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Marty Walsh Confirmed As Labor Secretary

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A former union leader will run the Labor Department for the first time in more than four decades. Today the Senate confirmed outgoing Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as the next labor secretary. Walsh will take office during a pandemic that has left millions unemployed and shined a new focus on how people work. To talk about this, we are joined by NPR's Sam Gringlas.

Hi, Sam.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Marty Walsh is not exactly a household name, so tell us about him.

GRINGLAS: Well, maybe the most important thing to know is that Walsh has really deep roots in organized labor. Before he was mayor, he led the Boston building and trades council. It's a union that represents a lot of construction workers. And he's also from this working-class neighborhood in Boston. He talks a lot about how that background will shape his approach to the job. At his confirmation hearing, he said this work is really personal.

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MARTY WALSH: And it went back to home base for me. I thought about my uncle and my father talking at the kitchen table on Sundays, about fighting for the rights of workers, about making sure the jobs were there so people wouldn't be unemployed.

GRINGLAS: Walsh had kind of this roundabout path to politics. He dropped out of college, struggled with alcoholism. Eventually, he followed his dad into construction, and that got him involved in the union. Here's Erin O'Brien. She's a professor at UMass Boston.

ERIN O'BRIEN: Joe Biden and Marty Walsh get along because they're the same guy. They both take real pride in their Irish heritage. They're working class. Their disposition is to bring people together. They're not the hotheads in the room.

GRINGLAS: And O'Brien says Biden's choice could be about more than just, you know, making a statement. It might actually mean that working-class concerns get top billing.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, so tell us about the significance of having a former union leader in this job.

GRINGLAS: So some Republicans have been a little uneasy about how close Walsh is to organized labor. But by all accounts, as mayor, he tried to bring both business and labor to the table. And in the end, Walsh got endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents a lot of big companies. You know, union power and membership has been declining for a while, but Biden has made it pretty clear that unions are going to have a big voice. He regularly talks about the rights of workers to join a union, and Walsh's nomination just underlies that commitment.

SHAPIRO: You know, the pandemic has had such a big impact on how people work. What impact is it having on the work of the Labor Department?

GRINGLAS: The Labor Department might have more clout in this moment. Millions of people are unemployed. People are worried about their safety at work. Here's Chris Lu, who was deputy labor secretary under President Obama.

CHRIS LU: At this moment, the labor secretary is going to be critically important because these issues are going to be front-burner issues for President Biden.

GRINGLAS: For one, workplace safety issues are going to keep cropping up. So many workers have been putting their health on the line in grocery stores, nursing homes. And right now Lu told me there's a really low number of workplace safety inspectors. The unit got kind of hollowed out under President Trump, so the department is launching this new program to enforce safety rules in places where workers have a high risk of getting COVID.

Then there's the minimum wage. Biden wants to raise it to $15 an hour. Remember; that proposal got scrapped from the last COVID relief bill. But it's not going away, and Walsh will probably help sell it to the public. Ari, the pandemic has put a spotlight on American workers in a way that we haven't seen in a long time - where people work, how they work, whether they're treated fairly at work. And the Labor Department could play a big part in shaping the future of work in this country.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Sam Gringlas.

Thanks a lot, Sam.

GRINGLAS: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.