As Labor Secretary, Will Marty Walsh Represent All Workers?

Journalists who cover public officials at the local and state levels have a special responsibility when a politician they have followed moves onto the national stage. We often spend years recounting the ups and downs of such political careers and are well-positioned to judge the relative success or failure of any given politician in one or another policy area. Or indeed in general.

This responsibility has been much on my mind in recent weeks with President Joe Biden’s nomination of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to be his administration’s secretary of labor.

On the surface, one might think that I should join much of the rest of the press corps in celebrating this as a good common sense move on Biden’s part. In fact, given my background as a “labor guy” and Walsh’s lifelong commitment to the labor movement, it would seem the height of petulance for me to do anything other than sing his praises and express excitement that someone from “my team” is in charge of labor policy for the federal government.

And believe me, I’d love nothing more than to be able to do that. Walsh seems like a decent enough fellow. Certainly the kind of person I could find common ground with over a nonalcoholic drink (since he is a recovering alcoholic). Which is something I’ve literally done with a very similar politician and close Walsh confidente, Rep. Stephen Lynch, way back in the day at a labor banquet.

But the problem is that Walsh, like Lynch, comes from a different wing of the labor movement than I do. And the conflict between those wings underlies my strong criticism of Walsh’s labor policy moves over the years. His shameful support for the backroom deal between the city of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and General Electric being only the worst of several I found fault with.

I would ultimately write 15 closely researched columns on that debacle between 2016 and 2019and feel little desire to make this column number 16 on the topic. However, it is quite relevant to this discussion. And I will return to it in brief after providing some necessary background.

One can not understand the low points of Walsh’s labor policy unless one understands the different types of American labor unions. For the purposes of this discussion, there are four: craft unions, industrial unions, public service unions, and general unions.

Most craft unions were founded in the 1800s in the US. They are organizations that were created by workers in one trade or a closely allied group of trades to represent their collective interests in the labor market—and also in politics. Some of them were actually founded as fraternal organizations like the Masons. But instead of serving the needs of middle- and upper-middle class members, they were open to working men. And not just any working men. White working men. At their worst, they fought not just the bosses for better wages and working conditions—they also strove to keep men who weren’t white and all women out of their trades. Over time, as their control of jobs in those trades increased and they gained political power, their leadership started to develop close relationships with both the employers they worked for and the political establishment they supported with dues money from their members.

This led to the rise of what is often called “business unionism.” Craft unions, many of which are in the building trades, are often run like businesses. Some are even run dynastically—where a single family or ruling clique controls all the top offices in the union for decades. As businesses, they can be lucrative enterprises. With member dues and pension funds under their control turning into huge pools of money over time that can be invested and even spent in development projects of their own—ensuring huge salaries by the standards of other types of labor unions and a variety of personal financial opportunities for top-level staff and officers. Some of this money can also be used to back local, state, and federal politicians, resulting in craft unions’ proven ability to win reforms that benefit their members (and certainly union leadership), like prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements—including government-mandated project labor agreements in which local, state (although half the states restrict their use), and federal (although it’s been a political hot potato) governments make using union labor a condition for developers working on taxpayer-funded projects. Which they have been known to team up with developers to lobby for. Stick a pin in that for a moment.

Marty Walsh has been a member of the Laborers’ Union since he was 21 and would go on to become president of Laborers Local 223 and, before becoming mayor but through his tenure as a state representative, led the Boston Building Trades Council.

The union that became the Laborers’ International Union of North America was founded in 1903—making it one of the youngest American craft unions. Although it originally segregated locals by race and ethnicity (Black, Italian, etc.), it did take stands against racial segregation fairly early in its history. And it honored President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 call to pledge to not discriminate when hiring. Over time, the Laborers’ Union allowed women to become members, and last year its General President Terry O’Sullivan issued a “LIUNA Statement on the Killing of George Floyd” stating that “LIUNA Will Never Back up, Never Back Down in the Fight for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice.” It has also defended immigrant rights in recent years.

So as craft unions go, it’s pretty progressive on social issues—something that’s increasingly true of a growing number of craft unions—although politically it joined other construction unions in getting a bit too cozy with President Donald Trump at the start of his term and like its co-religionists has a long history of backing Republican pols when convenient.

In that vein, it must be said that craft unions do a lot of good for millions of their members around the country.

But their Achilles’ heel is precisely that they mainly do what they do for their members. With less emphasis on workers who are not their members. And at their worst they do nothing—or occasionally even actively harm—all those multitudes of workers outside their membership.

The other major types of unions—industrial unions that rose to prominence in the 1930s and organized most workers in entire industries, public service unions that organized government workers post-WWII, and general unions that also go back to the 1800s and tried (and thus far failed) to organize all workers—tend to be less insular and have been historically more likely to take pains to push political reforms that help working people across the board.

With this understanding, Walsh’s labor record as Boston mayor snaps into sharp focus. Because his policy decisions affecting workers exactly mirrors his record as leader of a craft union and a coalition of craft unions.

Craft union leaders tend to be more conservative economically and politically than the leaders of other kinds of unions. In part because of the union tradition they come from, but in part because in their trades—most of which rely on rich developers and government largesse for the jobs they provide their members through a hiring hall system that other types of unions aren’t legally allowed to control—there is a hell of a lot of money on the table. And leaders that can keep that money flowing are nothing if not pragmatists. Whatever they may say in stump speeches. Sure, they fight hard if a developer tries to screw them on some building contract or tries to hire nonunion labor in their territory. But as long as developers give them what they think they’re owed, they will go to the mat for any project. No matter how bad that project might be for other working people outside their unions. Leading to my oft-repeated quip that if fascists took over the US and put out public contracts to build concentration camps, too many craft unions would leap at the “opportunity.”

With that in mind, think about the major development deals that Walsh flacked for as mayor—supposedly in the service of job creation for all working people in the Hub. Notably, the insanely bad GE Boston deal that would have seen the city of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts fork over more than $270 million in cash and in kind to one of the largest multinational corporations in the world. This in exchange for what Walsh (and Baker and the Boston Globe) claimed would be 800 new jobs at GE’s once-and-future new headquarters complex in South Boston. And which I demonstrated would be as few as 400 jobs (only 200 of them guaranteed to be new)—most at the executive level—surrounded by thousands of contract workers in the various gig jobs (cooks, delivery people, Lyft and Uber drivers) that keep such operations going without being part of them. Jobs that are low paid, short term, not unionized, and usually have no benefits of any kind.

At the center of that mostly failed deal (after GE nearly fell apart), and the Amazon deal, and the Reebok deal, and many others—including the 2024 Olympics, if a popular uprising hadn’t stopped it cold—were big fat development deals. When siting a major new corporate presence in Boston, big buildings have to be built or upgraded, right? Roads have to be laid. Sewers have to be dug. And who does all that? Especially when public funds and government-mandated project labor agreements are involved? Building trades unions. Like the Laborers’. Craft unions of the old school.

Now Marty Walsh is virtually certain to become the next secretary of labor. So even as credulous journalists at CNN and Politico look for signs that Boston’s outgoing mayor is going to piss off the captains of industry by sticking up for the legions of workers in lousy temp, part-time, contract, independent contractor, and other contingent jobs—the aforementioned gig jobs—I hate to be the bearer of bad news… but that probably ain’t happening.

The fortunes of America’s plutocrats will likely be safe as houses under Walsh’s watch. He’ll definitely make moves that will bring more contracts and more treasure to building trades unions—while promulgating regulations that benefit said unions. And he’ll work to bring errant craft unions back more solidly into the Democratic Party fold that makes such windfall possible.

Everything else he does is shaping up to largely be damage control for a Biden administration that shows every sign of continuing the neoliberal playbook of Democratic administrations back to President Jimmy Carter. So kiss a $15 an hour minimum wage goodbye and forget even the barest mention of Medicare for All.

Because in the words of Drew Schneider, director of labor and employment policy at the National Association of Manufacturers—a powerful business lobby that is as anti-labor as they come—in the recent Politico article, Walsh “is a pragmatist, and he wants to get stuff done. … He’s been in government for a long time, and the reviews we’ve heard are positive.”

Secretary Walsh will stand next to his president and explain why a $13 (or $11 or $9) an hour federal minimum wage is the best that most workers can hope for right now. And as long as the building trades unions get what they want, he’ll play his part as a faithful “handmaid of capital”—an epithet that left-wing unionists like myself from the industrial and general union traditions have traditionally hurled at business unionists like Walsh.

With damned good reason, as I think I’ve made clear. I certainly hold out hope that Walsh, being a decent guy from a working-class family with a track record of responding to public pressure on some labor issues, will change course and use his position to be a true champion of all of America’s working people now that he’s getting some real power. But for now, it’s just that: hope.

This originally appeared on DigBoston.

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston and executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.