OPINION: How leaders in the Department of Labor are fighting for workers’ rights

United Steelworkers

Hundreds of Boston school bus drivers stood to lose their jobs when COVID-19 closed the city’s schools in 2020.

But instead of giving up on drivers, André François and other leaders of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8751 collaborated with Marty Walsh, then the mayor of Boston, to not only avoid layoffs but also empower the workers to serve on the front lines of the health crisis.

Union members loaded their buses with the food usually served in school cafeterias and delivered meals to students and the elderly, helping some of the city’s most vulnerable residents through the darkest days of the pandemic.

That creative and powerful advocacy for ordinary people also defined Walsh’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Labor and fueled his fight to build an economy that works for all, observed François, the Local 8751 president.

“He was fair to Labor,” François said of Walsh, who just resigned from his position in President Joe Biden’s Cabinet to head the National Hockey League Players’ Association. “He was understanding. You could call and talk to him about your issues. He listened.”

Walsh, who credits a union laborer’s job with lifting his immigrant father into the middle class, dedicated his life to extending similar opportunities to others.

As the first Labor Secretary in decades to carry a union card, he adopted the hands-on approach that François witnessed in Boston and returned the department to the worker-centered mission it lost during the previous administration.

In the process, he also helped Biden turn a pandemic-battered economy into a new era of shared prosperity.

Just a few months after joining the Biden administration, for example, Walsh helped push Congress into passing a historic infrastructure package that’s supporting millions of good union jobs. He even joined USW members at a rally in Burns Harbor, Indiana, to promote the legislation.

“We have an opportunity right now to buy American and build America like never before,” Walsh, the former leader of the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council, told the gathering.

Walsh helped fight off Republican efforts to kill Trade Adjustment Assistance, a lifeline for workers harmed by unfair trade.

He turned the Labor Department’s website into a one-stop shop for Labor organizing and warned companies like Starbucks and Amazon to stop harassing workers who want to form unions and instead “sit down” with them.

Walsh also intervened to help striking Massachusetts nurses win a contract with safer staffing levels, and he walked a picket line in Pennsylvania with Kellogg’s workers who ultimately reached a fair agreement.

“We support our allies,” Denny Mitchell, a retired member of USW Local 135L in Buffalo, New York, said of Walsh’s solidarity with fellow union members. “He lives it. He’s not just talking. He keeps trying to help the middle class.”

Mitchell personally experienced Walsh’s rapport with working people on a sweltering summer day several years ago.

After spending many hours campaigning for pro-worker candidates ahead of a pivotal election, Mitchell let a friend coax him into attending a reception with elected officials from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Walsh entered the room and, walking past a sea of people in formal attire, made a beeline for Mitchell in his tennis shoes and sweat-stained USW shirt. He wrapped Mitchell in a bear hug and thanked him for working on his mayoral campaign.

“That was a moment in my life I’ll always cherish,” Mitchell said.

While Walsh helped workers gain greater control over their futures, the battle for fair pay and decent working conditions continues.

Almost as soon as Walsh announced his departure, for example, Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash renewed their fight against a proposed Labor Department rule that would force the companies to treat drivers as employees, rather than contractors, and provide essentials like sick pay and workers compensation.

But these greedy companies may as well just give up.

They’d face another tireless opponent in Julie Su, Biden’s nominee to succeed Walsh. As secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, Su supported and enforced a state law protecting these very same kinds of workers.

Before that, as California’s Labor commissioner, she launched the state’s “Wage Theft is a Crime” campaign to help workers assert their rights when predatory employers cheat them out of overtime, try to pay less than the minimum wage, or force them to work off the clock.

And Su championed a landmark California law requiring hospitals to implement violence prevention plans and take other steps to stem the rising tide of assaults on health care workers, recalled Micheal Barnett, president of USW Local 7600, which represents thousands of members at Kaiser Permanente facilities in the southern part of the state.

After supporting enactment of the law, Su went further, working to ensure consistent and rigorous implementation across the state while holding employers accountable for lapses.

“It’s all about the enforcement of the law. Julie understands that,” Barnett said. “That’s where she was really instrumental for us.”

Health care workers across the country need an ally like Su right now as the USW and other unions push Congress to enact a national version of California’s violence prevention law and increase safety industrywide.

“We believe she’d made a great, passionate Labor Secretary,” Barnett said, adding that her attention to workplace safety would benefit workers in many fields.

Walsh safeguarded Labor rights at a time the pandemic underscored how much workers need decent pay, affordable health care, and a voice on the job. Su’s confirmation would not only keep employers from chipping away at the gains made during Walsh’s tenure but also help workers seize even greater control over their futures.

“I think Walsh kind of reopened the door for us — for working families, for union members, for prospective union members,” Mitchell said. “I would like to make sure the door stays open.”

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