Progressives push Biden to choose worker-friendly Labor secretary

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh
Greg Nash
Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh leaves the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, January 31, 2023.

Progressives want “middle class Joe Biden” to find a worker-friendly Labor Secretary to replace Marty Walsh — but it may take some elbow grease to get there.   

Liberal lawmakers and advocates have appreciated Biden’s approach to organized labor, seeing his embrace of unions as just as gutsy and genuine as his willingness to condemn corporate profiteering at the expense of the country’s workforce. 

With Walsh’s expected exit around the corner, progressives want the president to select someone who strives to empower workers with more wages and rights and soften the party’s sometimes corporate-friendly image.  

But some fear he may choose one of their biggest rivals — newly ousted Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) — to lead the influential department. 

“Can you imagine?” Angelo Greco, a Democratic consultant who’s worked with several prominent progressive officeholders, wondered about the possibility that Biden, with input from allies, could nominate Maloney to the role. “I don’t think they’ll do it. But stranger things have happened.” 

Maloney recently lost his November bid for reelection after a frustrating redistricting process also sent progressive Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) packing, creating bad blood between progressives and moderates in New York.  

In just a few short months, however, Maloney has boomeranged back to national prominence, most recently by securing former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) blessing. He’s seen in some circles as the establishment’s first choice, with some Democrats privately wondering if he could actually be chosen.  

It wouldn’t be such a shock, some suggest, if Maloney — who recently chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee the year they lost the lower chamber — hadn’t spent much of his time in Congress being openly antagonistic to the left. He often harshly criticized progressive lawmakers and, as a result, accumulated a lot of ill will from the party’s left flank.  

“Progressives really don’t want Maloney, but neither really does anyone else except Pelosi [who’s] trying to help him,” said one veteran Democratic strategist who asked to speak anonymously about the prominent figures. “She’s loyal like that.” 

Pelosi’s backing could be pivotal. Biden has shown much reverence for the former Speaker’s judgment and trusts her opinions. A stamp of approval may make it harder for Biden to dismiss Maloney entirely, despite his lack of a traditional résumé that would make him a natural fit. 

“To be a little more fair to him, there are some if not a good amount of people who like him,” the strategist said. “But he has literally absolutely no qualifications for this job and it’s so random.” 

Progressives have credited Biden with hearing out and often ultimately choosing Cabinet secretaries who pass the left’s unofficial do-no-harm test. Many were especially pleased with Walsh, whose ties to unions and Boston sensibilities resonated with aspects of Biden’s own in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  

When Walsh was initially tapped, top talent close to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) jumped over from campaign and consultant worlds to work with him. While many have been reserved about throwing out replacement names, Sanders himself wasted little time before expressing his personnel wishlist. 

A staunch union supporter who now chairs the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Sanders penned a letter to Biden on the issue, putting his thumb on the scale for Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, or Robert Reich, who was in the same role in Bill Clinton’s White House. The letter was reported first by Punchbowl News. 

“Either of these candidates would do an excellent job,” Sanders wrote in the memo to Biden. “I look forward to working with you to ensure the Department of Labor is led by a champion for workers.” 

When Biden was first elected president in 2020, there was speculation that Sanders himself could be Labor Secretary. But with the tight nature of the upper chamber at the time, both agreed it was best for him to stay on Capitol Hill. 

That hasn’t stopped the Vermont senator from inserting himself into various labor movements, most recently with rail workers and teachers. This week, he held a town hall with grassroots leaders, including Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, on low wages for educators. 

He has also raised awareness for rail industry employees who were demanding paid sick leave and threatened a nationwide strike before the bipartisan Congress and Biden came to a fast resolution on the issue. 

While both Nelson and Reich are household names in progressive communities (Nelson is a close ally of Sanders and Reich is a firm advocate for causes around income and wealth inequality), some are raising questions about whether either choice is likely to capture Biden’s attention. 

“People need to listen to Bernie at least both because of his history and [post as] committee chair, but neither of his floats have a realistic shot,” the seasoned Democratic strategist stressed.  

Former Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who is also close to top labor leaders and members of the Progressive Caucus in the House, has also been mentioned. 

It didn’t take too long after Walsh’s forthcoming departure became public before a potential compromise choice was also floated: Julie Su, who currently serves as deputy secretary under Walsh and is well liked among liberals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). 

Su would fill an important role as an Asian American Cabinet secretary in Biden’s vastly diverse administration, a step toward what many Democrats see as a responsibility and a rare chance following Walsh’s soon departure. Biden has made a point to elevate Democratic talent from underrepresented communities to Cabinet posts and other prominent roles in government, including choosing Kamala Harris as his vice president and nominating Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.  

It also helps that Su is well received by liberals and moderates, including the ideologically diverse Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.   

“Julie Su is the extremely heavy favorite for her experience, expertise, as well as being the right political choice,” said the Democratic strategist. 

In his State of the Union speech, Biden doubled down on his commitment to labor, including asking Congress to move towards getting the PRO Act passed, which would expand employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. The president, a self-avowed capitalist, sharply criticized corporations that he said are “breaking the law by preventing workers from organizing.” 

“Workers have a right to form a union.  And let’s guarantee all workers have a living wage,” Biden said.  

Progressives liked the rhetoric and urgency. But there are moments when they have also admitted being frustrated about some of the president’s older instincts, including what some see as him going against rail workers. 

With a few bumps in the road, Democrats are not entirely convinced Biden will go with a nominee as pro-worker as Walsh, and the prospect of Maloney has spooked more outspoken advocates enough to voice concerns.   

“Why are we promoting someone who absolutely didn’t do their job well?” Democratic campaign operative Michael Ceraso, who worked for Sanders and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as presidential candidates, speculated about the chance that Maloney would be nominated after losing his own bid.  

“Why do white dudes always get promoted up when they fail?” 

Tags Andy Levin Bernie Sanders Bernie Sanders Joe Biden Julie Su Labor Secretary Marty Walsh Mondaire Jones Nancy Pelosi President Biden Progressives robert reich Robert Reich sara nelson sean patrick maloney Sean Patrick Maloney Secretary of Labor Unions

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video