U.S. Labor Secretary: ‘Aside from inflation, we have a really strong economy’

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the February jobs report, wage increases, volatility across oil and energy markets, inflation, the Biden administration's relationship with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and the MLB lockout.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: I want to ask you about this jobs report, but not just the jobs report, but about the perception of the jobs report. I was struck this morning. A frequent guest on this show tweeted out a Gallup poll that just came out a few days ago that showed that Americans' perception of how the economy is going to go, not current conditions, but how they're looking for the remainder of the year, is the lowest since it's been since the beginning of the pandemic. And I just wonder from your perspective, trying to message about the seeming strength that we're seeing in the job market, how you're sort of coping with that disconnect and how you're trying to get the message out there.

MARTY WALSH: Well, I think first and foremost, it's a very good economic recovery that the president is leading. But in all reality, for the last two years-- we're coming upon the two-year anniversary, actually two years now-- we've been living within a global pandemic. There's been loss of life. There's been people sick, people fear, fearful of their health, a lot of uncertainty. Then we had the mask debate and the vaccines debates. So I think we just need to continue to-- the president has stayed focused on not getting necessarily caught up in what poll numbers talk about, but actually moving our economy forward. And I think we have to continue to do that.

You've talked to the financial experts. They'll tell you aside from inflation, we have a really strong economy right now in the United States of America. We just need to continue to move forward, but also let people speak-- the president spoke about this on Tuesday when he talked about mental health and substance use and our veterans and creating opportunities and making investments in spaces. A lot of people in our country are still fearful of this virus. So we have work to do there.

So I'm not blaming them, and I don't think you can take much into the polling right now. But I think we just need to continue to do our job. And the next thing up is bringing down inflation.

BRIAN SOZZI: And to that point, Mr. Secretary, what's your message to folks that do, in fact, have a job, and they're getting paid pretty well, but they're going to fill up their gas tanks this week, and depending where they are, where it might be $5 a gallon, what's the message to those folks?

MARTY WALSH: Well, I think right now, I think that the message today is that we're working to bring those down. But unfortunately, with what's happening in Ukraine and Russia, that could even compound even more. I think right now, on a worldwide stage, we have some issues. And obviously, we're a country that's in transition from fossil fuel to clean energy. And we're in the process of doing that. So in some cases, production, supply chains have been reduced a little bit. So we just need to continue to move forward.

Certainly, gas is a big issue. I filled up my car last weekend as well, although I don't drive that much, but I did fill it up. But we just need to continue to work to bring prices down. The president addressed this, too. Not necessarily the oil-- he talked a little bit about it. But he talked about all costs of goods for the American people. And his number one bullet point was bringing the cost of goods and services down for the American people by creating more opportunities, making more in America, doing better on our supply chains, easing the supply chain burden, working with small businesses, helping small businesses, and asking companies to bring their costs down as well.

JULIE HYMAN: So people are being faced with those higher costs. And as we saw in this report, on a month over month basis, average hourly earnings didn't go up, which was a bit of a surprise here. So how do you sort of deal with that side of the equation?

MARTY WALSH: Well, they've gone up 5.1-- as you said earlier, 5.1% year over year. This month, we saw, I think, it was a $0.02 increase, something to that effect. Certainly, under normal circumstances where we wouldn't have high inflation, 5.1% is a large gain. And I think it's the biggest in quite some time in our country in a year. So we just need to continue to encourage companies to pay their workers more, work and work more.

And on the other side, I mean, again, I can't sugarcoat this. We definitely-- the president has been focused on it, and we, as an administration, who work for the president, need to work to bring these costs down. What we're doing at the Department of Labor is working on supply chain. We're working on trucking apprenticeships. We're working on other apprenticeships, on workforce development opportunities.

I was at Durham Community College with the vice president on Wednesday. We were at a workforce development program, where we sat down with apprentice, electricians, about creating pathways. Every single one of them said the reason why they wanted the apprenticeship in their union is because they wanted a better job, better paying wages. We need to continue to amplify that message, but also continue to do that work.

BRIAN SOZZI: Mr. Secretary, you've been a champion of labor for many, many years. You know, I'm sure you saw what Elon Musk put out there regarding a potential UAW vote over at Tesla. I mean, should Tesla be unionized here?

MARTY WALSH: I mean, if the workers in Tesla want to unionize, they should be. And I would hope that Elon Musk would respect their right. Again, the way. I feel when it comes to organizing, it's, everyone should have the right to organize. And it's their call. And if workers decide to organize, then they should be recognized as a union. If workers decide not to organize in a free and fair election, then they don't have to be unionized.

I think that that's certainly that-- that's been pretty much my position my whole life, coming out of the rank and file of being a labor person and a union member. But again, I've worked with both sides of the aisle. And as Labor Secretary, I work with both sides-- I shouldn't say both sides now. I work with workers all across America, whether they're covered by collective bargaining or not.

JULIE HYMAN: And just to follow up on this, Secretary Walsh, as we have been watching this sort of Tesla versus the White House, I mean, Elon Musk has been tweeting, as he does. That seems to be the preferred mode of communication. But I am curious if you guys have talked to him directly about this, about the unionization effort, and just more broadly, about the hiring that Tesla has been doing and the expansion of its factories?

MARTY WALSH: I have not personally had a conversation with Elon or the company. But I can't speak to the fact if anyone at the White House has spoken, the president or anyone in the administration, has spoken to him. I don't know the answer to that question.

BRIAN SOZZI: Mr. Secretary--

MARTY WALSH: Let me put it this way. I would absolutely love to-- I would love to have a conversation with Mr. Musk and talk about anything that he'd like to talk about. Certainly, a big company in the United States of America. Very innovative company in the United States of America. And I'm willing to have conversations with anyone.

BRIAN SOZZI: That's great to hear. I know Elon's a big fan of Yahoo Finance so I'm sure he's tuning in here. Mr. Secretary, you've offered your services to the MLB, which is just locked in this nasty lockout. Is there likely that we're just not going to have a baseball season this year?

MARTY WALSH: No, I don't know. I just-- what I want to do is encourage both sides to get back to the table. You can't get an agreement if you're not talking. And I think it's important for the fans of the United States and all across the world that watch baseball. I just encourage both sides to get back to the table and talk. And I offered services informally, formally, whatever they want, but I do think that there's an agreement to be made there. They just need to sit down and continue dialogue.

JULIE HYMAN: And Secretary, I know that you've offered your services. Have you heard from them? Have you actually been talking to them about maybe being some kind of go-between there in the negotiations?

MARTY WALSH: As I said earlier, I've talked to both sides at one point in this, but there's been pretty-- I think pretty frequent negotiations up until this week. At least, that's what I've been reading in the newspaper. They've been meeting the players, and the owners have been meeting. And again, I know that last week, there seems to have a bit of a breakdown. But again, you can't get to an agreement if you're not having a conversation. So I just encourage both sides to get back to the table.

BRIAN SOZZI: So true. All right, we'll leave it there. Always appreciate you giving us some time on jobs day. US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, have a great weekend. We'll talk to you soon.