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The Unglamorous Work of Governing

Biden’s labor secretary, Marty Walsh, shows up to do his job day after unexciting day. It’s a reminder of what real government looks like.
November 2, 2022
The Unglamorous Work of Governing
Marty Walsh (Photo by Graeme Jennings-Pool/Getty Images)

DeForest, Wisconsin
It’s just another working day. Marty Walsh, the U.S. secretary of labor, is touring an apprentice training facility in DeForest, just outside of Madison. He arrives at 10 a.m., right on time. He’s joined by U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Mark Pocan, both Democrats from Wisconsin; a handful of facility officials and personal staff; and about a dozen journalists.

The October 26 event, less than two weeks before the midterm elections, was announced by press release the day before. Its stated purpose: “to highlight the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to reducing costs for American families and creating good-paying, union jobs through the investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act.”

Before being tapped by President Joe Biden to head the Department of Labor, beginning in March 2021, Walsh was for seven years the mayor of Boston, after serving in the Massachusetts state legislature. He also led the Building and Construction Trades Council for Greater Boston as a member of Local 223 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LiUNA, the union to which his father belonged.

The Laborers’ Apprentice and Training Center that Walsh is touring today is a LiUNA facility. It has operated in DeForest since 2004 and was expanded to 55,000 square feet in 2019. Here about 800 to 900 students annually learn trades including highway and utility construction and receive training on various kinds of rescues, the use of protective gear, and other skills needed to keep workers safe.

Craig Ziegler, the center’s training director, leads the group through a labyrinth of classrooms and training bays, some with dirt floors. The press release promised that the visiting officials “will see laborers perform work in concrete, demolition, scaffolding, surveying, grading, sewer and water, pipe fusing, welding, small engine, asbestos abatement and environmental remediation.”

It’s actually not that exciting. There is a room with hazmat suits hanging on hooks and one with a large rectangular chute used for Infection Control Risk Assessment, which allows work to go on without potentially dangerous dust and debris seeping out. But aside from a couple of students setting up instrument tripods as the group comes through, there isn’t much action to observe. At one point, Ziegler points out what he calls “our number-one thing for safety”—a pile of duct tape.

Still, Walsh and the congresspeople pay close attention and ask questions. This is what governing is about. It sometimes involves dirt floors. It’s not glamorous. But it’s part of a process whose ultimate purpose is to improve peoples’ lives—to teach them what they need to know to get jobs that pay a family-supporting wage, jobs from which they can, at the end of the day, come home safe and sound.

There is no more dramatic emblem of President Biden’s support for working Americans than his appointment of Walsh, a former union leader, as his secretary of labor. Under Donald Trump, the Labor Department was headed first by Alexander Acosta, from April 2017 to July 2019, followed by Eugene Scalia, from September 2019 to January 2021.

Acosta, the son of Cuban refugees and Harvard grad who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, was forced to resign amid a burgeoning scandal over his having cut a sweetheart deal for financier Jeffrey Epstein in a sex-crimes case, back when Acosta was a federal prosecutor in Florida. Scalia, the son of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, was described in a New Yorker profile as an attorney who “had spent decades helping corporations gut or evade government regulations, including worker protections.”

Trump’s first pick for the job gave perhaps the best indication of his vision for the department. He nominated Andy Puzder, CEO of the company that owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast food chains, citing “his extensive record of fighting for workers.” This record of worker advocacy included Puzder’s opposition to significantly raising the federal minimum wage—then $7.25 an hour, the same as it is today. Puzder also opposed Obama-era efforts to make overtime pay more generous to workers, and thought safety-net programs like food stamps needed to be reined in because they discouraged people from working.

Oh, and Puzder once explained why it might make sense for companies to replace workers with robots: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

None of this would have necessarily kept Puzder from becoming Trump’s secretary of labor. But Puzder also drew conservative ire for employing an undocumented worker as a housekeeper. He withdrew his nomination on the eve of his scheduled confirmation hearing after it became clear that he lacked sufficient GOP Senate support.

The Labor Department, which is seeking $14.6 billion in the 2023 budget, has 17,000 employees and administers and enforces more than 180 federal laws. Its official mission: “to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States.” In an interview with the Washington Post in August 2021, after six months after he took office, Walsh outlined his vision for the department:

This is such a huge opportunity to do things right this time. [The infrastructure plan] can be transformative for working people. So I view it as an opportunity for us to tackle the toughest issues that, quite honestly, maybe we haven’t tackled directly head-on as an administration. To tackle inequity in the workplace. To tackle wage disparity between women and men. To tackle racial inequities in the workplace and create better pathways.

Trump’s secretaries of labor did not talk like that.

Walsh said in the same interview: “The beauty is that I have a president and a vice president who really believe in the mission of the Department of Labor.” He used the same word while touring the training facility, saying its “beauty” was that it was entirely a product of “labor-management cooperation” and “doesn’t cost the federal government or the states anything.” (Funding for the center comes from companies that employ union laborers. One of the apprenticeship fund’s trustees is from Michels Corporation, co-owned by Tim Michels, the Republican candidate for governor.)

In early September, the New Republic ran a piece by staff writer Timothy Noah arguing that Walsh “hasn’t gotten all that much done at the Labor Department.” It said a number of proposed regulations, including those to raise the wage ceiling, extend worker protections to miners from airborne silica dust, and prohibit companies from “misclassifying employees as independent contractors,” were just that—proposed, but not “out.”

Noah gave Walsh credit for drafting a worker vaccine mandate that was later overturned by the Supreme Court, and for reinstating a rule making it harder for employees to pay a lower than minimum wage for workers who sometimes receive tips. Other than that, Noah wrote, the question being asked is “Where’s Walsh?”

I think I found him.

The tour of the DeForest facility takes 30 minutes. The press conference takes only 12. Most of the journalists are from local television stations. The sole print media participant is Roberta Baumann, who later writes a fine article on the visit for the DeForest Times-Tribune, a small-circulation weekly.

At the press conference, as on the tour, only two comments made by anyone have anything to do with the upcoming elections. The first is when Baldwin says she’s “proud to be the one senator from Wisconsin” to support the legislation to create family-supporting jobs, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act. This is Baldwin’s Wisconsin-nice way of pointing out that the state’s other senator, Republican Ron Johnson, who is up for re-election on Nov. 8, voted against all of them.

Baldwin also notes that the federal budget for fiscal year 2023 includes $303 million for registered apprenticeship programs (a $118 million increase over fiscal year 2021). She adds: “There’s some bragging rights for those of us from Wisconsin. We invented apprenticeships here.” (Wisconsin created the nation’s first registered apprenticeship program in 1911, among other firsts.)

The second and final reference to the election is when Pocan thanks Baldwin “for doing the work of two senators. Hopefully we’ll change that [and] you’ll have the work of one senator again, but thank you for all you do.”

After taking this vicious dig at Johnson, Rep. Pocan, chair emeritus of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, recalls that the last time Walsh came to Wisconsin, “we had him out to the painters apprenticeship program, which happens to be the union that I belonged to for three decades.” Now Walsh is here, in this training facility, run by the same union to which he and his father belonged, and which members of his family still lead.

Pocan crows about the Biden administration’s successes in getting

dollars for workplace training for registered apprenticeships and other things that have helped people get back to work. A million and a half jobs alone will be created in the infrastructure bill that we have talked about for four presidents, but we actually did with this administration, with this secretary and with this president.

Walsh, after thanking everyone involved “for the amazing tour we just had,” looks back to how things were two and half years ago, when “We had ten million Americans out of work.” The American Rescue Plan Act, passed early in the Biden presidency, helped many people rejoin the workforce. (Johnson also voted against that.) The administration, Walsh continues, passed an infrastructure investment bill, which “is gonna get roads and bridges and clean drinking water”; the CHIPS and Science Act, which is “really thinking about bringing manufacturing back to the United States of America”; and the Inflation Reduction Act, which involves “tackling climate change and creating good jobs.”

Walsh says the training center he just toured is part of a “foundation” being laid for a future with good jobs. He mentions again that it is not funded by the federal or state government but a partnership between labor and management. “Nationwide,” he says, “it’s over $2 billion per year that gets invested in training workers to get into good, middle-class jobs moving forward.” The day before, he met with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to talk about how to use the CHIPS and Science Act to build up manufacturing across the nation.

“How can we take the model of the building trades and incorporate it in making sure that we’re preparing folks in the manufacturing sectors?” Walsh asks.

I ask the only two press conference questions. The first is about how his Labor Department interprets its mission, compared to the previous administration. It sets up the perfect slam dunk about how the Biden administration is on the side of working people, as opposed to just looking out for their bosses. But Walsh does not go there. Instead, he says:

We’re doubling down on workforce development and job training. We’re doubling down on worker safety. . . . Our motto is basically, “protecting workers morning, noon, and night,” making sure that we’re worker-focused. But we also have a relationship with the private sector and businesses, and I’m not picking one side or the other. You need to have employer partners at the table as well.

My second question is about the article in the New Republic, which Walsh shrugs off: “We’re doing a lot. There’s been a lot of work that we’ve done at the Department of Labor, both on the regulation side and the rulemaking side but also on the actual substance side and getting money out the front door.”

Walsh adds that he is “not there to win a popularity contest” but to “make sure that we reverse the rules that were bad for workers” and to prepare workers for the good new jobs that are being created.

In these terrible times, when partisanship rages and more than half the GOP candidates on the ballot in key races deny the results of the last election, when being speaker of the House or an election worker makes one a target, it’s important to remember that not everything public officials do is about politics. Sometimes, it’s about showing up, making connections, and getting things done.

This is the work of the government. This is why we have elections.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.