Why Not a Union Mayor in Boston?
It's always puzzling to read articles in the American press on the subject of labor leaders running for office. Although I suppose I should be glad that any journalist at any major news outlet is still focusing on labor at all - even sporadically. As I've said repeatedly in the past, the ongoing collapse of traditional news establishment has put more and more pressure on fewer and fewer journalists to cover more and more news in less and less time. Given the general societal dominance of capitalism, business leaders and pro-business officials in government get the lion's share of journalists' limited attention to public figures that aren't entertainment stars these days. So it's no huge surprise that labor doesn't get much coverage. Lots of important things don't get much coverage anymore. Still, labor does still occasionally warrant some sliver of the media spotlight, and the Boston Globe remains among the better major US news publications in terms of making an effort to include labor in its news budget. Especially when a couple of sitting politicians with labor backgrounds are running for the Boston mayor's seat.
Case in point, Globe staffer Andrew Ryan wrote a good piece a few days ago "Labor lifts Martin Walsh's mayoral campaign" on both union-backed candidates for Boston mayor in the upcoming primary, Walsh and Felix Arroyo, Jr. And he did a decent job of explaining which faction of labor is behind each candidate at the moment - and which unions are currently undecided about who to back.
But inevitably in such articles, there is a statement like this one from Ryan's piece, "... labor’s steadfast support of Walsh could be a liability if he wins one of the two spots in November’s final election, political observers said. As mayor, Walsh would negotiate contracts with municipal unions and wield significant influence over construction and development."
And I always wonder when I see these kinds of statements, "where's this stuff coming from?"
Like here are a couple of experienced politicians - Walsh is a state representative and Arroyo is a Boston city councilor - who have also held high positions in the local labor movement. They have therefore helped run labor organizations that are the size of the average corporation in addition to winning office in open elections. In getting backing from their unions and other unions they have worked with, they have ultimately had to work hard to win the strong support of thousands of union members in elections.
And they will remain in much closer touch with those members if elected to higher office than the average corporate leader would with their employees while in office. Unions - for all their flaws (don't get me started!) - are much more democratic organizations than corporations are. Even in very conservative "business" unions where democracy is limited to periodic elections where the clique in power is virtually assured victory until they all retire, there are still many public events every year that any politician backed by those unions is expected to attend. And at those events, rank-and-file union members will have unprecedented access to those politicians for hours at a time. If a union politician drifts too far from his or her roots, they're going to hear about it from the rank-and-file. And you had better believe that rankling too many union members will eventually result in a loss of union support.
So if you have ever wondered why a fairly conservative politician like Rep. Stephen Lynch (D - South Boston) continues to get strong union support - even while he takes contentious positions on some issues by the standards of at least some major unions ... part of the explanation is that there are more conservative and more progressive unions, and it is possible for a conservative or progressive union politician to make do with the backing of one or the other side. But part of it is that Lynch hasn't forgotten his roots. He shows up for key events at his old union, Ironworkers Local 7 in South Boston, and other local unions, and he remains in close contact with the Boston Building Trades Council, and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. And he stays in Congress - although he didn't manage to win the open Senate seat in the special election earlier this year.
I mean, you know, I've met Lynch a few times, worked with him a bit on labor and welfare legislation in the Mass. State House in the 1990s, and I've watched his career since. I disagree with him on a number of key issues. But I've got to give the guy props for staying connected to his constituency - a significant fraction of whom are union members.
Whatever you think of the politics of a congressman with a union background like Lynch, or - circling back to my point - mayoral candidates with union backgrounds like Walsh and Arroyo, it's astonishing to see how far American politics has moved backwards in the last few decades that labor's support of such candidates is automatically considered a "liability."
Why isn't a strong business background considered a liability by the same pundits?
I mean who would the average working person rather vote for in a big city mayoral election? Someone who stands with working families, has been in union leadership, and remains in close contact with union members while in political office? Or someone who has helped lead some big corporation or corporate law firm, worked hard at feathering his or her own nest, and treated the desire of working families for lifetime job security, living wages and good benefits as an "externality" that doesn't warrant consideration when there's profit to be made?
I don't need to belabor this point, but seriously ... why not a union mayor?
If anyone feels like chiming in on this one, our comment area is open as ever.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston. Full disclosure: From 1998 to 2005, Pramas was assistant director and later executive director of the Massachusetts Campaign on Contingent Work - a labor-community network focusing on combatting the rise of bad jobs in the "new economy." In that capacity he lobbied then State Senator Stephen Lynch and numerous other state politicians and officials to support an expansion of existing state labor laws and regulations to include protections for workers in contingent jobs. None of the legislation passed, although some state regulations were changed that improved the situation for some temp workers.