able to really focus on the issue of systemic racism, also inequality, gender inequality and all kinds of other types of inequality.

Q: How does systemic racism affect the lives of minority workers?

A: In so many different ways. Money is one, but look around many offices and just see who’s working in them, who has opportunities. I mean, right after George Floyd got killed I had a meeting with a group of people in my office called BEN, the Black Employee Network. And I just listened. And every single person that spoke to me talked about the racism that they’ve experienced in their life, whether it’s in jobs, interviewing, whether it’s with the police, whether it’s with society. I think that it’s important at this moment in time to listen [and] be very intentional about the policies or the actions that we take.

Q: You’re the child of immigrants, but Irish Americans are no longer considered ethnic minorities. Do you think you’ve been a beneficiary of what people would call white privilege?

A: Absolutely. There’s no question about it. White people shouldn’t be afraid of the word white privilege. It can be a complicated conversation to have, but we can’t run away from it.

Q: How do you think it’s benefited you?

A: I look at the world through the eyes of a person who grew up in Boston. And I’m a White Irish kid from Dorchester, a White Irish American, I guess you could call me. I never walked in the shoes of friends of mine that are African American.

Q: Hundreds of thousands of workers at meatpacking plants, grocery stores, health-care facilities have all gotten sick during the pandemic. Thousands have died. Did the pandemic have to be this costly for workers?

A: I only know my own experience [as the mayor of Boston]. And we took very serious action at the very beginning. We shut things down right away. We didn’t open up easy. We looked at the numbers. We looked at the demographic breakdown, the ethnic breakdowns of the impacts and the disproportionate impacts of covid. And now in this role, I can’t do anything about yesterday. All I can do is focus on today and tomorrow. I know the president is very clear on this. He wants to cut back on the loss of life during covid. He wants to build back the economy once people get back to work and wants people to be safe. I can’t really address failures of the past administration. I have my own personal opinions on that, but I’m going to leave those personal.

Q: There has been a lot of criticism of the Labor Department for not establishing workplace safety standards early in the pandemic. Biden directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue standards by mid-March, but that hasn’t happened yet. Will you order OSHA to issue them?

A: I’m working with the team here now. I had a quick briefing [Tuesday]. I have another briefing today to talk about the emergency temporary standard, and then hopefully we’ll have something we’ll be all looking at some point real soon. We’re going to take our time to get it right.

Q: Should OSHA be revamped, and do you think OSHA could retroactively go after companies for failures last year?

A: No. It’s too early for me to talk about revamping OSHA, although I have work to do. I think there is some money coming in for more inspectors, so that’s a good thing.

Q: Should the Biden administration be judged on how effectively it gets the millions of people currently unemployed back to work?

A: We’re going to be judged, so let’s see what happens. There’s a lot unknown about the pandemic, and I think that the hope is that the vaccine leads to some degree of herd immunity. I think that talking to the experts at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is really going to help us as far as moving our economy back and getting people back to work. But I think the first and foremost thing is for us is making sure people are safe.

Q: Women have left the workforce in much higher rates than men. What do you think it will take to get women’s participation in the labor force back up again?

A: I think we have a lot to do. I think we have to look at family leave. I think we have to look at child care. I know in my city, in Boston, Massachusetts, many, many of the child-care agencies couldn’t afford to stay open and they didn’t have the help and contracts to keep them open. And a lot of them went out of business, particularly the individual child-care agencies. So I think that we have to have a whole comprehensive look at this.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.