When Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former construction union leader, appears before a Senate committee this morning in the first round of hearings for his nomination as Secretary of Labor, it's likely many in the construction industry will be wondering how he might influence the federal policies and regulations under which they work.
Born in Boston, Walsh joined Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 223 in 1988 and worked his way up through the ranks to lead both Local 223 and the Boston Building Trades Unions before being elected mayor in 2013. Walsh also served in the Massachusetts legislature.
Labor organizations hailed Walsh's nomination as a win for American workers and the U.S. economy. For instance, Dan Langford, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, told Construction Dive that Walsh is a great pick, and said that “what’s good for unions is good for all working people.”
“If you get past all the rhetoric and propaganda, employees that are treated well are more productive," he said. "Employees that make a little more help stimulate the economy …That’s the way we’re going to get out of this pandemic … I think this is going to help employers and absolutely going to help our country.”
A recent report backs up that sentiment. It found that the average journeyworker covered by collaborative bargaining agreements in the Chicago metro area made as much as office workers with four-year bachelor’s degrees, and resulted in significant contributions to the state and local economy.
Despite Walsh's strong union background, as head of DOL he will be tasked with overseeing the health and safety of all American workers, whether they are in a union or not.
Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives at the Associated General Contractors of America, told Construction Dive that the association’s expectation is that Walsh will advocate for the construction industry and not the employment preferences of just some workers in the industry.
“We assume that, as a mayor, Walsh appreciates that the No. 1 economic priority ought to be reviving our economy and no doubt understands that any efforts by the Biden administration to impose union-only mandates on new federal investments would simply undermine that economic recovery by eliminating opportunities for the vast majority of construction workers who opt not to be represented by organized labor,” he said.
As DOL Secretary, Walsh’s mandate will be to create as many high-paying career opportunities as possible for all U.S. workers, Turmail said, and that won’t happen by ignoring the largest segment of the construction workforce.
One thing that groups like the AGC and Associated Builders and Contractors, an employer organization that advocates for the rights of merit shop contractors, can agree on is that Walsh’s construction experience is a plus when it comes to understanding the needs of the industry.
“The DOL secretary nominee knows construction, which I believe means we share common ground in providing for a well-qualified workforce and creating environments where workers are safe and healthy,” said Mike Bellaman, president and CEO of ABC.
Bellaman added that along with his knowledge of construction, Walsh also understands the “practical impact” of regulations on contractors at both the federal and local levels.
One of the policies that could make a comeback under a Walsh DOL is the “blacklisting rule” that was part of President Barack Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order, which was swiftly scuttled after President Donald Trump took office.
The order required that contractors submit a record of past violations related to health and safety, civil rights, wage and other federal statutes and equivalent state laws prior to bidding on projects valued at more than $500,000. Contractors would have been required to disclose the same information about their subcontractors. If contracting officers determined that a contractor’s violation record was egregious or had repeat breaches, they could deny those contractors work.
Some employer organizations argued that contractors would be required to list and therefore be evaluated on violations that had not yet been adjudicated. Opponents of the order said that contractors could end up being punished a second time for settled violations as well.
Walsh proposed and pushed through a similar rule in Boston in 2016 after a deadly trench accident there. The contractor performing the work had a long history of safety violations that went undisclosed prior to the issuance of a permit for the project. The new rule gives the city leeway to deny permits to contractors with prior OSHA violations.
A revival of the blacklisting rule, Turmail said, would undermine the economic recovery and make it more difficult for contractors to do work for the federal government.
Another concern, according to attorney Phillip Russell with Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart in Tampa, Florida, is that OSHA, an agency of the DOL, will return to the naming and shaming press releases that accompanied the agency’s Obama-era citations and fines.
What’s disturbing about that potential, he said, is that such judgments are out of line with the fact that “OSHA doesn’t get to decide if OSHA got it right.”
While some employers just pay the proposed fines and accept their citations, they always have the right to contest OSHA actions and take their cases to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
“A citation is just an accusation," Russell said. “It’s like a complaint in a lawsuit. Just because OSHA accuses a business of violating safety standards does not mean it actually did so. OSHA does not have the final say.”
One of the biggest hopes for the DOL under Walsh is that since he has such deep roots in construction and is familiar with its skilled labor challenges, he will promote the industry as a feasible alternative to a traditional four-year college degree, Turmail said.
“He has a real appreciation of the many benefits of working in construction and can hopefully play a vital role within the administration in advocating for new investments in career and technical education,” he said.
Of course, how Walsh will execute his role as Labor Secretary is still unknown, but perhaps the biggest clue as to what he has planned can be found in a public statement he made after being nominated. (Walsh did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
“Working people, labor unions and those fighting every day for their shot at the middle class are the backbone of our economy and of this country,” he posted on his Twitter account. “As Secretary of Labor, I’ll work just as hard for you as you do for your families and livelihoods. You have my word.”