HR Management & Compliance

Employers Can Expect Pro-Union Agenda Under New DOL Chief

President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is a traditional Democrat likely to push a pro-union agenda and a leader who will be eager to put in place pandemic-related safety measures, according to attorneys who advise employers.

DOL

On January 7, Biden announced that Marty Walsh, currently serving a second term as mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, is his pick for Labor secretary. Walsh has a long history of union membership and leadership, and he served as head of Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council from 2011-13.

“In terms of his outlook, he’s a pretty traditional Democrat,” Timothy F. Murphy, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield, Massachusetts, says, adding he expects a Walsh DOL to act similarly to the Obama administration’s department.

“Labor is going to have his ear, but he was not completely deaf to employers as mayor of Boston,” Murphy says, noting he worked to streamline and facilitate development in the city.

What to Expect

Murphy expects a worker-friendly agenda under Walsh. Biden has said his first priority will be addressing the pandemic, and since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is part of the DOL, he will expect safety-related regulatory changes related to the pandemic. Murphy says OSHA inspections have been down, but they are likely to be stepped up under a Walsh-led DOL.

Murphy points out Biden also is interested in strengthening workers’ rights and is expected to freeze some Trump-era regulations that have been finalized but not yet gone into effect, including the independent contractor rule announced January 6. Murphy expects Walsh to be involved in unwinding that rule and other Trump-era regulations.

Burton J. Fishman, an attorney with FortneyScott in Washington, D.C., says Walsh’s prounion agenda will face challenges since most major legislation takes more than a simple majority in the Senate, which will have 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans in the new administration. Democrats will have only a slight advantage since Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, will serve as a tiebreaker.

Fishman says the 50-50 split in the Senate presents a challenge for legislation Biden supports, such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.

The Republican-dominated National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) presents another challenge for the new administration, Fishman says, adding Walsh is opposed to NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb, whose term doesn’t expire until November 2021. Some news reports indicate there may be pressure to oust Robb before his term ends.

Fishman says he expects emergency rules to replace pandemic-related guidance very soon as well as the freezing of the new independent contractor rule and a review of the joint employer regulation. He also expects the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division to be active in issuing opinion letters.

Outlook for Confirmation

Fishman expects Walsh’s nomination to be confirmed. Murphy says he may face at least some opposition since some Democrats who lean conservative may be troubled by his background.

Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications.