Mysteries of the Labor Secretary Pick

By various accounts, President-elect Biden is still agonizing over his choice for secretary of labor. Politico reports that all else being equal, he’d like to pick his old comrade, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. But there’s substantial pressure on him to choose California Labor Secretary Julie Su or former Ambassador to South Africa and Open Society Foundations President Patrick Gaspard instead.

Walsh seems to be the clear choice of the labor movement’s old guard. Before he became Hizzoner of Beantown, he headed the city’s building and construction trades union council, where he aggressively promoted the inclusion of women and minorities in the ranks of these largely white working-class toilers. For his part, Biden may still have an image of organized labor that’s largely composed of the white male working class. In his stump speeches before the coronavirus put an end to public rallies, he would refer, with complete justification, to his support for workers and unions, and then reel off those unions. As I noted in reporting on one such speech, when he listed unions, he listed those that had populated the Scranton of his youth: carpenters, ironworkers, boilermakers. (I wondered then and I wonder now how many Americans have any idea what a boilermaker does, and, indeed, how many boilermakers there actually are in the 21st-century workforce.)

In recent years, though, the white male working class constitutes a shrinking percentage of the workforce and the labor movement, as industries with diverse unionized workforces like teachers, housekeepers, nurses, and janitors gain prominence. Then again, the building trades unions, still largely led by white males, have punched above their weight in the AFL-CIO, not least because two of the nation’s largest unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), aren’t Federation members.

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That disproportionate building trades weight may help explain why AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed Walsh for labor secretary way back in mid-November. It doesn’t explain, however, why the AFL-CIO’s two largest member unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) also backed Walsh—a choice that has mystified many longtime union members and observers.

It may be that Biden made his preference for Walsh known to various labor leaders, and they decided it therefore behooved them to back the Bostonian, whose pro-labor record was very clear. It may be they believed that as an old Biden buddy, Walsh would carry more weight in Biden’s decisions about economic policy than any alternative. It may be that Walsh might be better positioned to reach out to working-class whites than anyone else in the administration, and that Democrats sure as hell need to reach out to them.

But whether Walsh was the right pick to represent the 21st-century workforce and labor movement wasn’t quite so apparent. As it’s been reported in the media, Black activists and organizations have been promoting Gaspard (who is Black), and Asian American activists and organizations have been promoting Su (who is Asian American) for the post. But as many union activists I’ve spoken to make clear, Gaspard and particularly Su have done exemplary work for the new American proletariat, and that’s why a wide swath of labor activists support them.

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Gaspard spent more than a decade working for SEIU Local 1199, a racially diverse and heavily female union that represents health care workers up and down the East Coast. As Peter Dreier points out in another piece the Prospect is running today, Su seems almost eerily positioned to be a modern-day equivalent of Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s great labor secretary (also the first woman Cabinet member in U.S. history), who successfully led the fight to formulate and enact Social Security and was a key figure in FDR’s decisions to go big on public works and give legal standing to collective bargaining.

In 1911, only recently out of college, Perkins personally witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and saw dozens of young Jewish and Italian immigrant women leap or fall to their deaths rather than be consumed by flames. In 1995, only recently out of Harvard Law School, Su was one of the first people to encounter the 75 immigrant Thai workers who’d been forcibly enslaved in a suburban Los Angeles sweatshop, turning out garments like their Triangle Shirtwaist forebears. It was Su who secured their release from federal custody (they were all undocumented) and won legal status and financial recompense for them.

Like Perkins, who met the challenge of the Depression by crafting new programs while serving as labor secretary in New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt’s Cabinet…

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