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Marty Walsh: ‘I have a president and a vice president who really believe in the mission of the Department of Labor’

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. (KK Ottesen/For The Washington Post)
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Before joining the Biden administration as U.S. secretary of labor, Marty Walsh, 54, served as mayor of Boston, as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and as a union leader.

You’re leading the Department of Labor at a major inflection point for the country, with people getting back to work after so many lost jobs during the pandemic — and with the way we work potentially reshaped by the experience. What do you see as the opportunities or as your central mandate in this moment?

This is such a huge opportunity to do things right this time. Whatever the number on the infrastructure plan, it can be transformative for working people. So I view it as an opportunity for us to tackle the toughest issues that, quite honestly, maybe we haven’t tackled directly head-on as an administration. To tackle inequity in the workplace. To tackle wage disparity between women and men. To tackle racial inequities in the workplace and create better pathways.

I’m still kind of figuring out: How much I can push and where I can push and how much we can move forward? The beauty is that I have a president and a vice president who really believe in the mission of the Department of Labor. We have this unique opportunity in front of us to make some major changes in the workforce and to come back stronger. I think you get that opportunity once in a political career or once in a generation. And this is the time.

We’re also at a point where income inequity is at its highest. But during the pandemic, there was a huge reliance on essential workers. Do you think that has changed public opinion, making the ground fertile for revaluing labor?

I hope it does. But I don’t think it’s going to happen unless we stay focused on it. People have short attention spans. Throughout the last year, grocery store workers have been essential workers and almost first responders, if you will, in keeping the shelves stocked and the food there. And then you hear stories of some of these larger chain companies around the country subbing out now and getting independent contractors to deliver the food and deliver the service. Like, how do you do that to a group of employees that kept your doors open through the most difficult time, maybe since the beginning of your store? So I think we have to keep a real focus on our workers. I think we should always raise up our essential workers because, at the end of the day, whether it’s a global pandemic or a blizzard or nor’easter or a hurricane, they’re there. They’re there the day before the hurricane, and they’re there the day after hurricane. They’re always there.

So we have an opportunity to kind of pull those folks up. What I’m encouraged about is a lot of companies already have acknowledged that. They’ve raised the pay for workers by a dollar, $2 an hour in some of these big chains of stores. They’re paying more to their employees. They’re respecting their employees. That’s a good thing.

People have asked me a lot: Why aren’t 8.5 million [people] — today, as we’re talking — back in the workforce? There’s a lot of reasons. Number one is the concern about their health. Number two, I think the time off gave a lot of people time to think about their future and where they want to be. I mean, I did. You know, we’re sitting there at home at night, every night, like: What’s next? That’s why job training’s important; apprenticeships, all those things are important.

So do you think there’s been sort of recalibration on the own part of workers themselves, in terms of how valuable they feel?

I think “recalibration” is the right way to put it. It’s interesting: The union workforce is going back to work. Because they already have people negotiating and advocating on their behalf for higher wages and making sure they have their benefits and health care. That’s why, when we talk about people not going back to work, it’s not the union workforce that’s not going back to work. They’re going back to work. It’s the people that aren’t represented and the people that don’t have a collective voice. And I think they’re really thinking about where is their place in society. I think that’s a good thing, though. It’s a good thing for workers. You know, somebody asked me the other day, “Don’t you think that higher wages will drive inflation?” And I’m thinking: Higher wages is good for people. What — are we not going to drive wages up because of inflation?

Raising the minimum wage, I know, is a priority of yours.

It is. And the president is committed to getting that wage up. I’m committed to get that wage up. He did it through an executive order in federal contracts. But I think that base wage raises all boats. And it’s not like you’re putting companies out of business. I can’t imagine living on $15 an hour. And we’re expecting families to live on $15 an hour. But it is a base. It’s a floor, if you will.

There are people now trying to get by on half of that, people who don’t make $15 an hour.

Yeah, I was in St. Louis at a Methodist church the other day, and I was listening to care workers talk about their jobs. They were advocating for the Cares Act plan. And this woman, Monique, started talking about making $12.65 an hour. And she just started crying uncontrollably about how her life is just — she’s not making enough money to keep her food on the table and a roof over her head and keep her family fed and clothed. That one hit me hard. I had heard that [kind of] story before as mayor — but now that I’m the secretary of labor, it hit me in a different way. Because now it’s not just Boston. It’s the whole country. And we have an opportunity to actually change the outcome of her life and help her.

Coming out of organized labor, are you able to connect with business in this role in a constructive way?

What I don’t understand is the line in the sand, with business on one side of it and labor on the other side. As mayor, I was a labor mayor who, if you asked the business community in Boston, they’ll say I was a great mayor for business. And I was also a great mayor for workers. We tackled income inequity, and we tackled equal pay for women. So what I’m trying to do here is just erase that line in the sand. Because we’re not getting anywhere by villainizing each other, in my opinion. And so I have had meetings with businesses, and we’re going to work closely with Gina Raimondo — secretary of commerce. We’re going to go on a road show and show people that commerce and labor can be together. That we can advance the country: Workers are going to be respected and paid a good wage, and businesses can still be very successful.

What do you think people tend to misunderstand about labor unions? There’s sometimes a perception of cronyism and corruption.

I think that’s changing. I mean, listen, my uncle was a business agent for the laborers’ union. Okay? And I was the president of the laborers’ union. Like, that family thing was there. But it’s changing. And I think the 21st-century labor movement is going to be very different. People think, like, the building trades are all White guys. Well, I was in Philly the other day, and the head of the laborers’ union is African American. Memphis, Tennessee, and the head of the AFSCME Local 1733 is an African American woman. You go around the country, it’s very different from perception. I think labor unions have to do a better job of communicating who they are today. Like, the businesses that have adapted and changed in the current reality, if you will, have been successful. I think labor needs to evolve as well.

The fact that people don’t like labor unions — when workers say they don’t like labor unions, it kind of astonishes me because what I see labor unions doing, they advocate on behalf of working people. They fight for better working conditions. They fight for higher wages. They fight for a pension or a defined benefit plan. They’re fighting for health care. They’re fighting for all the things that the average worker should have. Whether they’re covered by a collective bargaining agreement or not. Workers should have those fundamental rights when they go to work.

And then how do gig workers get brought into all that?

That’s going to be a long conversation that needs to happen. When you think about gig workers, 10 years ago, independent contractors were people that were working out of a van that was doing day labor or somebody that might have been a waitress, a server in a restaurant, or at a temp agency. The app businesses changed the whole world. And government has to figure out how you regulate an industry that’s on an app. We’re still trying to figure that out. And my job here, honestly, is to learn the industries.

You’ve been open about difficult things you’ve faced in your personal life, like struggling with alcoholism and recovery. Can you talk about how that experience shaped you?

Getting into recovery when I was 28 changed my whole life, my whole perspective. It grounded me in a different way. The way of living sober is: a day at a time. A friend of mine gave me this sign: “A day at a time.” Having that perspective in life is so important. I’m not perfect at it, but you try to let things go, you deal with what’s in front of you a day at a time. And so I’ve been able to deal with adversity a little better.

That’s helped me quite honestly most of my adult life. Like when I first became mayor, the first three months, I was, like, Why did I do this? Like, this is such a daunting task. But I used the program of a day at a time, you’ll get through it. And a day at a time, it’ll get clearer for me. Even here, at this job, it was like, “Oh my god, I really miss being the mayor of Boston. I miss the chaos of it every day, different challenges.” But again: A day at a time you work through it, you find your place. And because of the fundamentals of the recovery program, it’s helped me get through different challenges, whether a bad story in the paper or a bad series of stories. Like, it’s okay, you’ll get through it. A day at a time.

There’s something about sharing a vulnerability that opens you up to others.

It does. There’s a ton of people in my life, whether it’s people in the media, people in politics, people in business, people in labor, that I’ve had conversations with. And then, afterward, somebody will say, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” Like, “I’m a friend of Bill’s.” Or, “I’m in recovery.” And for that person, I’m just another person in the program. Like, “Oh, that person is just like me.”

And I think it’s helped me in relationships as well. When I first came down here, people would say: You know, the Republicans, you’re not going to get along with them. They’re going to be terrible. You’re not going to work with them, you’re a Democrat. In politics, I find, everyone gets labeled today. And I just think that that labeling sometimes doesn’t help the issues. There has to be common ground for everybody. And if I am not willing to go in and listen and take some grief sometimes and not willing to try and come to common ground, then I’m not doing the job I’ve been asked to do by the president on behalf of the American people.

If you could go back and redo something in your life what would it be?

Oh, God. I don’t know. I don’t think I’d redo anything. Because I think the mistakes I made were needed in my life to shape who I am. And the positive things I did in the city or as a state representative, I’m proud of them. My proudest vote was marriage equality. Ever. It was a great vote. But the mistakes you make as a human being, you need to make them to become a better person.

KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.