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mark erlich

As inequality grows, ‘union candidate’ offers attractive vision

The mayoral election post-mortems are in full swing, analyzing the voting patterns along lines of education, income, race, gender, and even an east-west geographical split. What is clear is that Mayor-elect Marty Walsh cobbled together sufficient votes from moderate and low-income residents of predominantly white wards in Dorchester and South Boston along with communities of color in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester to overcome John Connolly’s base of support in West Roxbury, Back Bay, the South End, and downtown. In part, that was the natural affinity of each candidate’s home turf, but in many ways the outcome was the product of the efforts of Boston’s increasingly sophisticated and diverse labor movement.

Walsh was labeled as the union candidate early in the race. Columnists and debate moderators manufactured a perspective that Walsh’s labor affiliation was his candidacy’s albatross. Walsh does have a strong personal and family union background and recently served as the head of Boston’s building trades unions. But he had also been a state representative for 16 years with a legislative record on a full array of public policy issues.

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More important, none of the 12 candidates in the primary made an issue of Walsh’s labor biography or endorsements. Felix Arroyo had worked for SEIU L. 615 and won its endorsement. Other candidates, including Connolly, had positive relationships with area unions. Similarly, no credible business leader expressed alarm at a potential Walsh mayoralty. Real estate, development, and construction executives were comfortable with Walsh’s calm and thoughtful negotiating style, which seeks solutions rather than conflict.

Nonetheless, it became a matter of media gospel that Walsh was precluded from balancing taxpayer and city employee interests, that he would empty the city’s treasury in the face of union demands. Ironically, the pundits who waved the bloody flag of the police arbitration award and the Boston Teachers Union’s stance on education reform ignored the fact that neither union endorsed Walsh in the primary.

The journalists who demonized Walsh’s campaign demonstrated a disturbing lack of understanding of organized labor. Unions are not monolithic. Public sector unions are accountable to multiple constituencies — their members, residents who benefit from their services, and taxpayers — whose interests do not always align. Private-sector unions range from low-wage service and retail workers to higher-paid construction workers.

But unions, at their best, have a common core mission — to elevate the standards of working people and chart a pathway to realize the American dream. Unfortunately, over the past generation, the nation’s labor movement has come to represent a declining portion of the workforce. The consequence of lower union density has been a substantial growth of economic inequality.

Walsh’s election represents an alternative narrative, of a strong union city with a commitment to economic growth and fairness. Boston’s unions provided Walsh with money and boots on the ground but, more important, with a progressive vision of what a city can be. Unions representing hotel workers, service employees, and floorcoverers are now majority minority and active in local political and organizing campaigns. During his tenure as head of the building trades unions, Walsh spearheaded Building Pathways, a program designed to give inner-city men and women greater access to the construction trades. That program is emblematic of the kind of labor-community alliances that exist in Boston and helped propel Walsh into City Hall.

Marty Walsh’s election represents an alternative narrative, of a strong union city with a commitment to economic growth and fairness.

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At the Walsh victory party, City Councilor Tito Jackson, whose father was a vocal critic of discriminatory union practices, quoted Martin Luther King to a cheering crowd: “Everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”

Mark Erlich is executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters.
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