What’s behind the divisions over Biden’s secretary of Labor?
Labor observers have been engaged in feverish speculation about who might replace arch-conservative Eugene Scalia as secretary of Labor in the new Biden-Harris administration. But this debate is not simply about the horse race, union “palace intrigue” or beltway insider gossip. Support for and opposition to the potential nominees reflect fissures within both the Democratic Party and the so-called “union bloc.”
So, who is behind the main contenders for Biden’s Secretary of Labor?
Perhaps the most surprising candidate, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former official of the laborers’ union, has strong support from American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president Rich Trumka, powerful building trades unions, among others. While he lacks a national political profile, Walsh proved an effective surrogate for Biden, whom (alone among the potential candidates) he knows and shares Catholic, Irish-American, and blue-collar origins. While considered “old school,” Walsh is more progressive than most former building trades officials, and he’s viewed favorably by Boston unions, although less so by its social movement community. Walsh is considered a good consensus candidate for labor to build consensus around: similar to Trumka in background and politics, he enjoys support from powerful building trades unions and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and other unions would probably fall in line more easily than they would behind other potential candidates. Building consensus around Walsh is the predictable route for Trumka; Weingarten will comply so as to enhance her own chances for Education secretary, Lonnie Stephenson, president of the electrical workers union, is a member of Biden’s transition advisory board, while Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, the nation’s largest public sector union, likes the idea of a big city mayor for Labor secretary.
Even union officials not wild about Walsh — notably leaders of the politically influential and generally progressive Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — might view him more favorably than an Obama-era bureaucrat. Trumka appears happy to have someone that the SEIU is NOT backing. SEIU leaders were closer than was Trumka with the Obama administration, and he is determined to establish his own relationship with the Biden team. SEIU got its associate general counsel placed on the Biden transition team after being excluded from the Walsh unveiling. Were he effectively blocked by SEIU or others, Walsh could be rewarded for his campaign service by an appointment as ambassador to Ireland.
After Trumka proposed Walsh, Sanders, the overwhelming choice of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, started a campaign to let people know he wants the job; he appeared on numerous television news shows and each time he was asked about the position and said he would accept it. Sanders would be a relentless advocate for unions, but so far, with the exception of the Transport Workers Union, he has garnered little official labor support, and even some unions who supported him for president are supporting other candidates for secretary of Labor. Sanders appears to believe that, unless the Democrats win both run-offs in Georgia, the Senate is a lost cause, while he sees scope for action as Labor secretary in a way that would make him a player in the new administration. Passing over both Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sanders as Biden Cabinet members would antagonize progressives. Sanders was loyal during the election and arguably did more for Biden than was expected. Labor secretary seems like a small thing for his important base to be asking for. Moreover, Vermont’s Republican governor has said he would appoint somebody who would caucus with the Democrats, which would be followed by a special election, thus removing that as an excuse to reject him. Biden and Sanders agree on most issues concerning the Labor Department — including the need for stronger unions and workplace protections — so he wouldn’t necessarily create policy conflicts. But Sanders’ might turn off moderates or add weight to the argument that a Biden would be controlled by the left.
Although he represents a state with only 33,000 union members — California has 2.5 million — Sanders is the most “out of the box” of the potential candidates under discussion; he would bring in new, energetic people, and might have clout with the White House, or at least more than some of the Obama-era technocrats under consideration. Less certain is whether a Republican Senate would block his nomination or whether they would respect “senatorial courtesy.” Where would Republicans prefer Sanders in terms of using him as a foil?
Michigan Rep. Andy Levin enjoys the support of the United Auto Workers (still a political force in his home state), Communications Workers of American and National Nurses Union. The latter two supported Sanders for president but not for Labor secretary. Levin is descended from “political royalty” (his father, Sander, was a long-time representative from Michigan; his uncle, Carl, a long-time senator from the state), but he also has a strong union background. After graduating from Harvard Law, Levin worked for SEIU and the AFL-CIO. Despite that, Trumka opposes his nomination, allegedly because Levin would have insufficient influence in the Cabinet and on the Hill. His real objection is that Levin opposed the USMCA (the “new NAFTA”), against Trumka’s wishes, even though major AFL-CIO affiliates such as the UAW, United Food & Commercial Workers and International Association of Machinists also opposed the Trump trade deal. The AFL-CIO’s influence in the Democratic Party is somewhat diminished, but Trumka still might have enough influence to sink Levin’s nomination.
The lack of diversity amongst these three, and Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), who also has strong building trades connections, could hinder their chances, and also that of Obama-era DOL official, Seth Harris (now visiting Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and a member of the Biden labor transition team). Harris antagonized some union officials by praising the gig economy.
Were none of the white male candidates to work out, others (without meaning to “other” them) mentioned include Obama-era labor official Sharon Block (now at the Harvard Trade Union Program) and Julie Su, secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, has received rave reviews in California. Su, who has a reputation for getting things done, is arguably better suited to heading the DOL’s Wage & Hour division, rather than the more political secretary position. William Spriggs, a former chief economist at the AFL-CIO and professor of economics at Howard University, also served in the Obama DOL. Another choice, Sara Nelson, charismatic president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has also been discussed as a potential successor to Trumka at the AFL-CIO, and could arguably raise the profile of the labor federation, even in the face of declining union membership.
Why Does It Matter?
Divisions in support for the main contenders for Labor Secretary mirror deep fissures in the union community, which for decades has been divided into progressive and conservative wings (think Nixon’s hard hats but now the divisions are even starker. Joe Biden did better than Hillary Clinton among union households (57 percent vs. 51 percent), and this labor support was vital in key states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. But exit polling shows that a significant majority of union members in Ohio and Pennsylvania voted for President Trump in 2020, thereby casting doubt on whether a so-called labor bloc even exists anymore. These days, if you’re a member of SEIU or the AFT, you will likely vote Democratic; but if you’re a member of the building trades or an unemployed steelworker in Ohio or Pennsylvania, you most likely will not.
Whoever is the eventual nominee for secretary of Labor, they will face a monumentally tough job starting Day One. First up, the new secretary will need to reinvigorate the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — the federal agency charged with protecting Americans at the workplace — which has been missing in action throughout the COVID-19 pandemic under the Trump administration. Biden has prioritized the enactment of a national COVID-19 workplace protection rule. More generally, they must reestablish the Labor Department as an agency that prioritizes the interests of American workers, rather than one that hides and obfuscates the misdeeds of powerful corporations.
John Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. Between 2000-2009 he taught in the School of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.