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Shirley Leung

Can Marty Walsh be tough on unions?

If there’s one mayoral candidate the business community is most wary of, it’s Marty Walsh.

As a state representative, he carried a prolabor agenda on Beacon Hill, and as the former union leader who has become a serious mayoral hopeful, he has accepted so much money from unions — about one-quarter of his $1.3 million war chest — even he is self-conscious about it.

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“I didn’t think I’d get a question about unions,” he said dryly, during a televised debate the other night. “I haven’t heard about it the whole race.”

It’s a stock response to a central question of Walsh’s candidacy, one that doesn’t get old because it never gets answered: How tough can he be on unions, particularly municipal unions, after they tossed several hundred thousand dollars at his campaign?

In my attempt to answer this question, I strode into the lion’s den, which is McKenna’s Café in Savin Hill, to have breakfast with Walsh himself. We both ordered the oatmeal. If nothing else, we lowered our cholesterol for the day.

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He talks tough about being tough on unions because he has the credibility to make them listen. Walsh, a second-generation laborer, ran the Boston Building Trades, an umbrella group that represents 17 unions from electricians to ironworkers.

“If I get strong pushback from a public union, I’m going to push back strongly,” said Walsh.

Then I asked him about the firefighters union, which has endorsed him. Would he be as tough as Mayor Tom Menino who pushed for random drug and alcohol testing and tried to rein in raises?

“It’s hard to comment on the contract,” said Walsh.

So much for talking tough.

What about shrinking the Fire Department because the number of fires have fallen dramatically?

“I’m going to be careful before I lay off one single public safety person,” said Walsh, growing impatient. “Crime has gone down 20 percent in Boston; doesn’t mean I should lay off police officers.”

These aren’t hypothetical questions. The new mayor will have to negotiate contracts with the firefighters and police officers.
Walsh said he knows how to get concessions. While he ran the Building Trades, he worked with developers to get cranes in the skies and jobs flowing. For example, Alexandria Real Estate Equities wanted weekend work done on a project in Cambridge but didn’t want to pay the double overtime rate. Walsh negotiated it down to time-and-a-half.

Was it tough to do? “Some of the workers were upset,” he admitted.

Next subject: Walsh’s voting record in the Legislature. In his 16 years, as a Democratic state representative from Dorchester, he has carried labor’s agenda, voting 90 percent of the time with the legislative slate of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

Likewise, over the past decade, he has been aligned with the Associated Industries of Massachusetts agenda only 38 percent to 67 percent of the time, falling below the average rating of other state representatives. With the National Federation of Independent Business, Walsh fares worse, voting only 25 percent to 40 percent of time on issues that matter to the small-business advocacy group.

Walsh defends his voting record. On the labor front: “I don’t vote to get 100 percent.” On the business front: “Any major piece of business legislation, I have supported.”

Not exactly true. Walsh voted against a key issue AIM supported in the last session, giving cities and towns the authority to set health insurance copays and deductibles outside of collective bargaining.

And what about the software tax imbedded in the recent transportation financing bill he voted for? “I know,” he said, as if he was waiting for that one. He supported the tax because he thought “there was going to be ceiling on it.”

I guess he didn’t read the final legislation, but neither did many other colleagues. Walsh said he would support an amendment to cap the tax collection at $161 million.

To Walsh’s credit, business leaders who inhabit Beacon Hill say he is someone they can work with.

Walsh, slightly exasperated at the end of our breakfast, finally said: “I’m the only person who has a scorecard in the race. At least you know what you get with me.”

What we get is two Marty Walshes. Walsh the legislator, who has served the labor agenda, and Walsh the candidate, who wants to be tough on unions. Should he win (with the help of all that labor), which Walsh will we see in City Hall?

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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