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Picket line or pitcher’s mound, Marty Walsh is ready to talk

“I have a personal story of intervening in labor negotiations and not negotiating for people: let them negotiate, but sit at the table,” Walsh, a former Boston mayor, said in an interview. “I want to get to the table before that, before it gets bad, if I need to.”

Union leaders are satisfied with this philosophy. Walsh “took a very practical and proactive approach to these strikes,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler told POLITICO. “He picketed. He works behind the scenes.

“A lot of people think if it’s not in the news, it’s not happening,” Shuler said. “But there is so much going on on a daily basis that he is involved in: often behind the scenes, negotiating and negotiating with companies and unions to try to reach an agreement, and playing a very active role unlike any other secretary we have. seen.

Some Republicans are suspicious of Walsh’s motives, especially given the department’s more aggressive stance on other workplace issues.

“It is abundantly clear that his willingness to serve as a spokesperson for Big Labor supersedes his obligation to maintain impartiality,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (RN.C.), a senior House Education and Labor Committee member. , in a press release. .

But some business groups are ready to see if Walsh’s strategy can work, particularly if it can avert major economic disruption.

“He thinks he can be a fair dealer, and I have no reason to doubt him on that,” said Ed Egee, vice president of government relations and workforce development at the National Retail Federation. But “if you’re going to do that, the No. 1 task should be west coast ports. This is extremely important for our members [and] it is extremely important for the supply chain.

With pandemic restrictions is slowly changing in the new normal, Walsh will be free to play an even more active role. The DOL chief had to oversee the rollout of complex standards regulating Covid-19 in the workplace; take quick action to try to alleviate supply chain constraints; and travels extensively to lobby on behalf of Covid relief legislation – while avoiding speculation that he will run for governor of Massachusetts.

The ripple effects of percolation disputes involving the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Major League Baseball Players Association will be highly visible — and in the case of Ports, economically painful — for voters if things drag on at some point. politically pivotal in Biden. term.

This summer, the companies that operate the ports on the west coast must renegotiate their multi-year contract with the union which represents thousands of dockworkers. When it last expired in 2014, there were consequent strikes and supply chain disruptions.

“The economy was bleeding about a billion dollars a day, and that was something that obviously had great potential to have an even more disruptive effect,” said Tom Perez, President Barack Obama’s labor secretary at the time. , who is now running for governor of Maryland.

Perez helped broker a deal after Obama sent him to California to intervene, with the approval of both parties.

The risk of a repeat this year is even greater, with inflation at record highs – in part due to pandemic-related port backups – and the midterm elections are fast approaching.

“If I need [intervene], I would,” Walsh said. “I would absolutely love to do that.”

ILWU did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Labor and business interests are also watching closely to see if Walsh will weigh in on escalating tensions in professional baseball. On Tuesday, MLB announced the cancellation of some early-season games as team owners and players remain at odds, with more cancellations pending with no agreement in the near future.

So far, the most visible example of Walsh’s approach has been back in his home country.

In December, the secretary helped seal a deal in Massachusetts between nurses at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester and its business owners in a meeting Walsh pushed to hold, ending a strike that has lasted about 300 days.

Julie Pinkham, executive director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said Walsh’s ‘gravity’ was instrumental in holding up an attempt agreement as the parties worked out the final details before meeting with the secretary.

“He was the right person at the right time to set the settlement in motion,” said Pinkham, who has known Walsh from his time as a state legislator.

A hospital spokesperson declined to comment.

Pinkham said Walsh had been keeping tabs on the situation in the months leading up to his direct intervention.

“Marty won’t be writing a press release about it,” Pinkham said. “It’s not his thing.”

But not all of Walsh’s work is under the radar. The Labor Secretary made headlines last year when he became one of the first Cabinet members to accept a invitation to visit a picket line – in this case, a week-long work stoppage at some of Kellogg’s largest facilities.

Walsh said he went “not necessarily to walk a picket line, [but] to build a relationship. If the company called me, contacted me, I would absolutely sit down with them and talk to them.

Walsh’s pragmatic approach to labor negotiations as Boston mayor won him support from business groups ahead of his confirmation, though some conservatives remain suspicious of his ability to act as an honest broker.

Foxx and other Republicans sent a pair of letters to the Labor Department requesting information about Walsh’s dealings on labor negotiations, which they said were met with silence.

“Is he too afraid to admit his own political activism, or is he avoiding accountability to protect his ties to his union benefactors?” Foxx said. “The longer he takes to respond, the more apparent the latter becomes.”

Despite the symbolic importance of the Cabinet position, Labor secretaries have little concrete power to break impasses apart from invoking the Taft-Hartley Act, which allows an administration to intervene in strikes that create a national emergency — a no-start for Democrats, especially.

“It’s something Republican presidents do,” Perez said. “It’s not something we do. We believe in collective bargaining.

Former President George W. Bush exercised the law in 2002 to reopen West Coast ports amid a lockout by employers, the first time that part of the 1947 law has been successfully invoked since the Nixon administration.

Nor do labor secretaries have much ability to get involved in labor negotiations without an invitation from the parties involved – as in the case of baseball, where both parties have yet to show an interest in agreeing. Walsh on his offer to wade.

Administrations most often try to use the weight of the secretary’s office to shake up negotiations, although this is done sparingly so as not to undermine its political effectiveness or expose the president to backlash.

“Risk is failure. Risk is an egg in your face,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

President Bill Clinton jumped at the chance to try to save baseball during the latest major standoff – a gamble that backfired when a potential deal to go to binding arbitration, being negotiated at the White House, collapsed. Clinton Labor chief Robert Reich recently implored Walsh not to repeat the folly.

Obama remained oblivious to professional sports clashes during his tenure, though his administration worked to resolve both the situation at West Coast ports in 2015 and between Verizon and its unionized workers a year later.

“We often live in a world of false choices,” Perez said. “Either you are on the side of the workers or you are on the side of the management, but you cannot do both. It is a false choice. We can do both.


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