Is Marty Walsh Too Much of a Union Guy?

The roots of this question—one that's dogged Walsh throughout the mayoral race—date back many years.

marty walsh

AP Images for American Federation of Government Employees

One of the big topics of the Boston mayoral race has been whether state representative Marty Walsh is too much of a union guy to be trusted with the position of negotiating contracts with the unions that work for the city.

It’s a fair question, and one that I’ve long predicted would likely stand in the way of Walsh becoming the city’s next mayor.

But is there a way to try to actually answer the question? Perhaps not, but there is at least one potentially instructive example to look to.

In 2003-2004, Walsh co-chaired a Special Commission on Public Construction Reform, along with state senator Dianne Wilkerson and Chris Gordon, then of MassPORT. This was a very big deal with big changes intended to clean up a notoriously untrusted process, and labor unions had a very strong vested interest in the results.

The 20 commission members included labor union representatives, including two from the Massachusetts Building Trades Council (MBTC) and the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen. I followed the Commission’s efforts fairly closely at the time (mostly to keep an eye on Wilkerson), and have circled back now to talk with some of the participants.

What I can tell you is this: people involved were incredibly impressed, then and now, at how well the co-chairs got the very disparate entities to work together, negotiate, and compromise to eventually fashion a law that received unanimous support from the commission members and eventually was signed into law.

At the same time, there was little doubt in anybody’s mind that Walsh was there primarily to aid and protect the interests of trade labor. And in this case, those interests were best served by something getting done, so that laborers had a better and more trustworthy market for their services on public construction jobs.

“His character is something to be admired,” says Matthew G. Feher, an attorney who at the time represented the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) on the Commission. “He held true to his beliefs, but was able to work within his own interests to get everybody to a solution.”

In fact, MMA awarded Walsh a “legislator of the year” award for his work on that commission—and not many people have ever called MMA, which represents the town leaders who have to negotiate labor contracts, of being a friend of labor.

“I certainly never called them that,” Frank Callahan cracked when I spoke with him. Callahan, the current MBTC president and one of the most recognizable labor leaders in the state, was closely involved with the commission’s work and attended every meeting. Going into the commission’s work, Callahan says, he expected nothing concrete to come of it. “The stakeholders”—including contractors, subcontractors, unions, government entities, and women- and minority-owned businesses—”had driven their stakes way into the ground where they stood.”

Callahan says that Walsh and the other co-chairs did a remarkable job that not only led to a law that the legislature could pass and the Romney administration could sign, but also created new relationships among the various players that has helped ever since. Others, most of whom didn’t want to talk on the record about Walsh in the midst of the mayoral race, generally concur.  The Associated Subcontractors of Massachusetts—again, not an inherently pro-labor organization—has worked with Walsh on some legislation since then, and even profiled him in its magazine.

On the other hand, I wasn’t able to find anyone who could cite an issue or area where the trade unions had to give up something that they wanted in negotiating the final bill. That doesn’t necessarily mean they got everything they wanted—the specifics of the deal were less important to the unions than to other groups—but it does leave the original question unanswered.