fb-pixel

Labor Day 2015. President Obama, the rock star at Boston’s annual breakfast, begins his remarks by thanking Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whom, he said, “has stood up for working folks for a long time, since before he held this office.”

Such accolades from a president illustrate the conflicting narratives surrounding union activism. Precisely how Walsh stood up for working folks during those pre-mayoral days is the subject of a Boston Globe report that disclosed a "sweeping federal investigation into allegations of strong-arm tactics by unions." According to the Globe account, which is based on a 2012 wiretap and unnamed sources, Walsh — then a state representative as well as head of the Boston Building Trades — allegedly told a development company it would face permitting problems on a Boston high-rise unless it used union labor at another project in Somerville. At one meeting cited in the Globe report, Walsh brought along a union leader who, as a member of the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals, could have a say in whether the project could proceed.

Advertisement



Walsh told the Globe no government official has contacted him about this matter. However, he declined to say whether he has appeared before any grand jury. Until more is known about the scope of the probe, the public is left to ponder the line between advocating for union jobs versus union intimidation and threats that add up to a crime — and whether Walsh ever crossed it. But to indict Walsh, federal prosecutors will need more than smoke and speculation.

Organized labor helped elect him, raising concerns from the start about what unions might get in return from a Walsh administration. Understanding his perception problem, Walsh has called upon unions to recognize the need for "different tactics and a different tone," as he declared in a speech delivered at the Labor Day breakfast in 2014.

Despite such mayoral exhortations, Walsh's City Hall is still associated with a controversy that led to the indictment of five Teamster Union members accused of extortion for allegedly harassing a TV production crew that was using nonunion workers during a "Top Chef" filming. The indictment stated that a city official warned two businesses that the union was planning to picket businesses using the nonunion crew. An investigator hired by the city said he found no criminal wrongdoing by any city employees, but noted the administration's desire to stay on good terms with the Teamsters.

Advertisement



The Democratic elite love labor when it pushes a progressive agenda.

Obama came to Boston, after all, to laud a new Massachusetts law, passed with union support, that requires companies to offer earned sick time. With the Labor Day breakfast as his backdrop, the president announced that he would sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to offer employees up to seven paid sick days a year. Obama also used the occasion to joke that Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady was happy he belonged to a union, since union advocacy at the time led to the overturning of a four-game suspension related to the "Deflategate" scandal. (The suspension was reinstated Monday.)

Meanwhile, outside the Park Plaza Hotel where the breakfast was held, angry members of the Boston Carmen's Union loudly protested a proposal from Republican Governor Charlie Baker to privatize some bus routes. By labor's definition, that's what it means to stand up for working families.

Unions have that right. Where they lose it can be a sometimes fuzzy line.

It may come down to weighing the difference between saying you're better off if you use union employees — or, threatening to shut down a business or construction project if you don't.

Advertisement



For Walsh, it's also the difference between basking in the glow of a presidential visit that extols "the grit, the resilience and the hard work of America's working families" — and watching a cloud grow and darken over a mayoralty won as labor's hero.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.