After The Walsh Election, Labor Takes Stock06:31

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Richie Rogers sat in a modest meeting room at the downtown headquarters of the Greater Boston Labor Council, an umbrella group for 161 unions in eastern Massachusetts.

On a white board behind him: a list of agenda items from a recent meeting. One read simply "Mayor!"

It was two days after state Rep. Martin Walsh, a longtime labor leader, edged City Councilor-At-Large John Connolly to become Boston's first new mayor-elect in a generation. And Rogers was still a little stunned by the passion the race ignited among union leaders and rank-and-file members.

During the campaign, Mayor-elect Marty Walsh argued that his union ties will give him a leg up in negotiations with city unions. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)
During the campaign, Mayor-elect Marty Walsh argued that his union ties will give him a leg up in negotiations with city unions. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

"The extraordinary fervor for Martin — I've never seen anything like it, to be honest with you, in my 30 years in the labor movement," he said.

But a week after Boston became that rare American city to elect a union leader as mayor, the energy of the race is giving way to a more studied appreciation for its implications — for the city and the American labor movement.

Walsh, who argued during the campaign that his union ties will give him a leg up in negotiations with city unions, will face a quick test of his bargaining prowess.

A contract dispute between departing Mayor Thomas Menino and the police patrolmen's union could bleed into Walsh's term, with millions of dollars in unexpected costs at stake.

And shortly thereafter, Walsh will face a tough — and closely scrutinized — negotiation with the firefighters union.

The national labor movement, meanwhile, sees a template in a campaign that combined Walsh's personal charisma with the city's long labor history.

"While that's a powerful combination, it is by no means unique," said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, a project of the national AFL-CIO that spent $660,000 on an independently run canvass-and-mail campaign for Walsh. "I think we'll be seeing more Marty Walshes all around the country."

Just how replicable the Walsh campaign might be is an open question.

But there's little doubt that the Boston victory is a rallying point for a movement of diminished economic and political clout.

Last year, just 11.3 percent of American workers were unionized — the lowest rate in nearly a century. And labor leaders are scrambling for new approaches.

Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate that backed Walsh, is on the leading edge of the so-called "alt-labor" movement: the group spends much of its time organizing non-union workers in Massachusetts and around the country on wage and workplace issues.

On the political front, the labor movement is shifting its compass away from a gridlocked Washington, D.C., and toward urban centers, where it has strength in numbers and a better shot at influencing policy.

"It's clear that labor has lost a lot of political influence at the national level, given the polarized politics of the day and declining [union membership] numbers," said Tom Kochan, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. "But they remain very influential in selected parts of the country and particularly in large urban areas, as we saw in the election both in New York City [where labor-friendly Bill de Blasio won a landslide election last week] and in Boston."

Part and parcel of that effort: forging stronger connections with black and Latino activists and white progressives — a coalition that propelled Walsh to the mayoralty.

Still, whatever its residual clout in urban America, the labor movement has elected very few of its own to large-city mayoralties.

The one exception in recent years: Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union organizer who served as mayor of Los Angeles from 2005 until this past summer.

His election came with high expectations in the labor movement. But his tenure, in the end, offered something of a cautionary tale for union leaders.

Faced with the Great Recession, Villaraigosa frequently broke with the unions — cutting city jobs, furloughing employees and trimming pensions.

"There were times where I just had to say that, I'm supportive when [union] interests coincide with the public and the common interest, and when they don't, I had to make the tough calls," Villaraigosa said.

Raphael Sonenshine, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University-Los Angeles, said relations got especially testy with the teachers union — Villaraigosa's former employer.

The split, he said, came with the mayor's all-but-inevitable pursuit of education reform.

"It's pretty hard to be mayor of the city and not get involved in the schools at this point," Sonenshine said. "The expectation's pretty high."

The expectation will be particularly high in Boston, where education was the top issue in the mayor's race.

But Walsh is promising a harmonious approach. He says he will work with the Boston Teachers Union — trading on his trust with organized labor to get things done.

Richard Stutman, president of the teachers union, said he can negotiate with Walsh on thorny issues — something, he suggested, he may not have been able to do with Connolly, who promised a big schools shake-up during the mayoral campaign.

"I would bet you, whatever you want to bet, that there is more likelihood of getting an extended day under a collegial, cooperative mayor than there is under a hard-nosed, my-way-or-the-highway type," he said.

That, supporters say, is the promise of the Walsh administration. Cast as an incrementalist in the mayor's race — less disruptive, less visionary than Connolly — he has a chance to do something creative with union contracts; or, at least, to get a good deal.

A recent arbitrator's decision on the police patrolmen's contract would award the union a 25.4 percent pay hike, at a cost of $80 million over the next six years.

The Boston City Council will decide whether to veto the award in the coming days. If it does, negotiations between the union and the Menino administration would begin again. Walsh has offered to play a role in the talks.

Whatever the outcome, the contract seems likely to set the terms for other, smaller police contracts. And more significantly, it will serve as a precedent for the firefighters contract — a contract Walsh will negotiate next year under heavy scrutiny. The firefighters union, after all, campaigned on his behalf.

"I think that'll be...the big test," said Sam Tyler, president of the business-backed Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog.

Tyler, recently named to Walsh's transition team, said escalating contracts for police officers and firefighters are making it increasingly difficult for the mayor of Boston to invest elsewhere — to make his vision a reality in the parks or libraries.

Fruitful negotiations are not just key to Walsh's political reputation, then, but to his governance prospects.

Union leaders insist they understand the management pressures Walsh will face. They say they're just looking forward to a mayor who will respect the labor movement.

That desire for respect grew increasingly pronounced over the course of the campaign, union officials say, as Walsh's labor ties became an ever more prominent issue.

With the race shaping up as a referendum on labor itself, they say, victory became all the more important.

"We have a proud history," said Harris Gruman, executive director of the Service Employees International Union Massachusetts State Council. "And what we need to do is communicate why it is a proud history and why it's a positive thing. And if we fail to do that, well, then we deserve to lose."

This program aired on November 13, 2013.