Walsh takes questions in polite US Senate confirmation hearing

Mayor Walsh makes a point at his Senate hearing last Thursday in the US Capitol. Mandel Ngan/AP photo

Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and the ranking minority member of the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, surely made Marty Walsh feel comfortable at the mayor’s confirmation hearing on his nomination as US Secretary of Labor at the Capitol last Thursday.

“You quite frankly have the experience and qualifications to be the Secretary of Labor,” said Burr as he welcomed Walsh and his partner Lorrie Higgins. He added: “I hope you can commit to doing the job the right way and I think you will.”

After more than two-and-a-half-hours of statements and questioning, the committee chair, Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, closed the session and said that the committee would accept testimony from the public for a period of ten days— a time frame that will likely push a final vote on Walsh’s confirmation into late this week or early next week.

“It is my intention to schedule a vote in committee on Mayor Walsh’s nomination as quickly as possible so we can move his nomination forward and he can begin the important work as Secretary of Labor,” she said.

In opening the hearing, Murray told Walsh: “I hope we will be able to confirm you quickly, because we do not have a minute to delay.” She said that he clearly “has the right experience leadership and priorities to proctor workers during this critical moment,” citing his long history in labor’s ranks and the Covid-19 response in Boston.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced Walsh, saying: “I am really happy to be here after four years of a Trump Labor Department that did its best to undermine workers. Marty will be a Secretary of Labor who actually supports workers,” she said, “I trust Marty to look out for America’s working men and women because he has a strong record of doing exactly that.”

Warren pointed favorably to Walsh’s local Covid-19 response, racial equity work, emergency childcare program and the Boston Resiliency Fund.

“Deep down, he is a good man who believes that government can and should serve the people,” she said.

In his opening statement, Walsh thanked President Biden and Vice President Harris, saying, “I share their commitment to the health and safety of the working people in carrying them through this pandemic.” Of worker protections, fair wages and treatment, access to mental health substance abuse treatment services, he said: “These are not just policies to me, I live them.”

He added: “Throughout my career, I’ve led by listening, collaborating and building partnerships. That’s how, if confirmed, I will lead the Department of Labor.”

In the first round of questions, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, himself said to have been under consideration for the Labor appointment, congratulated Walsh for his leadership in Boston and then used the opportunity to asked how a $15 dollar minimum wage is working in the city, and whether or not he would support increasing the federal minimum wage if confirmed.

Responded the nominee: “When I think about the minimum wage on the federal level it’s been the same for 11 years... it’s impossible to raise a family of one on that. I definitely support raising the minimum wage and I know that President Biden has made that part of the plan as well.”

Sanders also asked how Walsh would tackle systemic racism, sexism, and closing the wealth gap.

“First and foremost, we need to have more conversations around the country,” Walsh said. “I don’t think there are enough going on. I’ve seen it happen in Boston where we all get to the table and there’s little disagreement; the issue is how we move the ideas forward,” said Walsh.

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas), queried Walsh about the cost of living in Boston, and asked him where he got his last cup of coffee and how much did it cost? Walsh said: “Probably Doughboy’s Donuts and it was about $1.75.”

Marshall also asked about “de-funding the police,” noting that this is something he opposes. Walsh replied: “That was not a defund movement; we shifted $12 million from our police budget into programs like mental health, trauma counseling to deal with the issues we were facing in Boston.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D- Virginia) said he has “a soft spot for Irish Catholic mayors that grow up in pro-union households,” adding that Walsh should look to the examples set in states like Virginia during the beginning of the pandemic as to what OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) might do in terms of its temporary standard.

Kaine also asked how Walsh would work toward supporting infrastructure improvements and making sure people are prepared and trained for those jobs.

“The Department of Labor can save lives when it comes to standards and working with OSHA, enhancing opportunities and pay equity, we can also expand mental health and substance... There are lot of areas within the DOL that are pro-worker, but it’s also pro-economy,” the mayor said.