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Labor disputes land like 1-2 punch in Boston mayor’s race

First, it was an arbitrator’s finding that the police patrol union deserved a pay hike that the city says amounts to 25 percent. Then, the union representing Boston’s school bus drivers walked out for a day, stranding thousands of children.

The two simmering labor disputes, erupting in the middle of a heated race for mayor, cast a spotlight on state Representative Martin J. Walsh, the longtime union leader turned mayoral candidate.

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Walsh’s union ties have caused some political foes to question whether he can stand up to labor. But Walsh and his supporters see the unanticipated events of the past two weeks as a prime opportunity to demonstrate his ability to lead Boston’s workforce as mayor.

For voters, the emergence of the labor issues provides a chance to compare and contrast Walsh with his opponent, Councilor John R. Connolly. The next mayor will inherit a $2.6 billion budget that dedicates two-thirds of spending to wages, pensions, and health insurance.

“How will either of these people manage the city? That’s a critical question,” said David Luberoff, a senior project adviser to the Boston Area Research Initiative at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “How much do you empower your [chief financial officer]? How important is the balance sheet?”

Walsh left a prominent post as head of the Boston Building Trades to run for mayor. Unions have spent at least $895,000 on his mayoral campaign, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Walsh supporters said the recent crises allow the candidate to showcase his extensive union background.

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“This is his expertise. He can play in this park because this is his park,” said Susan Moir, a former school bus driver and Walsh supporter who is director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I’m not saying it hasn’t been tough for Marty, but I’m hoping that one thing that people pay attention to is these are his issues and he’s willing to take them on.”

But Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone, who worked his way through college on a Ford assembly line and whose father was a United Auto Workers vice president, pointed out that many workers today are not in unions. Headlines about a wildcat bus driver strike or substantial pay increases can undercut public support for labor.

“Unfortunately, organized labor in Boston, particularly in the public sector, [has] by their behavior tended to alienate a lot of voters, particularly progressive ones,” said Bluestone, who supported Councilor Michael P. Ross in the preliminary mayoral election. “They view these unions as not so much supporting the working class but supporting their own narrow needs.”

The police arbitration ruling calls for a 13.5 percent raise in salaries over six years and, according to Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration, includes other perks that boost the total pay hike to 25.4 percent. Menino has urged the City Council to reject the award, which would force both sides back to the bargaining table. Connolly has said the contract would “damage the city’s long-term fiscal health” and vowed to vote no.

Walsh has criticized the ruling as unsustainable and “out of line,” but has stopped short of asking the City Council to reject it. In the Legislature, Walsh has been pushing a bill for a decade that would eliminate the requirement that the City Council approve arbitration awards for police and firefighters. Under his proposal, arbitration rulings would be final.

Walsh and Connolly both condemned the school bus strike and demanded that drivers get back to work. In a statement, Walsh campaign spokeswoman Kate Norton said Walsh’s response to both issues reinforced that “he will always put the interests of the taxpayers and families of Boston first.”

“He was sharply critical of the bus drivers who took that illegal action, and stood firmly on the side of the safety and welfare of our schoolchildren,” Norton said. “He was also the first candidate to criticize the size of the police contract and call for both sides to return to the bargaining table.”

Labor studies professor Tom Juravich said Walsh has handled both situations well.

“I think what he’s demonstrating is not so much that he’s pro-labor but that he understands not only union issues but working people’s issues,” said Juravich, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Bluestone, though, suggested that Walsh’s proposed legislation to eliminate City Council oversight of arbitrator awards complicated his response to the ruling on police patrol salaries.

“Marty has a lot to explain there,” Bluestone said. “People look at that particularly in light of the police arbitration and say, ‘No, no, no. That’s not what we want.’ ”

No matter how Walsh handled that issue, he will continue to field tough questions as long as the labor disputes continue, according to Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College.

“Even if he has the exact same response as Connolly, there’s this belief that he has to answer for their tactics because he’s identified with the labor movement,” Ubertaccio said. “It adds a degree of questioning to him to respond to that Connolly is not asked to respond to.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.

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