Walsh: Biden to push not just jobs, but good jobs
Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh says, "Workers also want a seat at the table." | Mandel Ngan/AP

WASHINGTON—It’s not just a matter of creating jobs anymore, the Biden administration has decided. Now it’s a matter of creating good jobs.

And that means jobs with “prevailing wages, paid leave” and other good benefits, Biden administration Labor Secretary Marty Walsh says. Workers “also want a seat at the table,” he declares.

And the federal government is going to use its financial clout to help workers achieve those goals, he adds—by requiring federal contractors to meet those standards.

That clout will be a key to the president’s Good Jobs Initiative, which Walsh unveiled to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on January 21. Walsh, a Laborers Local 223 member and former Mayor of Boston, told them Biden wants the mayors’ help in carrying it out.

Walsh spoke in the context of an economy that has recovered most, but not all, of the jobs it lost in the March 2020 crash, when coronavirus-caused closures forced massive shutdowns to combat “community spread” of the modern-day plague. Jobless rates zoomed into double digits and at the height of the pandemic’s impact, more than 20 million workers were collecting weekly unemployment checks.

Now joblessness is down to 3.9%, as of December, and 6.3 million workers are jobless, some 600,000 more than before the collapse, DOL’s latest employment statistics show. So now Biden wants to concentrate not just on getting the pandemic under control and people back to work, but getting them to good work, Walsh said.

“The president has made good, middle-class jobs, with equity and access for all, the heart of his economic agenda. The Good Jobs Initiative is an effort, led by the Department of Labor, to make sure we deliver on that goal in everything we do,” he explained.

“We are going to work across federal agencies to build job quality standards into government contracting and grant-making. That means not just minimum wages but prevailing wages, paid leave, registered apprenticeships, and pre-apprenticeships that open up opportunities for women, people of color, and underserved communities.

“The relationship between the federal government and America’s cities makes all the difference to our success as a nation,” he explained. “You are the leaders on the ground and for any national policy to work, you must be heard, you must be supported and you must be empowered.”

“We’re also going to engage employers to help them improve job quality, so every industry can attract and retain the talent it needs.” Walsh did not say how the Biden administration would convince corporate chieftains to improve quality, although the prospect of losing federal contracts for not doing so adds leverage by DOL for workers.

And Biden wants the workers to have the information to exercise that leverage, Walsh told the mayors.

That includes “information they need to exercise their rights, find good jobs, and get in-demand skills.

“And we are going to reach out to local, county, and state leaders to understand what you need to create

good jobs in your cities and towns,” Walsh promised, following that with a personal invitation to the mayors to become partners in the initiative.  “We can be the bridge to help you create good jobs. That’s going to help you grow your local economies, and it’s going to help our nation meet this moment.”

The policy Walsh sketched out also appeals to unions and their members, whom Biden has repeatedly praised and gone to bat for since he’s been in office. And as a construction union member, Walsh said the policy would include a big stress on apprenticeships for the building trades.

While he did not say so, that means union apprenticeships. One of DOL’s first actions after Biden and Walsh took over was to dump a GOP Trump-era scheme which let anti-union contractors construct their own “apprenticeship” programs with little federal oversight or quality control.

Apprenticeships help workers like the single mother Walsh told the mayors he spoke with in Portland, Ore., Leslie Cotton. “She was living with her elderly dad, helping to care for her disabled brother, and barely getting by in low-wage jobs. She found a better opportunity in a pre-apprentice program called Oregon Tradeswomen, funded in partnership” with DOL, he told the mayors. “Now she’s a union plumber with a middle-class wage, a good health plan, and a future pension.”

In line with programs he pushed as Boston’s Mayor—and which also appeal to workers of color—Walsh said DOL’s new initiative would push job equity, too. The most-vulnerable workers will be first in line for the administration’s job safety, health and wage protections, he promised.

“We are fighting discrimination. And we are funding training programs designed to reach the workers who have been shut out in the past and provide them with real pathways into the middle class,” he said.

Workers themselves, however, have more leverage than they’ve had in years, said Walsh. He rebutted corporate claims of ”a labor shortage.” Instead, it’s a trend of workers shifting to higher-paying jobs, after being forced to take a year or more off due to the coronavirus pandemic’s forced closures of hundreds of thousands of businesses—and realizing they could tell low-road employers where to go.

Many of the former jobs were in low-paying occupations, such as retail trade, bars, restaurants and hospitality. The workers’ abandonment of such positions for better ones shows up in DOL’s labor turnover data, which set yearly records in 2021. Meanwhile, the Gallup poll recorded record support for unions in at least 50 years, 68%, Walsh noted.

“These labor dynamics are putting more workers in the driver’s seat. And that’s a good thing,” he said.

Walsh also took a veiled potshot at right-wing and business claims that federal aid to jobless workers, enacted in Biden’s American Rescue Plan—the first anti-coronavirus aid bill—let jobless workers sit home and collect checks.

“One thing is absolutely clear: Americans want to work. Don’t believe anyone who tells you they don’t,” he declared. Nonpartisan research backs Walsh’s statement, not the corporate claims.

“The changes we’re seeing are not negative. They are driven by the hopes and dreams of America’s workers. And they boil down to one thing: Opportunity. Workers are seeking better opportunities in ways we haven’t seen in decades.

“They are looking for opportunities to learn the skills they need. They want a seat at the table. They are demanding better pay, safer working conditions, more benefits and flexibility. They want to provide security for their families, now more than ever.

“And they also want to be able to spend time with them.” Walsh said, a prelude to his pitch to the mayors to support Biden’s Build Back Better initiative, currently stuck in the Senate due to a GOP filibuster threat. That measure would, among other things, allow for paid family and medical leave and other quality-of-life improvements, such as subsidies for child care workers (see separate BBB story).

“If the president can reach across the aisle and deliver an investment” like the recent traditional infrastructure act, “there is no reason we can’t come together and tackle any of the issues we face–from climate change to voting rights” along with “child care, elder care, and paid leave, universal pre-kindergarten, college access and job training and the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs.

“The president has made clear we need Build Back Better…so working families can get the support they deserve.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

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