Why Joe Biden’s Labor Secretary Could Come From Iowa

Photo by Julie Fleming

During an Iowa Caucus season packed with multi-candidate forums, Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s labor-focused Fish Fry in Cedar Rapids was easily overshadowed in the national press by the state party’s flashy Liberty and Justice mega-event held the day previous. But last year’s Nov. 2 forum held by the first-term member of Congress may have been the most informative of any caucus event in explaining Iowa’s role in the future Joe Biden administration.

Present at Finkenauer’s Fish Fry were the general presidents and national leaders from the Ironworkers, Operating Engineers, Firefighters, Painters, Bricklayers, and United Association. So too were all the top presidential contenders,  who discussed labor issues in-depth, a topic often missing from the debates. Several candidates, including Biden, rolled out big labor plans around it.

In hosting the event, Finkenauer served as a conduit for the labor movement’s outreach to the presidential field, building upon the national relationships she’d already developed as the first family member of a UA (plumbers and pipefitters) member to be elected to Congress.

Now, as Reuters reported last night, Finkenauer is under strong consideration with three others to be Biden’s secretary of labor.

She will turn 32 this month, and likely would be the youngest-ever member of a presidential cabinet in U.S. history if selected, which would follow her being the second-youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Finkenauer’s appointment wouldn’t put a Democratic seat in jeopardy as she just lost reelection after one term, and her age could be a chance for Biden to lift up a younger Democrat to the national spotlight that still matches his own more moderate ideology.

The young legislator’s inclusion on Biden’s short-list came as a surprise to many, even in Iowa, and some have framed Finkenauer’s consideration for the key cabinet position as simply repayment for her endorsement in the Iowa Caucus. That, however, fails to understand Finkenauer’s whole life and political history, and what might make her a particularly compelling choice for Biden.

Finkenauer’s entire identity in Iowa politics has been shaped by her upbringing in a union family — her campaign ads have featured her father’s sweatshirt she keeps with her, one marked with burn holes in it from his past work as a union welder. Biden himself pointed out the similarities in their blue-collar backgrounds on the Iowa trail. She first won election to represent Dubuque in the Iowa House at age 26, just like Biden entered public service at a very young age.

“It is personal. I talk about that a lot. These [labor] polices that are being pushed aren’t something separate from my life or to the lives of my friends and neighbors here,” Finkenauer said at her 2019 Fish Fry.

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Her connection to Biden goes back to 2007, when her grandfather insisted on introducing her to the Delaware senator running for president in that cycle and when Finkenauer was serving as the Speaker’s page in the Iowa House. She would go on to work as his volunteer coordinator on that 2008 caucus race.

Biden hugs Finkenauer at a January 2019 event. Photo by Julie Fleming

The focus of Finkenauer’s legislative career has been centered largely on workers’ issues. In Congress, she’s pushed Buy American funding bills, spoken out on worker safety bills, and fought for paid family leave provisions. She introduced legislation this spring to protect meatpacking workers after massive outbreaks at places like the Waterloo Tyson plant.

Perhaps the best way to think about Finkenauer’s potential for the labor post is through her crusade against a policy you’ve likely never heard of before: “fund swapping.”

It’s a rather complicated issue that requires an entire story to explain, but essentially it was an Iowa Republican effort to do creative math with federal funds for construction projects so that the state didn’t have to pay higher wages mandated by federal laws. Finkenauer fought it in the Iowa Statehouse, then personally spearheaded an effort in the U.S. House to prevent states from doing what Iowa is now.

“Fund swapping” is about as unsexy of a policy issue as you can get — you’re not going to get mainstream press coverage out of it and few to no activists are going to get excited about it. But it’s a policy that directly relates to how much money is going into construction workers’ pockets right now.

And important for Finkenauer’s chances for labor secretary is that issues like “fund swapping” are the exact kind of in-the-trenches labor battles that are being played out right now in American government. It’s the sort of conservative think-tank schemes that Republican state legislators have employed for years to undercut working people and slash state budgets.

Some will point to Finkenauer serving just six years in elected office, only two years removed from the Statehouse, as a lack of experience or gravitas for the cabinet post. It may actually be her most compelling quality.

Finkenauer served in a Midwest state legislature that Republicans took full control of in the 2010s, getting a first-hand experience of what happens when the GOP guts collective bargaining laws and undermines workers compensation. She is under no false impressions of what state Republicans are willing to do.

Two other possible picks — Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, 53, and Michigan Congressman Andy Levin, 60 — have spent decades in the labor movement, including during different fights. Julie Su, 52, certainly has the experience running a large labor agency as the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency secretary, though that’s in a liberal state where the political situation is much different from what Biden will face. Bernie Sanders, Reuters reported, is unlikely to end up with the job.

The biggest labor battle of Biden’s presidency may not be a rerun of the 2009 card check effort of the Obama Administration, nor is it likely to be the ambitious labor proposals more progressive members of the party are pushing, especially if Democrats don’t take the Senate. It may instead be pushing back on anti-worker state laws (many in the Midwest) rammed through over the last decade and the new ones state Republicans will try in the coming years.

Finkenauer knows that fight well. She’s lived it the past six years.

That experience, along with the personal trust she already enjoys from the President-elect, could make her well-suited to make history at the Department of Labor.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 12/1/20

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3 Comments on "Why Joe Biden’s Labor Secretary Could Come From Iowa"

  • I’d rather see Abby F. as a member of Biden’s cabinet than see the return of Tom Vilsack. But it looks like Vilsack will return as Secretary of Agriculture. Chuck Grassley is pleased, the head of the Iowa Soybean Association is pleased, other Big Ag people are pleased. And no wonder.

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