Metro

For ex-union official turned mayor, priorities have shifted

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke with Stephen Skeirik last month at a grounbreaking ceremony for the Pipefiters Local Union 537 new training facility.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke with Stephen Skeirik last month at a grounbreaking ceremony for the Pipefiters Local Union 537 new training facility.

Editor’s note: Third in a series of articles examining the record of Boston’s mayor and his leading election challenger.

Four years ago, the Boston Teachers Union gave Martin J. Walsh an Election Day gift in the form of an endorsement, calling him “a better leader for our school system.” A national affiliate of the union secretly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a TV advertisement to boost the longtime labor leader.

Since then, relations haven’t always been so rosy.

In May, the union, representing some 8,000 members, declared that it had reached an impasse in contract negotiations with the city and sought intervention from the state. BTU leadership criticized the mayor for reaching deals with majority-male unions but not the teachers. Then in August, both sides announced they had reached a deal, though it fell short of concessions the mayor was seeking. Walsh described it as a placeholder agreement while both sides continue to negotiate.

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As for a new endorsement in this new mayoral campaign? Or any campaign donations from the union? Nothing yet.

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Union support helped propel Walsh, a former state representative, to two decades of election victories and generated predictions that he would be too beholden to labor once he took office. But as he seeks reelection this year, Walsh is finding his experiences with unions to be very different from when he was a leader with the Building Trades Council.

As mayor, Walsh’s relationship with Boston’s labor unions, both private and municipal, has evolved: He has claimed victories negotiating terms with some of the city’s largest unions, such as the patrolmen and firefighters, while still working to come to terms with others. Roughly 40 percent of municipal workers represented by a labor union do not have an active contract.

“Marty isn’t a labor leader anymore, and sometimes I have to tell people that. Marty is now the chief executive officer of the city,” said Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, whose organization represents 750 local unions statewide. He said he still supports Walsh, even if he has had run-ins with him as mayor. Tolman declined to elaborate, but the AFL-CIO was at odds with Walsh over the firing of four school bus drivers by an independent company early in his administration.

“I haven’t been pleased all the time, but I have to understand Marty Walsh is the mayor of Boston,” Tolman said.

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Given Walsh’s history as a labor leader, his involvement with unions as mayor was bound to come under scrutiny. And it did not take long for the administration to be accused of using the power of City Hall to meddle in private union affairs. In 2016, a federal indictment in a criminal case accused a top city official of interfering in a Bravo television show’sefforts to film in Boston without Teamsters workers. The alleged interference occurred within months of Walsh’s inauguration in 2014.

Two City Hall aides also face extortion charges after being accused of threatening to withhold permits for the Boston Calling music festival later in 2014, unless organizers hired union workers. They have pleaded not guilty, and Walsh has refused to comment directly on the case, citing the pending criminal matter.

In an interview, the mayor said that in general his support for organized labor has not changed since he took office. (He is still a dues-paying cardholder of the Building Trades Council.) Last month, the mayor joined the Boston Pipefitters Local 537 at a groundbreaking ceremony for a training facility in Dorchester, where he was recognized as a “champion of labor.”

The mayor said he has sought to strike a balance between his support of union objectives and his responsibilities as mayor.

“I think there’s a place for labor,” he said, pointing to union advocacy for shared goals such as an increased minimum wage and universal health care.

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But, he said, “my job is to move the city forward, and that means representing people who are union and nonunion. I think I’m in the right position. I see labor in a whole different light from this seat.”

Walsh’s administration has presided over one of the hottest building booms in Boston’s history — keeping the trade unions busy and, consequently, happy.

At the same time, a Globe review of a subset of city projects being monitored by the Boston Planning & Development Agency since 2011 shows that nonunion tradesmen have had a growing share of building projects in the city, even if the overall share remains small.

A separate review of the city’s labor contracts shows the administration has had some success in negotiating with municipal unions.

If anything, unions that normally would want to take a hard-line stance with a city executive would know that a former labor leader turned mayor would have their best interests in mind, to the extent he can, said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College in Easton who follows Boston politics.

“They have to realize, for the most part, he’s inclined to support their agenda,” Ubertaccio said. “I think that’s been the tone, for the most part, that they trust him, they trust his instincts.”

The city has active agreements with seven of the 41 unions that represent municipal employees, covering more than 60 percent of employees represented by labor agreements. Most of the city’s labor contracts expired last year.

Frank Moroney, executive director of Council 93 of AFSCME, which represents the city’s inspectional services, transportation, and public works employees, said he recently had “tough negotiations with [Walsh’s] regime” to settle a contract.

“He is not giving away the store,” he said, adding that he appreciated the city’s efforts to resolve disputes without going to a third-party mediator, which could prove costly to both sides. The unions that fall under his organization have cut the number of grievances that go to arbitration by 95 percent under Walsh, he said. “The other [5 percent of the time], we can agree to disagree,” he said.

Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a financial watchdog group, said the administration has mostly sought settlements and to avoid public disputes with the city’s unions.

Tyler said Walsh proved, however, that he was willing to draw the line early in his administration when the city did not reach an agreement with the union that represents police detectives, forcing both sides into costly arbitration.

The city lost, and the detectives in 2016 were handed a generous award of 28 percent over six years that the administration’s attorney called “very disappointing.”

But in September, because the contract under that award had now expired, the mayor reached a new agreement with the union — without going to arbitration. The new contract, which lasts through 2020, provides for 2 percent annual salary increases, though it includes payouts for nonsalary benefits such as hazardous duty pay.

In an interview, Tyler warned of such “compensation creep” in the contracts the city has approved, describing them as separate monetary benefits that can inflate the total cost of the contract.

According to the research bureau, the costs of employee salaries and benefits already make up 68 percent of the city’s total operating budget and account for 72 percent of the total budget increase over the last year.

Tyler said Walsh’s most recent agreement with the teachers union was also disappointing, because it did not include reforms the mayor had been seeking, which he called an essential point of contract negotiations.

It is quite common for a labor union to quarrel with a municipal government, and some of the city’s largest and most powerful unions battled the previous administration, that of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, resulting in costly arbitration hearings. For example, Walsh inherited a 2013 arbitration award that gave the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association a 25.4 percent pay hike over six years, a controversial decision that threatened to set a costly precedent for the city’s negotiations with other unions.

But within months of taking office, Walsh reached an agreement with Boston Fire Fighters Local 718 that gave firefighters a more moderate salary increase — 18 percent over six years. It was the first time since 2001 that the city and firefighters had reached an agreement without going to arbitration.

Last year, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association also reached an agreement for a four-year contract, with pay increases of 2 percent a year — the first time in nearly a decade that both sides had settled without arbitration.

Both the firefighters and patrolmen have endorsed Walsh in the upcoming election.

More recently, the city’s deal with the Boston Teachers Union sparked concerns that it was politically motivated, because it arrived at the onset of an election season but failed to achieve those concessions the mayor was seeking.

Walsh has maintained, however, that the two-year agreement, retroactive to last August, was meant to put a contract in place for this school year while the city and union continue to negotiate terms of the labor agreement.

Jessica Tang, elected president of the Boston Teachers Union in June, said the contract “makes a number of key improvements for students and families,” and she defended it against “naysayers.” She would not say if her union would endorse Walsh in the election.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.