Main Street Nashville

Nashville mayor hosts Biden labor officials for workforce equity roundtable

Federal labor officials including U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Julie Su visited Nashville this week for a roundtable with Mayor John Cooper focused on increasing equity in the workforce.Vivian Jones / Main Street Nashville

Federal labor officials including U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Julie Su visited Nashville this week for a roundtable with Mayor John Cooper focused on increasing equity in the workforce.Vivian Jones / Main Street Nashville

Federal labor officials, including U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Julie Su, visited Nashville this week for a roundtable with Mayor John Cooper focused on increasing equity in the workforce.

“Equity does not happen by accident,” Su said. “It does not happen because we wish it were so. It doesn’t happen because we talk about it: it happens because we engage in intentional partnership and policies that create that kind of equity.”

Su and others from the Department of Labor said the Biden Administration is committed to policies that will advance equity in the workforce, addressing issues of occupational segregation, benefits cliffs, and lower labor force participation among women – particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Equality is the notion that individuals have equal value. American founders recognized as self-evident in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law.



Equity is a separate notion that because people have different circumstances and abilities, an effort should be made to equip people to achieve equal outcomes. In recent years, a progressive push has grown to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in many areas of public life.

Twelve representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor and nonprofit organizations from Middle Tennessee joined Cooper and Su for the discussion, including Stand Up Nashville, A Better Balance, and the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. Project Return, a nonprofit focused on helping formerly incarcerated return to the workplace, hosted the event. No Black or latino men were present.

Sarah Glynn, a senior analyst with the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, noted that many job fields are “highly gendered.”

“Women are 95% of all child care workers and 2% of all electricians. That’s what we mean when we’re talking about occupational segregation,” Glynn said. “It’s a serious problem for a number of different reasons. It means that our economy is losing out on potential innovation and growth because we’re assigning the potential of folks based on their gender or based on their race and ethnicity or based on other factors.”

Glynn said women do not earn as much money as men, “because we actively as a society devalue the labor of women, and we particularly devalue the labor of women of color.” In response, the administration will work to ensure jobs of the future “have racial and gender equity baked into them from the very beginning.”

Su held up President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-Era Works Progress Administration and interstate expansions in the 1950s and 1960s as examples of inequities that the Biden Administration is committed not to repeat.

The WPA employed unskilled laborers for manual infrastructure projects. During the program’s tenure in the 1930s and 1940s, laborers built more than 4,000 school buildings, 130 hospitals, laid 9,000 miles of storm drains and sewer lines, built 29,000 bridges, and paved 280,000 miles of roads.

“The Works Progress Administration made incredible investments in infrastructure, and we did see infrastructure, but we did not see equity. At that time, women were about 25% of the civilian workforce, but they only got about 12-18% of the jobs that were created,” Su said. “The Biden Harris Administration is laser-focused on making sure that we do not repeat those types of inequities in what comes out today.”

Karla Campbell, an attorney for the Central Labor Council and many of its union coalition members, asked the Biden Administration to help unions overcome existing state laws by requiring things like paid parental leave and mandated diversity quotas in eligibility for federal grants.

Existing state law prohibits local governments from mandating businesses to provide paid parental leave, equitable hiring mandates and similar requirements.

“Unfortunately, we live in a state that often makes promoting equity difficult,” Campbell said. “A lot of the points in competitive grantmaking that would allow a city like Nashville to win infrastructure money, the city is not allowed to do; the state does not permit us to do it.”

Campbell asked Labor Department officials to make federal grants contingent on benefits like paid leave, hiring quotas, and child care subsidies.

“Make them requirements rather than making them factors or options, because it’s very hard in this environment for us to do it,” Campbell asked. “All of these organizations could do those wonderful things if it was mandated for federal grantmaking.”

Tennessee has had a Right-to-Work statute since 1947. The law states that employers may not hire or fire employees based on their decision to join or not to join a labor union.

Biden has encouraged Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as the PRO Act. If passed, federal law would pre-empt many state’s right-to-work laws, including Tennessee’s. Biden has said the act would “dramatically enhance the power of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

The House of Representatives passed the PRO Act this spring. It is now in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Tennesseans will vote in November on a proposal to add the state’s right-to-work statute to the state Constitution.

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