Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh is leaving the Biden administration to become executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, the union announced on Thursday.
Mr. Walsh, a former Boston mayor who had led the city’s powerful Building and Construction Trades Council, helped to bolster the Biden administration’s pro-union credentials and usher in a period of more aggressive workplace regulation after the relatively hands-off approach during the Trump administration.
Mr. Walsh said in a statement that he would leave the Labor Department in mid-March.
Alongside President Biden, who has been more vocal about supporting unions than any other president in decades, Mr. Walsh was arguably the administration’s most visible proponent of unions. He joined Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in meeting union organizers at the White House, and he served as vice chairman of an administration task force exploring how the federal government could increase union membership.
Although union membership fell to 10.1 percent of the work force last year, the lowest rate on record, the country added nearly 300,000 union members amid a wave of worker organizing at major corporations including Starbucks, Amazon and Apple. (The rate fell because the work force grew even more rapidly.) Mr. Walsh cheered on the trend and warned employers to respect workers’ desire to unionize and refrain from coercive tactics.
“As secretary of labor, I don’t appreciate that,” he said in an interview in August, when asked about complaints issued against Starbucks by the National Labor Relations Board. Workers who choose to organize “should be treated fairly and respectfully, not intimidated,” he added. Starbucks has denied violating labor law.
Labor Organizing and Union Drives
- Tesla: A group of workers at a Tesla factory in Buffalo have begun a campaign to form the first union at the auto and energy company, which has fiercely resisted efforts to organize its employees.
- Apple: After a yearlong investigation, the National Labor Relations Board determined that the tech giant’s strictly enforced culture of secrecy interferes with employees’ right to organize.
- N.Y.C. Nurses’ Strike: Nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx and Mount Sinai in Manhattan ended a three-day strike after the hospitals agreed to add staffing and improve working conditions.
- Amazon: A federal labor official rejected the company’s attempt to overturn a union victory at a warehouse on Staten Island, removing a key obstacle to contract negotiations between the union and the company.
In the Inflation Reduction Act, the major climate and health bill that Mr. Biden signed last year, Mr. Walsh helped push for labor-friendly provisions, including incentives for the owners of clean energy projects to pay wages similar to union rates.
When it came to regulation, Mr. Walsh’s approach was most visible in the Labor Department’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency within the department, had declined to issue a new workplace rule governing Covid-19 under President Donald J. Trump.
But Mr. Biden and Mr. Walsh pushed the agency to issue two so-called emergency standards — one outlining the steps employers in the health care industry would have to take to protect workers, and another requiring workers to either be vaccinated against the coronavirus or wear masks and be tested regularly. The Supreme Court blocked the latter rule, though it let stand a provision from another agency that required workers to be vaccinated at facilities that received funding from Medicare and Medicaid.
After an executive order from Mr. Biden, the Labor Department also put forth a rule raising the minimum wage for federal contractors last year to $15 an hour. It proposed a rule that would make it more likely for millions of workers in industries like home care, construction and gig work to be classified as employees rather than independent contractors, guaranteeing them a minimum wage and overtime pay, and another that could raise the wages paid to construction workers on federally funded projects.
It has recently cited six Amazon warehouses for creating work environments that have high risk for musculoskeletal injuries among workers. Amazon has said the accusations don’t reflect the steps it takes to ensure worker safety.
Ann Rosenthal, a longtime Labor Department lawyer who was at the department during the first year of the Biden administration, said Mr. Walsh was among the most effective of the 13 secretaries she served because of his credibility with unions and other worker advocates, his close relationship with Mr. Biden, and his political instincts and pragmatism. “He really checked all the boxes,” Ms. Rosenthal said.
Mr. Walsh’s tenure at the department was not without controversy. Most prominent was the deal he helped broker in September between major freight rail carriers and a dozen unions representing more than 100,000 rail workers. The deal helped to avert a potentially crippling strike before the midterm elections and granted improvements in health benefits and wage increases of nearly 25 percent over five years.
But the deal lacked paid sick days, and some workers complained that it did little to ease the grueling, unpredictable schedules that had put stress on their personal lives and health. Although members of four rail unions voted down the deal, the administration urged Congress to mandate the deal in November, and the president signed legislation enacting it. (Last week, one of the carriers, CSX, announced an agreement with unions that would provide four paid sick days a year for about 5,000 workers; a White House spokeswoman said Mr. Walsh had continued to push the rail carriers to offer paid sick leave.)
Critics also complained that OSHA under Mr. Walsh didn’t go far enough in protecting workers from Covid-19. They said the agency should have devised regulations that applied to a variety of high-risk industries, such as meat processing, grocery and retail, not just health care. (The department said it had the power to ensure worker safety in these industries through other means, such as a so-called general duty clause.)
Other rules, like the independent contractor rule and the one governing construction-worker wages, were proposed but not finalized during the first two years of the Biden administration — a delay that has worried some supporters.
And Mr. Walsh and his administration colleagues failed in their efforts to win legislation that would have made it easier for workers to unionize, such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which would have blocked employers from requiring workers to attend anti-union meetings and made it possible to impose penalties on employers that violated labor law. The House passed the measure, but it stalled in the Senate.
The Senate also killed a measure that would have granted consumers a $4,500 incentive to buy electric vehicles assembled at unionized plants in the country.
A battery plant in Ohio that is a joint venture of General Motors and the South Korean manufacturer LG Energy Solution recently unionized. But without the kind of legislation that the Senate has balked at, unions face much longer odds in organizing at a proliferation of new battery and electric vehicle plants in the South.
Mr. Walsh is a longtime fan of the Boston Bruins and has received political contributions from the hockey team’s owner. The Daily Faceoff, a hockey publication, previously reported on the contributions.
The New York Times reported last month that Mr. Walsh was one of several candidates under consideration to replace Ron Klain as Mr. Biden’s chief of staff. That job eventually went to Jeffrey D. Zients.