ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was confirmed as labor secretary last month, he became the first person in decades to come to that job from a union background. Now he is one of the Biden administration's leading pitchmen for the $1.9 trillion infrastructure package that the White House is trying to push through Congress.
Labor Secretary Walsh, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
MARTY WALSH: Thanks for having me today.
SHAPIRO: It's not obvious why the secretary of labor would be one of the key people pitching an infrastructure plan. What is the overlap between your role and this bill?
WALSH: I think it's the president's commitment to rebuilding the middle class and strengthening the middle class, and I think also probably a little bit of my background, being mayor of Boston for seven years. I spent 16 years in the Massachusetts legislature. So, you know, I have an opportunity. I've had the past job of negotiating and working and negotiating contracts. I've negotiated with legislators. I've negotiated with Democrats. I've negotiated with Republicans and conservatives and progressives and liberals. So I think that that might be probably one of the reasons why. And there is some synergy here with these bills as well. There's lots of investment in apprenticeship programs and workforce training programs and programs like that.
SHAPIRO: Let's talk about some of those things that overlap with the workforce but maybe are not directly related to infrastructure, because right now it looks like a lot of the pushback is over the question of what counts as infrastructure. Republicans and some moderate Democrats are asking whether infrastructure should include things like home care or daycare. Explain how they fit into your definition of what infrastructure is.
WALSH: Well, I think this is part of the American Jobs Plan is it - it's not American infrastructure It's plan. American Jobs Plan. And that incorporates infrastructure in there. It puts in there clean drinking water, renewable electric grid, high-speed broadband, the care economy that you just brought up, manufacturing, job training, registered apprenticeship programs. So all of that is about creating opportunities in our country and building back stronger and helping people get into the middle class. I think that's ultimately what the president's goal here is. You know, he didn't just do a straight-up infrastructure bill that people deem as a roads and bridges bill, something that the past administration spoke four years consistently about and didn't do.
SHAPIRO: Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, calls this a liberal wish list. And it sounds like your response is, and what's wrong with that?
WALSH: Yeah. I mean, I think that - I think it's a wish list for every single mayor and almost every governor across the country. I mean, I think that this is something that, if I were the mayor of Boston a week ago when the president unveiled this plan, I would be excited because almost every aspect of this plan touches somebody in the city of Boston. And I can speak for a lot of mayors around the country. They're very excited about this legislation. So I don't think they view it as a liberal wish list. They view it as something that is much needed in America.
SHAPIRO: Let's talk about manufacturing, which is a priority for the president and also part of this package. I spoke with a woman named Lisa Winton, who owns a small manufacturing firm in Georgia. And in February, she told me she's got openings, but she cannot find the workers to fill those job openings.
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LISA WINTON: Manufacturers across the country are having trouble filling positions. Why is that? Because there is a huge skills gap in this country.
SHAPIRO: So, Secretary Walsh, what will it take to not just create new jobs, but make sure that people want those jobs and have the ability to do them?
WALSH: Well, that's why I think there's a big focus of this plan is on workforce development and also apprenticeships. I think that that's what we have to do. I think there's many - and there's lots of people in this economy that, when they lost their job during COVID, they went to another industry to find work - in another industry in some of those cases.
So there's two things going on there in this country, I think, when it comes to employment. But I think workforce development is key. When I was going through my confirmation process, every single senator, just about every single senator, both Republican and Democrat, were laser focused on workforce development. So there is something in this bill for everybody, for their different industries in their towns that they represent or the states they represent.
SHAPIRO: You say there's something in this bill for everybody. But, you know, there are groups that are at odds here. I mean, this bill tries to please both environmentalists and workers groups. And when you look at something like Biden's decision to kill the Keystone Pipeline, environmentalists cheered it, union organizations were angry about it. So how do you build consensus behind a package as big and sweeping as this when you know that some of the things in it are going to anger one constituency in order to please another?
WALSH: Well, I think you need to have open dialogue with the different constituencies. You need to continue to bring people to the table. I think that in the infrastructure part of this bill, building roads and bridges is really important for trades and for construction folks all across this country. And then also making sure that we're using renewables is also important for the environmental community and what they're concerned about. And I think that there's always common ground. I mean, I do believe there's always common ground in how do we move forward. I mean, I've seen it in my city. I've been able to do - I've seen it in my commonwealth. And I've seen it, quite honestly, around the country.
And I think that we don't just draw a line in the sand and stay on our side of the line. I think we have to bring everyone to the table to have conversations. This bill is about advancing workers in America and advancing America. So there's going to be lots of different things in this bill that people are going to like and not - and dislike. But at the end of the day, what's good for the country, the American Jobs Plan has a lot in that's good for the country.
SHAPIRO: This pandemic has really changed the nature of work in America. And one thing we have seen is that every divide in this economy has been exacerbated, whether that is a disproportionate number of women dropping out of the workforce or higher unemployment numbers among people of color. What role do you see the Labor Department playing in shrinking those divides as we come out of the pandemic?
WALSH: I mean, I think first and foremost is understanding and recognizing that we do have the divides. And in my time here at the Department of Labor, it's only been three weeks, but a lot of conversation we've had is about the women that have been pushed out, as you just said, and the crisis of - the people - communities of color disproportionately hit by the virus in different aspects, whether it's in jobs or whether it's in unemployment and whether it's in child care, whether it might be.
And I think it's really important that we set - that the Biden administration has set a very positive tone, that we're not afraid to tackle these issues. And I think that that's, you know, that's an important aspect of this. You don't ignore these divides. You tackle these divides. And I think that, you know, President Biden and Vice President Harris have made it very clear. They've said it in more than one speech, and they've said it privately to all of us that it's important that we make sure as we think about the American workforce and creating pathways into the middle class, it's for everybody.
SHAPIRO: Does that include gig workers? I mean, we have seen a boom in people doing jobs where they are, you know, delivery drivers or grocery workers that are not considered employees, but rather gig workers who don't necessarily get the benefits of employees. Do you think that's a place that the federal government needs to intervene?
WALSH: That's a whole industry that we are going to take a look at. And I definitely think - I think that, you know, the president feels that everyone's entitled to a good salary. Everyone's entitled to health care. Everyone's entitled to retirement options and opportunities. So I think that that's something that - I know that's something that I will look at as secretary of labor here as we move forward here in the coming months.
SHAPIRO: You say everyone's entitled to those things. Do you mean the federal government should mandate that gig workers receive those things?
WALSH: We're going to take a look at it first before I talk about mandating anything.
SHAPIRO: OK. You know, I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that you come from a union background. You began your professional life working in construction. You have been that middle-class worker that we've been talking about. And so to conclude, I wonder, what would 20-year-old Marty Walsh the construction worker, want the labor secretary to know as he uses the levers of government power to shape the lives of American workers around the country
WALSH: As a construction worker, I think I would want, first of all, safety on the job site. When I was a young construction worker, OSHA had more of a presence on job sites, not after an accident happened, but before an accident to make sure these job sites were safe. That was No. 1. I think a young Marty Walsh, obviously in my household we talked a lot about it, making sure that my retirement was secure, that we had health care, that we had Social Security and that we had, you know, work conditions that were good for the worker. I think all of that was good.
And a young Marty Walsh would want a good, robust economy as well, and making investments in the economy as well, making sure that we're moving forward, that, you know, if the economy is going down, if we had to - you know, a recession or heading that way, it doesn't benefit anyone.
SHAPIRO: All right. That is former construction worker, former Boston mayor and current Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
Thank you for talking with us.
WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.