When Joe Biden campaigned for president, he vowed to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” He wasn’t kidding. His nominee for labor secretary, Marty Walsh, once headed a union himself. And for these past seven years, as mayor of Boston, he has displayed a tendency to look past criminal activity by certain local unions. Moreover, since his January 7 nomination, evidence has emerged that he diverted over a million dollars over the years from his campaign coffers to a boutique consulting firm for which his girlfriend works. The payments recently have risen to nearly $15,000 a month, accounting for over half of the company’s revenues. Such behavior suggests serious conflicts of interest, an issue that needs to be addressed at Senate confirmation hearings.
Marty Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in 1967 and raised in the Dorchester section of Boston. Politically, he is aligned with the far Left of the Democratic Party, which is to say at this point, almost all of the party. His worldview bears the imprint of extensive experience in the world of organized labor. At age 21 he joined Laborers International Union of North America Local 223 in Boston, where he eventually became president. For a while he also headed the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department. Walsh resigned both positions in 2013 upon announcing his candidacy for mayor. He won the office in a close runoff election against Boston City Council Member John Connolly. As Boston mayor, he’s flown his ideological colors high, and never more so than when Donald Trump became president. On January 25, 2017, as a rebuke to Trump, Mayor Walsh affirmed his city’s “sanctuary” policy – enacted in 2014 – for anyone residing in the U.S. illegally. “If people want to live here, they’ll live here,” he declared. “They can use my office. They can use any office in this building.”
Walsh’s grossly irresponsible views on immigration are disturbing enough. But apropos of his nomination for secretary of labor, his union partisanship contains some ethical blind spots. As Union Corruption Update noted in a pair of articles, Boston officials Kenneth Brissette and Tim Sullivan, respectively, the City’s director of tourism, sports and entertainment and director of intergovernmental affairs, engaged in extortion in late summer 2014. Brissette had told a concert promoter, Crash Line Productions, that it had to hire all workers from International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 11 if it wanted approval of the necessary permits to hold a Labor Day weekend festival at City Hall Plaza. Crash Line responded that it couldn’t do that, as it already had contracted with a nonunion firm to handle all stage props. Brissette laid down these terms despite having been notified earlier by an unnamed official that the awarding of a city permit does not depend on whether a contractor is union or nonunion. Crash Line, fearful the event would not come off, agreed to a compromise offered by Brissette and Sullivan: Half the stage crew must be union members. The promoter promised to hire nine persons – eight stagehands and a supervisor – from IATSE Local 11.
But that was not the end of the story. Crash Line not long after filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor indicating that it had been threatened with economic harm if it did not do the City’s bidding. In May 2016, Brissette was indicted by a federal grand jury for extortion. Moreover, as the intent was to inhibit interstate commerce, the alleged behavior violated the Hobbs Act. The following month, Brissette and Sullivan were hit with superseding indictments. They would be convicted by a trial jury in August 2019.
Mayor Walsh, though not necessarily facilitating this shakedown, offered this “yes, but” apology upon hearing of the convictions:
I am surprised and disappointed. I have made clear from the beginning that there is only one way to do things in my Administration, and that is the right way. I have always believed that their hearts were in the right place. We have taken several measures at the City of Boston to ensure that every employee has the right tools and training to perform at the highest standards, which has always been my expectation.
Notice here how Walsh, who had hired Brissette and Sullivan, qualifies his disapproval. Because the pair’s intentions supposedly were good, they deserve a certain measure of sympathy. Walsh here seems more disappointed in the pair getting caught for their shakedown than for the shakedown itself.
The mayor also came off as less than sincere in the wake of charges against four members of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 25 who had been charged with terrorizing a TV production crew attempting to shoot a segment of the Bravo network reality show Top Chef at an area restaurant back in June 2014. As Union Corruption Update explained in August 2017 following court testimony, union picketers protesting the use of nonunion labor in reality were thugs. Teamsters Local 25, a union with a history of threats and violence, lived up to their reputation at the Steel and Rye restaurant in nearby Milton, Mass. They chest-thumped production crew members and surrounded the arriving car inside which host Padma Lakshmi was seated. The union enforcers very explicitly threatened her; one goon, John Fidler, allegedly told her, “I’ll smash your pretty little face.” A former co-producer of the show testified that she witnessed this incident, and that Lakshmi was “visibly terrified.” The Teamster terror gauntlet stayed in place for several hours that day.
In the end, the Boston federal jury found the four defendants not guilty, though a fifth defendant, ringleader Mark Harrington, already had pleaded guilty to attempted extortion in November 2016 on the condition that he would not have to cooperate with prosecutors any further. Kenneth Brissette was on the case in that incident too. According to prosecutors, he had contacted various Boston-based businesses about Teamster picketing plans and attempted to pressure them into backing out of participation in the show. It was precisely the fear felt by these establishments that prompted Top Chef producers to film outside Boston city limits. Marty Walsh might not have had advance knowledge of this group attack, but he did nothing to discourage it. And with little wonder. He’s a longtime friend of current Local 25 President Sean O’Brien. Burning his bridges with O’Brien is about the last thing he wants to do.
Raising the most questions lately about Walsh’s impartiality as labor secretary, however, is his extreme generosity toward his significant other. According to his campaign filings, Walsh since 2013 has paid LB Strategies, the Boston-based political consulting firm of longtime girlfriend Lorrie Higgins, close to $1.2 million for campaign expenses for office operations, mailings, fundraising and polling. As of early December, his campaign had a built a war chest of nearly $6 million. And since May 2019, it has been paying LB Strategies $14,650 per month. Whether or not these transfers of funds are illegal, they represent undue favoritism. “It’s the kind of thing that voters are concerned about,” said Maurice Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts-Boston political scientist who has published extensively on campaign finance issues. “It looks like nepotism in some form.”
Where is all this money coming from? The most likely answer is organized labor. For decades, unions have been a crucial source of fundraising and volunteering for Democratic Party candidates and causes. They know an ally when they see one. And Marty Walsh is an ally. President Biden knows this. The two have been close for years. They even appeared together in Boston in 2019 in support of a strike by area grocery workers. Biden also presided over Walsh’s January 2018 mayoral inauguration. Walsh hasn’t said yet if he would run for a third term as mayor in the event that his nomination as labor secretary stalls. But one way or another, he knows that unions are watching his back. And as head of the U.S. Department of Labor, he’d be watching theirs.
Postscript: On March 22, Walsh was confirmed by the Senate by a 68-29 vote. He was sworn in the next day.