The Labor Movement Needs To Get Over Its Marty Walsh Media Complex

It's time to get two things straight about the coverage of Walsh during the mayoral campaign.

There is nothing unusual about campaign personnel, and supporters of the candidate, becoming convinced that “the media” is working against them. It is a form of what I’ve long called defensive reading: hyper-sensitivity to press coverage when it concerns something personal to you—your company, your field of work, your cause, your neighborhood, your candidate. You interpret everything as an attack, you focus on the negative and overlook the positive, you lump isolated incidents together into a perceived pattern.

Marty Walsh’s campaign and supporters were by no means the only ones in the Boston mayoral race to believe the media was out to get them. But he’s the one who now runs the city, so it’s important that he, and the people around him, move on from this delusion sooner rather than later.

Deval Patrick and his team couldn’t put it behind them after the November 2006 election (anyone remember the new governor lecturing the state’s editors and publishers on how they covered his campaign?), and that played a large role in his bad start in office.

I don’t know how Walsh himself feels, but I get the strong sense that many of his top people remain deeply resentful and bitter—and there’s no question that much of the state’s labor leadership does. In a fairly typical reaction, Frank Callahan, President of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council (on which Walsh has served as a director), tweeted on Monday “The media threw the kitchen sink at Marty Walsh & lost, get over it.”

Tuesday morning’s Globe carried an op-ed from Mark Erlich of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters (a member of the Boston Building Trades Council Walsh used to head) that aired these grievances with the media:

Walsh was labeled as the union candidate early in the race. Columnists and debate moderators manufactured a perspective that Walsh’s labor affiliation was his candidacy’s albatross….

…it became a matter of media gospel that Walsh was precluded from balancing taxpayer and city employee interests, that he would empty the city’s treasury in the face of union demands….

…the pundits who waved the bloody flag of the police arbitration award and the Boston Teachers Union’s stance on education reform

…The journalists who demonized Walsh’s campaign demonstrated a disturbing lack of understanding of organized labor.

For the record, let’s get two things straight.

First, nobody had to create a narrative or label that Walsh was the labor candidate. He was. He is a career labor leader who has been an ardent pro-union legislator and has received immense support from unions throughout his political career. That’s not a criticism, and it’s not a narrative, and it doesn’t preclude other truths about him—it’s the primary fact of his public life, and I’ve never known Walsh himself to claim otherwise.

Second, it was Marty Walsh who insisted that the city cannot afford the BPPA contract, and that the binding contract should be renegotiated. It was Marty Walsh who bragged of coaxing the firefighters to renegotiate their binding contract to save the city money. It was Marty Walsh who called for replacing unionized school bus drivers if they did not immediately return to work. It was Marty Walsh who said that he filed legislation to protect cities against overly generous union contracts. It was Marty Walsh who claimed the ability to wring more concessions out of the city’s unions than other candidates. It was Marty Walsh who told journalists that a mayor should “push back strongly” against demands of public unions.

It is perfectly reasonable for labor leaders and their members to be offended by the assumption that a mayor must stand on the side of city interests that are, not infrequently, in opposition to the interests of labor. But they need to bring it up with Walsh. Journalists quite understandably worked from that assumption because he, as candidate, endorsed that assumption repeatedly and enthusiastically.

He didn’t have to. Walsh could have defended the sanctity of binding arbitration. He could have sided with the bus drivers’ grievances. He could have argued that what’s good for labor is good for the city. He could have promised to give the city government’s workers all the wage increases, benefits, and working conditions they deserve. He could have said that the city’s budget should not be balanced on the backs of its workers.

What the media did, for the most part, was ask Walsh the question Callahan, Erlich, and others should have been asking him themselves: How do we reconcile the lifelong labor advocate—and his immense labor support—with the candidate’s anti-labor rhetoric?

Folks like Callahan and Erlich should feel actually grateful for how limited that media inquiry actually was. As Erlich notes, the media conversation on this topic was almost exclusively limited to the contract negotiations with unions representing city employees. There was almost nothing about the mayor’s almost daily role as the strong arm behind the BRA, Zoning Board, Inspection Services, and other parts of the city’s machinery, in matters of importance to the building trades—which provided a huge source of funding for Walsh’s campaign.

But hey, the campaign is past. Walsh won. We’ll get a chance now to see what Walsh does on matters involving labor and many other things.

And I guarantee that the media coverage of Walsh when he is mayor will make the coverage from when he was running for mayor look like patty-cake. That’s just how it is.

A bunker mentality against the press can sometimes help get people through a campaign. But it’s a terrible way to start an administration. The city is welcoming Walsh in with tremendous goodwill and optimism. I advise Team Marty—and especially those in the labor movement—to embrace that and let go of the bitterness.