Business

Boston’s labor mayor sidelined in Tufts’ nurses talks

Tufts Medical Center nurses were locked out Thursday after conducting a one-day strike.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Tufts Medical Center nurses were locked out Thursday after conducting a one-day strike.

A year ago, Mayor Martin J. Walsh was celebrated for his marathon, down-to-the-wire intervention that helped avert a massive nurses’ strike in Boston.

Even though he was out of town, the mayor worked the phones — making about 35 calls — and got representatives from the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Brigham and Women’s Hospital to agree that a strike would have been bad for the city and even worse for patients and the hospital and nurses that serve them.

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“I’m certain the mayor’s intervention turned the tide in this negotiation,’’ Dr. Ron M. Walls, the hospital’s chief operating officer, said at the time.

But this week, as talks between the nurses’ union and Tufts Medical Center crumbled over salary, staffing, and pension concerns, Walsh could only sit and watch.

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The mayor said Wednesday that he offered to intervene and mediate to help end the impasse in the Tufts’ negotiations. Union leadership has said they wanted Walsh involved, but his overture was ultimately not accepted.

“I am willing to be helpful in any way I can be — if asked,’’ Walsh said. “I think at this point it’s not my place to jump into a strike. We are talking about a private hospital, private nurses. But certainly I don’t want to see this prolonged.”

The stark difference in Walsh’s involvement in the two acrimonious labor talks signals the reach and limits of Boston’s labor mayor. In one case, Walsh — who headed the building trades union — was able to flex his political muscle to prevent a historic strike. In the other, the mayor has been sidelined.

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Dr. Michael Wagner, chief executive officer of Tufts Medical Center, told reporters Wednesday he has been keeping the mayor informed throughout the talks.

“The mayor and I have a very good working relationship,’’ Wagner said. “I can’t speak for the mayor. . . . I’ve been keeping the mayor up to date as to where things are at.”

Later, a Tufts spokeswoman would not say whether the hospital would accept Walsh’s offer to mediate and declined to comment when asked. She said, “We plan to keep the mayor informed of any developments and believe he knows our commitment to supporting our nurses as well as the other 3,800 members of the Tufts Medical Center team.”

But Ryan Berard, associate director of government and legislation for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said the union would welcome the mayor’s involvement, noting “the integral role” Walsh played in thwarting the Brigham strike.

Berard said the union took heart in Walsh’s role as a neutral third party in the Brigham talks, saying the mayor was able to bring both sides together and create a dialogue that fostered settlement.

“We view him that way now,” said Berard.

The nurses’ union endorsed Walsh in his first campaign in 2013 and in his reelection later this year, and Berard would not speculate whether the hospital would object to the mayor’s involvement for that reason. But, he added: “It does a disservice for this negotiation for them to come at this from this perspective.”

‘I am willing to be helpful in any way I can be — if asked. I think at this point it’s not my place to jump into a strike.’

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Speaking to reporters in Dorchester Wednesday, Walsh noted the difference in his role in the Brigham and Tufts negotiations.

In the Brigham case, Walsh said both the union and Brigham president Dr. Elizabeth Nabel asked him to intervene.

Along with the other political power brokers, the mayor said, they were in “constant conversation” with representatives of both sides of the issue until a deal was reached.

“It was around-the-clock negotiating, and we are able to get it done,’’ Walsh recalled, before turning his attention to the Tufts nurses’ strike. “This doesn’t help anybody. The hospital is going to lose money, the nurses are going to lose money obviously, but most importantly the patients will lose care. . . . We are a world-class medical facility city. Both sides should get back to the table today and come to an agreement.”

Walsh said he has been in talks with union and Tufts officials “on and off for the past three weeks.” He said he got a call Tuesday night from union and Tufts representatives saying the strike would proceed the following morning. The mayor said he urged both sides to sit down — for 24 to 48 hours — to work out their differences, to no avail.

“I said ‘I’m willing to help. I’m willing to step in. I can help,’” said Walsh, adding that he is willing to hold talks in his office. “I know they seem to be far apart. But I think if you sit in a room, you force yourself to negotiate and get to a settlement.”

The mayor has been both applauded and criticized for City Hall’s involvement in outside labor negotiations. For instance, two City Hall workers were charged last year with extortion for allegedly threatening to withhold permits for the Boston Calling music festival unless the show’s organizers hired union workers (both pleaded not guilty). One of those workers also allegedly discussed ways in 2014 to withhold permits for the Top Chef television show, upon learning producers did not hire union stagehands, according to court records.

Walsh himself had attempted to revisit his earlier participation in a “Top Chef” filming upon learning the show had hired nonunion workers, according to an outside consultant’s report.

And while Walsh was praised for his involvement in helping evade the Brigham strike, he has been equally lauded for his refusal to get involved in a labor dispute involving school bus drivers in 2014.

“There is a National Labor Relations Board process in place to address this issue,” the mayor said at the time.

Steven Tolman, president of the state AFL-CIO, had applauded the mayor at the time for not getting involved.

“Marty’s got to run the city,” Tolman said at the time. “He can’t get involved in every labor dispute.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Milton Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him @MiltonValencia.
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