Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, speaks during a press conference on aviation safety in Arlington, Virginia on January 24, 2019.

(Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Sanders Leads Push for Biden to Name Worker Champion Sara Nelson as Labor Secretary

"U.S. workers deserve a labor secretary that is unapologetically pro-worker," said one advocate.

Progressives are looking at U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh's expected departure as an opportunity for President Joe Biden to demonstrate his professed commitment to workers' rights by placing at the helm of the Labor Department a leader who will unabashedly call out the corporate greed that has left millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet in the face of historic inequality.

After hockey news outlet The Daily Faceoff first reported earlier this month that Walsh is planning to step down from the Labor Department to lead the National Hockey League's Players' Association, Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote to Biden to put forward two potential nominees, urging him to select someone who is "a champion of workers."

In a letter dated February 10, Sanders recommended former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who served for four years under former President Bill Clinton and has since written and spoken out extensively about income inequality, or Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson, one of the best-known labor leaders in the United States today.

"There are a wealth of potential avenues an ambitious, fearless, hard-nosed labor secretary may take to actually make a real material impact on the survival of the American labor movement."

"Reich," said Sanders, "would hit the ground running. He has been instrumental in advancing workplace protections, workforce development, and worker power for decades."

Nelson "has been a union member for nearly 30 years, has been a leading voice for worker rights and is a very strong communicator of progressive values," wrote the senator, who chairs the Senate committee that would hold confirmation hearings on a nominee.

"She has a thorough understanding of federal labor laws and how these laws apply to workers, and her experience sets her up for success in this job," he added.

Sanders' recommendation of Nelson was bolstered on Thursday by an opinion piece written by Fast Company editor Morgan Clendaniel, who said Walsh's imminent departure leaves Biden with "a renewed chance to fulfill his stated desire to be considered "the most pro-union president you've ever seen," as Biden promised he would be.

Nelson has spoken out against corporate greed, saying the labor movement is "the only check" against an economic system in which CEO compensation surged nearly 1,000% between 1978 and 2018, while workers were paid just 12% more on average.

A deep understanding and engagement with the realities of soaring income inequality could help ensure the Labor Department is helmed by a leader who is on the side of labor, wrote Clendaniel.

"The president talks a good game for workers, and you can see the visceral thrill it gives him in speeches when he calls for the passage of thelabor-friendly PRO Act or when he met with [Amazon Labor Union leader Christian] Smalls and supported his efforts, saying, 'Amazon, here we come,'" he wrote. "But what better way for President Biden to show that he actually has labor's back than elevating Nelson?"

As a union leader, Nelson played a key role in negotiating provisions in the pandemic-era CARES Act that temporarily banned airline stock buybacks, capped executive pay, and tied rules that centered workers' rights to funding for the airline industry.

"U.S. workers deserve a labor secretary that is unapologetically pro-worker," former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, an ally of Sanders, said last week.

Former U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), has also been suggested by former labor reporter Steven Greenhouse as a possible contender who could draw from his experience as a trade union organizer and leading his state's Labor Department, while Deputy Secretary Julie Su has been named as a likely interim secretary and a potential nominee for the permanent role.

The National Immigration Law Center, National Education Association president Becky Pringle, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have expressed support for Su, who previously served as California's labor commissioner and launched a statewide "Wage Theft Is a Crime" campaign.

Silicon Valley companies Uber and Lyft, which have aggressively campaigned against workers' rights legislation, are reportedly lobbying against Su's potential nomination.

Meanwhile, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is reportedly pushing the White House to nominate former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), a corporate Democrat who progressives have blamed for the party's failure to maintain control of the House after the midterms in November, as he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at the time.

"Progressives really don't want Maloney, but neither really does anyone else except Pelosi," a veteran Democratic strategist toldThe Hill Thursday. "He has literally absolutely no qualifications for this job and it's so random."

While Walsh was "incredibly" the first labor secretary to stand on a picket line alongside workers without also meeting with anti-union management, wrote independent reporter Kim Kelly at Fast Company on Tuesday, the former Boston mayor's position at the Labor Department amounted to a missed opportunity, according to critics.

Walsh sided with railroad companies over workers during negotiations regarding a contract that employees were ultimately forced to accept, even though it included no paid sick leave, and he has not addressed the Warrior Met Coal strike in Alabama, which has now been going on for nearly two years as workers demand fair pay, benefits, and working conditions.

The outgoing labor secretary "rose to power during a time when the institutions of organized labor grew sclerotic, and privately accepted their own inability to create fundamental change," wrote Hamilton Nolan at MSNBC last week. "In 2022, the percentage of workers who are union members in America declined once again."

Walsh has left the next labor secretary with "a lot of catching up to do," wrote Kelly at Fast Company. "During a moment of historically high public approval for unions and historically low union membership, there are a wealth of potential avenues an ambitious, fearless, hard-nosed labor secretary may take to actually make a real material impact on the survival of the American labor movement."

"Here's hoping we get one of those next time," she added.

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