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Andy Levin viewed as likely contender for Biden's labor secretary

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Union leaders are starting to rally behind Michigan's U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, hoping President-elect Joe Biden taps the Democratic progressive congressman as his labor secretary.

The Communication Workers of America this week endorsed Levin for the powerful cabinet post, and at least one top United Autoworkers Union official is urging Levin to pursue the position. 

Levin, a Bloomfield Township Democrat, this week declined to disclose any conversations he's had with the Biden transition team but said it’s an honor even to be mentioned as a candidate.

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin speaks to members of the media

The former labor organizer was just reelected for a second term in Congress and said he's excited about returning to the House, where he is vice chair of the Education and Labor Committee. But he also wants to make "whatever my best contribution is."

"So, if President-elect Biden asked me to serve in his administration, I would certainly have to consider it, especially if it was to continue my lifelong fight to increase the voice and power of working people in this country," Levin told The Detroit News. 

The congressman added that people he's worked with for decades in the labor movement are "very much advocating for this."

"When's the last time we had a labor secretary who actually came out of the labor movement?" he said. "How many cabinet secretaries really come from the heartland? People in Michigan and people in the Midwest would like to see more representation."

Union advisers in Michigan said Levin and his supporters have been calling union officials for their backing, but Levin stressed that he talks to union leaders all the time. 

"I have (done so) the whole time I’ve been in Congress and I continue to — about all manner of things," he said. "We certainly are talking a lot about the Biden administration and not even just this." 

A spokesman for the Biden transition team declined to comment, saying it has not made any personnel decisions at this time. 

Allies said the Harvard-trained Levin, 60, has unique credentials that would make him a top contender for the job, dating back to his days organizing health care workers for the Service Employees International Union in 1980s Michigan.

He went on to work as staff attorney to the presidential Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations and in the secretary’s office of the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton administration. 

For 11 years, he worked in organizing at the national AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., before returning to Michigan to serve in Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration as chief workforce officer and later as head of the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. There, he created and ran the No Worker Left Behind initiative to train unemployed Michigan residents for new jobs in the last recession.

"Rebuilding the middle class is at the heart of President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda, and Congressman Levin’s vision and experience will allow him to begin executing that agenda immediately," Communications Workers of America President Chris Shelton said. 

"He understands the power of collective bargaining, and as secretary of labor he will be a true champion for working people."

Shelton's predecessor at CWA, Larry Cohen, said Levin's background in organizing and in Congress would be "unique" in terms of the 85 years of U.S. labor secretaries. He noted Levin also founded and ran a green energy company and "understands green jobs mean good-paying jobs."

"He would wake up every day saying, the only way you're going to solve inequity and inequality in this country is for workers to have a real voice voice at the bargaining table," said Cohen, who led the CWA during the Obama years and worked closely with Levin when he was with the AFL-CIO. 

"It's really critical that there's a major Michigan policy voice in that cabinet. It can't just be bicoastal elites and smart people. There really needs to be a voice in that cabinet of Michigan — the ups and downs and possibilities of industrial America."

Other names floated for the labor post include Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Labor Secretary Julie Su, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, former acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris and even Obama's former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who now heads the Democratic National Committee. 

What makes Levin stand out among those names is the "innovative" role he played on the ground as a labor department official in Michigan during the Great Recession, said Andy Van Kleunen, CEO of the National Skills Coalition, which advocates for greater investment for job training for workers. 

Van Kleunen met Levin in 2007 when he was developing a strategy to help laid-off autoworkers get back into good-paying careers. Levin has said he hopes to take that No Worker Left Behind initiative  national.  

"I feel like that is distinctive experience. And it required him to actually work across a range of different stakeholders that sometimes don't cooperate with each other to come to the table to figure out how to solve that kind of a problem," Van Kleunen said.

His group sent a letter to the Biden transition team recently in support of Levin for labor secretary, Van Kleunen said. 

Several national union organizations said this week that they've not weighed in on the potential candidates, but they want to see a labor leader in the position, as opposed to someone from corporate America. Eugene Scalia, the current secretary under President Donald Trump, is an attorney who defended corporations in labor regulation disputes.

UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada told Bloomberg News this week that she has urged Levin to pursue the post. "He understands the fight that working people are up against," she said. 

But UAW's governing board has not yet made a recommendation to the Biden transition team about the labor post, union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said. 

"That said, we highly respect Rep. Levin as well as others who have been mentioned publicly for the job of labor secretary," Rothenberg said.

Levin previously worked in the UAW's health and safety department.

The AFL-CIO also said it's not pushing any particular individual for the job at this time, but that President Richard Trumka wants someone with clout with Biden, members of the cabinet and leaders on Capitol Hill "so we are best positioned to move our agenda forward," spokesman Tim Schlittner said.

"He will continue to solicit input from his colleagues in the labor movement as the process plays out," Schlittner said.

At right, Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, participates in a bill markup in the House Education and Labor Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

The Levin family has long been close to organized labor in Michigan, who backed Andy when he ran for Congress. His uncle, former Sen. Carl Levin of Detroit, served with Biden in the Senate for decades until his retirement four years ago.

But some Democrats have expressed jitters about Levin leaving his seat and risking the loss of it to the Republicans in a special election, considering how Macomb County is trending toward the GOP. The 9th Congressional District includes portions of Oakland and Macomb counties.

He was first elected to the U.S. House in 2018 to succeed his father, Sandy Levin, when he retired. Political consultant TJ Bucholz, who was a senior consultant on the campaign, said they worried more about the primary than the seat going GOP red. 

What might be a greater consideration is the reapportionment of House seats in Michigan after the 2020 Census, Bucholz said. "Michigan could lose a seat in the House, so if that seat is redistricted, it will look different," he said. 

Levin won reelection last week with 58% of the vote over Republican Charles Langworthy's 38%, according to unofficial results. 

"I just can't tell you how excited I am to go back to Congress, and that's what I assume I'll be doing," Levin said. "And if our president asked me to consider being the cabinet — and I can't even imagine — that would be quite the honor."

mburke@detroitnews.com