Bernie Sanders is a Bad Choice for Secretary of Labor
Sanders has the right ideas, but a cabinet post is a step down from the Senate.
Aside from Donald Trump’s ongoing refusal to concede, the most consistent news of the post-election landscape has been the speculation swirling around who Joe Biden will nominate to his cabinet. The Department of Labor has received more coverage than it usually would during this transition period, thanks largely in part to one of the candidates angling for the Secretary job: Senator Bernie Sanders.
Sanders has reportedly been campaigning for the job since weeks before Election Day. This revelation earned excitement from progressives and the broader Left. Both The Nation and Jacobin drew direct parallels from a Secretary Sanders to Frances Perkins, the first Secretary of Labor who steered the Department for a dozen years as a staunch supporter of the New Deal. The Nation reasons that Sanders could use the position as a “bully pulpit” to forcefully argue for a workers’ rights agenda, while Jacobin states that Sanders can “make the case that the best way to raise and enforce labor standards is to rekindle collective bargaining rights and democratic voice in the workplace.”
A few problems immediately emerge from these arguments. Most obviously, the Department of Labor has little to do with unions aside from maintaining regulatory oversight and reporting standards of labor organizations. While Sanders’s labor message has never been restricted to simply promoting unionism, this means much of the job is dedicated to the sort of administrative rulemaking and personnel management that keeps the Secretary from having time to make too many stump speeches. And if Sanders’s greatest strength as a candidate is his charisma and public persuasiveness, there is nothing stopping him now from traveling the country and making the case for collective bargaining.
Of course, Sanders has been singing the praises of unions for years and there has been no sign yet of any resurgence in labor organizing, even since Sanders became a household name in 2016. There would perhaps be some aesthetic synergy to be gained in emblazoning his speeches with the official Department of Labor seal, but it is not clear to me that this would resonate outside of the political base he’s already cultivated. That’s not a knock on Sanders; I just can’t ascribe that sort of power to any single person within the labor movement.
Sanders’s goals seem much more in tune with the National Labor Relations Board’s mission, but there’s not an obvious fit within the agency. Sanders is not a lawyer and thus couldn’t serve as General Counsel, and serving as one member of the five-person Board seems like a waste of his reach and talents.
That brings us to the real issue. As a sitting U.S. Senator, Sanders already has the most power and influence he will ever wield in his career. He’s a strong voice for workers, but he’s just a strong a voice for healthcare reform and an anti-interventionist foreign policy, among dozens of other progressive causes. Slotting Sanders into a single-issue role in a presidential cabinet will presumably muzzle him from criticizing Biden or other Democrats on these issues for the duration of his service.
There is also the issue of Sanders’s hypothetical replacement, who would be appointed for a several-month stint by Vermont’s Republican governor. While the governor has apparently committed to appointing an independent who would caucus with Democrats in such a scenario (mirroring Sanders’s current role), it is almost certain that this replacement would be to the right of Sanders.
In the end, Sanders’s advantages he brings to the Department of Labor are marginal and the costs are great. If policy change is what matters, then it makes much more sense to nominate a technocrat like AFL-CIO economist William Spriggs or California labor secretary Julie Su. I personally have a soft spot for Michigan Congressman Andy Levin, who has the labor bona fides as a former union organizer and the policy chops to put them to administrative use. The acuity and passion with which he prosecutes anti-union witnesses in congressional hearings, for example, stand in stark comparison to his Democratic colleagues, who generally ignore the Republican witnesses and loft softballs at the Democratic invitees. This convinces me that he—like Sanders—gets the big picture: the fight needs to be taken to the enemies of workers and their families. (As of this writing, Boston Mayor and former building trades official Marty Walsh appears to be the slight favorite for the nomination.)
Sanders’s greatest strengths remain on the stump and on the floors of Congress, not in the conference room of a federal office building. Sanders remaining in the Senate should not be looked at as some progressive defeat.