Labor

Boston’s New Labor Mayor: Could His Win Be A Progressive Blueprint for America?

Marty Walsh's victory proves that blue-collar workers, African Americans and Hispanics can unite to win.

Photo Credit: Alice Day/Shutterstock.com

Last week, following the midterm elections, pundits burned up the airwaves discussing the implications of Chris Christie’s landslide reelection as governor of New Jersey, Terry McAuliffe’s narrow win in the Virginia gubernatorial race and Bill de Blasio’s capture of City Hall in New York.

But what happened in Boston was as important as any of these.

Marty Walsh, for many years an officer of Laborers’ Local 223, won the Boston mayoral race by putting together a coalition of groups that hardly spoke to one another a generation ago: blue-collar workers, African Americans and Hispanics. He did it with a lot of outside help from other unions around the country, including a big influx of campaign funds, and a powerful ground game from local unions.

His win represents a dramatic break from labor’s recent history of political futility. Much of labor’s muscle has been focused on the state and national level, where its impact is far less than it was in the days of George Meany and Walter Reuther. A smaller percentage of the work force are union members; many of them are public employees; many union members work for relatively low wages; some are not even American citizens. But with a labor leader taking over in the city of Puritans and Brahmins, analysts are rubbing their eyes and asking if labor’s success in Boston might be repeatable in other cities.

A look at how Walsh did it suggests that the answer could be yes. Walsh is a member of the Laborers' Union, an official of Local 223, a former head of the Building Trades Council of Greater Boston and a longtime state representative known for building bridges across his racially and culturally diverse district. He is also immensely popular among his colleagues and other people in public life, and perhaps most importantly, has a compelling life story including surviving cancer at a young age and being a recovering alcoholic for over 20 years.

Taking advantage of a vacancy in the mayor’s seat, labor stepped up big time, funding advertisements and paid organizers through America’s Working Families and other groups.

The Citizens United decision impacts more than the Tea Party. It liberates groups and individuals on the left just as it affects Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. It may also make traditional campaign finance laws almost irrelevant. Labor spent at an unprecedented level and put 4,000 to 5,000 people on the street on Election Day in a city where approximately 140,000 people voted. Neither current mayor Tom Menino nor former mayor Kevin White ever assembled such an army. Marty Walsh prevailed by a margin of under 5,000. If each campaign worker on Election Day delivered one vote, that constituted the margin of victory.

Without organized labor’s financial backing and ground troops, Walsh probably wouldn’t have won. His district encompasses only about 6 percent of the city, and he was one of 12 candidates in a very large field in a preliminary election in September. Without all those bodies and all that money, he may not have even won the primary.

Walsh’s coalition included blue-collar voters of almost every possible background. Those who have been on opposite teams in the electoral battles for which Boston has been famous for at least the last 50 years were united in supporting his candidacy, which arguably, has now created a new political map for the city.

The victory is highly significant: Boston has never had a “labor mayor,” at least to my knowledge. Boston has had city councilors, lawyers, a Secretary of State, and a city clerk, but never a mayor who is actually a member of a labor union, nor certainly one who is an officer of a local.

A coalition government is always interesting to watch from a distance and agonizing to endure from the inside, whether in Israel or Italy or Boston. Walsh will have to balance his obligations to the minority legislators and unsuccessful mayoral candidates who endorsed him, as well as his brothers and sisters in organized labor. Some believe that since Marty Walsh is trusted by the unions, he will be able to negotiate contracts which are fair and which do not break the municipal piggy bank, and ensure that Boston will continue to have a robust local economy, a balanced city budget and the highest bond rating of any major city in the country.

Boston and the national union movement will be watching carefully. The rest of America should be watching, too.

Organized labor in other cities across America could follow this new political model: Find a respected elected official with a heartwarming life story who is also an active union member. Pass the hat among the unions not only locally, but also nationally, to fund the campaign. Encourage a massive volunteer effort among union members and others sympathetic to progressive causes. In short, outspend and outwork the opposition. Unlike in statewide contests and the quadrennial election of the president, cities the size of Boston are bite-sized chunks of electoral activity.  A few million dollars and a few thousand bodies, whether local or from elsewhere, can make a big difference.

Perhaps San Francisco or Seattle could be next.

Lawrence S. DiCara served as a member of the Boston City Council in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a candidate for mayor in 1983. Currently, he is a partner at Nixon Peabody LLP and has recently published a memoir of the busing era, Turmoil and Transition in Boston.