Union pal who tolerates bullies to promote a pro-labor agenda — or skilled peacemaker who can bring all parties to the negotiating table?
As mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh has deftly dodged the question of being too tight with unions by recasting himself as a bridge-builder who gets everyone to “yes.” Now, as he faces a Senate confirmation hearing as President Biden’s nominee for labor secretary, some conservative groups are trying to resurrect the more unflattering portrait of his labor ties.
Walsh, however, has softened the picture of tough union brother who could accept some mild thuggery into that of mayor who embraces the language of reform. His administration has had some close encounters with labor-related scandal, but it was never close enough to taint Walsh directly; and, thanks to court decisions, the scandals disappeared.
But Walsh is a loyal labor guy who got his first union card when he was 21. As a state representative, he also served as head of the Boston Building Trades Council, a job he quit to run for mayor in 2013. Unions poured money and volunteers into his campaign. So from the start he faced questions about his ability to say no to them.
Any scent of scandal stems from his early days as mayor. Soon after he took office, Walsh appeared on an episode of the reality TV show “Top Chef,” which got city permits for a filming location. Four Teamsters were later accused of hurling racial epithets and sexist slurs at the “Top Chef” filming crew, allegedly because they wanted the show to hire union drivers. During the ensuing trial on extortion charges, several prosecution witnesses described how Kenneth Brissette, a Walsh administration official (who was not a defendant), seemed ready to rescind permits, allegedly to please the Teamsters. The defendants were ultimately acquitted, with a jury finding what they did amounted to legitimate union advocacy. Brissette and Timothy Sullivan, another Walsh administration official, were later accused of illegally pressuring the 2014 Boston Calling musical festival into hiring union labor. A federal jury found them guilty of conspiring to extort. But a federal judge tossed the convictions, also deeming it lawful advocacy.
Walsh never publicly called out the hardball tactics, legal or not. When I asked him in 2014 about the “Top Chef” allegations, he said, “ ‘Top Chef’ is not used to doing business in Boston. The Teamsters are not used to doing business with ‘Top Chef.’ That’s a situation where I think conversations have to happen.”
Michael Goldman, who was lead media consultant in Walsh’s upset win in 2013, said, via e-mail, that Walsh faced initial skepticism about his abilities as the city’s fiscal steward “because of his alleged bias toward unions” and the fear that, as mayor, “he would be unwilling or unable to initiate needed reforms” in both the police and fire departments because of union power. Walsh has proved skeptics wrong, he said, by proposing budgets that resulted in “the longest run of triple-A bond ratings in the history of Boston” and by initiating “serious efforts” to diversify police and fire departments.
True reform is a long way off. Legislation was just passed, for example, to create a cadet program in the Boston Fire Department, which Walsh said would increase diversity. Meanwhile, last year the firefighters union filed suit against the Walsh administration, charging that it violated collective bargaining agreements. Against the wishes of the union representing Boston police, Walsh implemented a pilot body-camera program, but its use is still restricted.
Walsh gets his best reviews as bridge-builder. In June 2016, he played a major part in averting a one-day nursing strike at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. A year later, he called on striking nurses and the head of the Tufts Medical Center to return to the bargaining table. Just last month, when the city released a plan for bringing all public school students back to school by the end of March, it was due in large measure to Walsh’s direct negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union. In doing so, he undercut the authority of his own schools superintendent.
But it also showed his skill at getting to yes — right in time for his Senate confirmation hearing.