When Martin J. Walsh got his union card in 1988, he essentially entered the family business. Laborers Local 223 counted his father as a member. It was led by his uncle. His cousin, Martin F. Walsh, now runs the union. Another cousin is the office manager.
Walsh himself worked on the back-breaking side of the union for only two years, hauling rocks and filling dumpsters, before taking a series of increasingly prominent desk jobs that culminated in a $175,000-a-year job as the head of the city’s largest building trades group.
During his 25 years as a union man, Walsh rose to become one of the key figures in Boston’s construction industry, a politically connected labor leader who understood how to usher a project past neighborhood opposition, secure state financing, and keep the peace with developers.
He negotiated pay raises for public employees and hammered out agreements with some of the city’s biggest builders to ensure they would hire only union workers, all the while holding down a second job as a state representative.
On the campaign trail, he is more likely to discuss his struggles with cancer and alcohol. But unions are his life’s work, and his family’s legacy. His support for labor, he once said, could never be shaken.
“I’ll never be on the other side — it’s not in me,” he told the Boston Irish Reporter in 1999. “I could never bite off the arm that’s fed me for this long.”
But when a reporter read him that quote during an interview last week, he exclaimed: “I wasn’t running for mayor when I said that.”
He said he has learned since then to balance union interests with those of businesses and taxpayers. For example, when the developer of a technology complex in Cambridge wanted to cut costs, Walsh said he agreed to a deal that paid the union workers time-and-half on Saturdays, rather than double-time, their usual rate.
“So when you talk about compromise,” he said, “I’ve been able to negotiate compromise.”
When he dropped out of Suffolk University at age 21 and joined Local 223, Walsh was defying his father, who wanted him to finish his degree. But Walsh wasn’t interested in college.
He spent two years as a laborer, and then traded his work gear for a better-paying job as a collection agent for the Massachusetts Laborers Benefits Fund.
He was essentially a union bill collector, calling contractors who failed to pay into the fund, and hashing out payment plans with their lawyers. After six years on the job, he entered politics, winning a seat representing Dorchester in the House in 1997.
As his political career took root, his union work also flourished.
He became recording secretary of Local 223 in 2001 and president in 2005, a title he continues to hold and that pays him about $3,500 annually to chair monthly meetings of the union’s executive board and general membership.
But Walsh’s biggest imprint on the labor scene came in January 2011, when his fellow union officials elected him to be general agent of the Boston Building Trades Council.
The group represents more than 35,000 workers in 16 trades, such as ironworkers and pipefitters, in 24 communities, from Walpole to Reading. The job paid Walsh $174,589 last year, on top of the $76,000 he made as a state representative and the $3,500 he collected from Local 223. It also furnished him with a Jeep and gasoline.
Walsh led the council until April, when he resigned to run for mayor, although he has kept his job as president of Local 223.
As head of the building trades, he had a clear mandate: to ensure that when developers built in Boston, only union workers would be on the job, said James Coyle, who preceded Walsh as general agent of the council.
“Because he had all that training from the work he did up on Beacon Hill, he kind of fell into it, and he was a natural,” Coyle said. “He knew when to be more forceful and he knew to back off.”
In his two years as general agent, Walsh signed a number of Project Labor Agreements with developers, deals that effectively guarantee that contractors hire only union workers, in exchange for the unions agreeing not to strike or slow down construction.
The agreements are considered all but mandatory in Boston, where the construction permitting agencies are controlled by strong union supporters. In addition, unions will sometimes grant concessions as part of the agreements, such as lower pay and broader drug testing, in return for getting a lock on the work.
Walsh signed those deals with the builders of the Vertex Pharmaceuticals headquarters on the South Boston waterfront, the Cambridge technology complex, and at least one major government project, the redevelopment of Old Colony public housing in South Boston.
Taxpayer groups say the agreements, particularly on public construction projects, drive up costs by preventing non-union contractors from bidding on the work.
The Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative research group, compared school construction costs in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, and found the agreements increased costs by 14 percent.
“We have found no evidence anywhere that PLAs contribute anything to the public interest or to the quality of construction,” said David Tuerck, executive director of the institute. “The only explanation for PLAs that we can find is that they are engineered for the purpose of protecting a monopoly that the construction unions have over public construction projects.”
Groups that represent non-union contractors say Walsh’s use of the agreements denied them a chance to compete equally for construction work.
“Marty has never been real fair to the merit-shop community, and it’s more than disappointing,” said Ronald Cogliano, president of the Merit Construction Alliance. “He consistently advocates for locking our guys out of work.”
Walsh said it was often the developers who sought the agreements, because they believed only union workers were capable of performing the complex construction work, or because banks would be more likely to lend them money if they knew there would not be any labor strife.
“Most times, private developers want PLAs because they’re able to use it for the stability of the financial package,” Walsh said. “And if a contract expires when the project is going on, there’s a no-strike clause, a no-walkout clause, none of that stuff. So the project doesn’t get interrupted.”
Beyond those agreements, Walsh also learned to use other levers of power to advance construction projects in Boston.
Several developers said Walsh was helpful to them by dispatching union members to testify in support of their projects at community meetings, by lobbying for financing at the State House, and in one case, even trying to get a union-backed company to drop a lawsuit that was holding up a major project.
“He tried to get them to meet with me, and to back off,” said John Rosenthal, the developer of the Fenway Center project in downtown Boston.
As head of the Building Trades, Walsh was also responsible for negotiating several contracts.
In 2011, he hashed out a 4 percent raise for 175 workers employed by the Boston Housing Authority. Walsh wanted a bigger raise, but “the negotiations were not terribly contentious,” and a deal was reached quickly, said Bill McGonagle, the director of the housing authority.
During an interview about his union career, Walsh was clearly sensitive about the perception that he always sides with trade unions that want bigger projects and more jobs. He pointed to times when he opposed his own troops in the trades and pushed to cut the size of major buildings.
When, for example, trade unions were backing tentative plans for a 17-story building in Dorchester, but his constituents in the neighborhood wanted the building to be only five stories tall, he supported the five-story building.
“I was working for the building trades at the time, and I said to those guys, ‘My constituency comes first — all the time,’ ” Walsh said.
Walsh said he is most proud of a seven-week training course called Building Pathways that he launched in 2011 to prepare women and minorities for careers in the building trades, which have long been dominated by white men. It is the one aspect of his union career that he discusses on the campaign trail. The program has 54 graduates, a fraction of Boston’s building trade workforce.
Walsh also boasts of his ability to work with non-union developers.
In 2011, he struck a deal with Kyle Warwick, the developer of Maxwell’s Green, a luxury apartment complex in Somerville, that allowed 50 percent of the workers to come from unions, and 50 percent to be non-union.
Warwick said negotiations with Walsh went smoothly, but that didn’t mean Walsh wasn’t a staunch fighter for labor. When one particular union was dropped from the project, Walsh was furious.
“I heard about it loudly,” Warwick said. “The phone melted in my ear, basically.”Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.