State Representative Martin J. Walsh resigned as head of the Boston Building Trades to run for mayor, but his clout as a labor leader endures, helping him forge a formidable campaign with six weeks left until voters head to the polls.
Dozens of labor groups — Teamsters, painters, pipe fitters, firefighters — have endorsed Walsh, providing an army of volunteers to hold signs and to slip brochures under the doors of voters.
Walsh’s campaign coffers have been inflated by large checks from unions using membership dues to donate more than $170,000 —an amount that eclipses the total that sits in the individual campaign accounts of half of the 12 candidates in the race. And the support isn’t only local: A group closely linked to the national AFL-CIO has already spent more than $10,000 paying canvassers to go door to door for Walsh.
But labor’s steadfast support of Walsh could be a liability if he wins one of the two spots in November’s final election, political observers said. As mayor, Walsh would negotiate contracts with municipal unions and wield significant influence over construction and development.
“I think business would be nervous,” said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, who noted that Walsh has impressed many in the business community with his stance in favor of charter schools and other issues. “I think initially [the business community] has been pleasantly surprised at some of his responses to questions. But I think in the back of the mind, there is his strong union support.”
Walsh’s dominance among organized labor has not come as a surprise for a candidate who remains president of his local laborers union and has served as a state representative for almost two decades. It makes him labor’s elder statesman in the race, which has proven detrimental to another candidate, City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo, who also has deep union roots but has won only a handful of endorsements.
In an interview, Walsh described his backing from labor as a badge of honor, because, he said, he has spent his career fighting for working families. As mayor, he said, he would have the upper hand in labor negotiations because unions would listen to one of their own and accept hard truths about municipal finances. He also vowed to build on the momentum of Boston’s flourishing economy, which has fueled a construction boom across the city.
“I’d be the biggest friend to the business community as mayor,” Walsh said. “If we don’t have successful businesses, there are no employees for unions to represent.”
Kevin Phelan, an executive with the real estate firm Colliers International, said the next mayor will want to build on the city’s solid financial footing.
“Marty is smart enough to know that even if labor helped push him in, he’s going to have to be realistic,” Phelan said. “I don’t think Marty or the labor unions want to stop construction in the city. If returns on . . . construction get too thin, this juggernaut ends.”
For two years, Walsh led the Boston Building Trades as business manager, an influential post he held while serving in the state Legislature. Many of the unions he represented are actively backing his bid for mayor. Walsh, who has raised more than $850,000 total since the start of the year, also has the support of a few groups that represent city employees, but many municipal unions have yet to endorse candidates.
That includes the city’s largest labor group, the Boston Teachers Union, which has 10,500 active and retired members. The union has not endorsed a mayoral candidate since 1991, when its own president, Edward J. Doherty, made an unsuccessful bid for mayor. The teachers union will likely get involved in this race but has not decided whether to endorse before the Sept. 24 preliminary election or wait for the final in November.
Arroyo’s wife is a member of the teachers union. Several of Arroyo’s positions — opposing more charter schools, pushing for some elected members of the School Committee — hew much closer to the union’s stances than do Walsh’s. But with dozens of endorsements, Walsh has momentum with labor.
“We have several candidates we like, and we have several candidates we like a little less,” said Richard Stutman, president of the teachers union. “We’re waiting a bit until we coalesce.”
Arroyo, who has generated nearly $22,000 in donations from unions, has secured the endorsement of his former union, and its national affiliate, which represent custodians, security guards, and window cleaners. He also won the support of a union representing library employees, which came after Arroyo fought a city plan to shutter four branch libraries.
But Arroyo lost the backing of other municipal unions for whom he had been a vocal advocate on the City Council, including the firefighters. They went with Walsh and, with their international chapter, donated $30,000 to his campaign, saying they had a longstanding relationship with the legislator.
“Endorsements play a role, and I’m sure they matter,” Arroyo said in an interview. “But the most important endorsement is by individual voters and the conversations you have on doorsteps about your vision for the city.”
The only other mayoral candidate to be endorsed by a labor group is City Councilor Michael P. Ross, who won the support of the union representing crews on Boston ambulances.
Perhaps the most politically potent local union, the Service Employees International Union 1199 , has not decided whether it will endorse in the preliminary election or the final. SEIU 1199 represents health care workers, and when it puts muscle behind a candidate, volunteers show up wearing backpacks and hiking boots so they can spend hours knocking on doors.
Walsh’s ties to labor go beyond Massachusetts. On Aug. 1, Walsh was in Washington, D.C., and went to a meeting at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO.
That same day an organization that calls itself Working America filed its first expense report disclosing that it had paid people to knock on doors in Boston advocating for Walsh, according to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. The practice is legal, but outside groups cannot coordinate with campaigns.
Working America is the political organizing arm of the AFL-CIO. Walsh said he did not discuss the group in his visit to the union’s headquarters.
“I have no idea what that’s about,” Walsh said, adding, “A lot of the union members view me as one of them. I’m proud of the fact that I’m associated with protecting workers’ rights and working for working-class people.”