There’s a dangerous dialogue undermining the mayoral race. It’s irrationally contemptuous of organized labor, and is reflective of the rhetorical course that America is increasingly embarking on, in which economic realities are distorted by ignorance. In the past week, since Bostonians chose John Connolly and Marty Walsh to advance past the preliminary, there’s been much noise about the decision of an arbitrator to award Boston Police patrol officers a significant pay hike, and about how each candidate might handle comparable deliberations if elected. It’s the exact conversation that elite businessmen and corporate scoundrels want us to be having—one that excludes them entirely.
In certain ways, it seems that Americans are more skeptical of plutocrats and their complicit henchmen than of common working people. From lenders who feasted on inevitable foreclosures to executives who gorged on bailout bucks and left taxpayers holding the tab, there’s a general sense that nefarious suits are the closest thing we know to evil incarnate. This much we’ve been told by everyone from Paul Krugman to our most beloved sitcoms—“How I Met Your Mother” comes to mind—which endlessly skewer yuppies who rationalize greed. Bostonians, who are by many measures more educated and enlightened than the larger population, should be especially weary of the vulture class.
Yet, as we head into the final stretch of our mayoral showdown, it’s clear that unions will bear more of the communal brunt than will entities like Bank of America, former employees of which recently admitted in federal court in Boston that they lied to customers and were rewarded for coaxing homeowners into default. Instead of haranguing Connolly over banker bucks, local pundits have crowed about how Walsh is too cozy with workers; the Herald has been particularly brutal, going so far as to run an anti-endorsement against the former Boston Building Trades head. The hits have resonated; even for some avid Walsh supporters, his candidacy is inexorably handcuffed to organized labor.
This trend has unwound even as retention of the middle class has been a dominant election theme. In reality, research by the London School of Economics and Political Science shows that declining American unionization accounted for much of the inequality that set in throughout the 1980s and the decades after. As organized labor has continued to erode—nationwide, union membership has fallen from 28.3 percent of all workers to 11.3 percent in the past 60 years—that plight has worsened. According to the Center for American Progress: “The middle 60 percent of households took home only 45.7 percent of the nation’s income in 2012…well below the 53.2 percent it used to take home in 1968.” Furthermore, “Middle-class incomes…have now been in decline for some time, with the median household income in 2012 below the level it was in 1989.”
It goes without saying that unions need tough love—especially in Boston, where there are long negotiations looming with everyone from City Hall workers to firefighters. If we really want to save the middle class, however, what’s more important is that business interests are kept appropriately in check. In the least, it’s only fair to note that while Walsh swims in labor loot, Connolly—who hypocritically proposed a toothless “People’s Pledge” to sideline private interests last week, only to be roundly dismissed—is the clear favorite among financiers and lawyers, real estate and business backers. In addition to endorsements from corporate education groups funded by Bain Capital executives and the Walmart Foundation, the city councilor has welcomed cash from individuals affiliated with the likes of Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Liberty Mutual and Brown Brothers Harriman.
Though not quite the same caliber of compromised capitalist stooge that Newark Mayor and senatorial shoo-in Cory Booker is, Connolly clearly has more finance blood money in his war chest than his opponent. The only bank behind Walsh is Philip Banks, a union iron worker from Dorchester. You would think that in a city racked with foreclosure and inequity—where the middle class is fleeing, if not being forced out—the institutions driving home our wreckage would be lynched publicly. Instead, as is happening elsewhere around the country, the enduring narrative attacks the victims, their families and the forces organized to protect working Americans. Boston should know better, but in a city where even some Herald-reading laborers consider themselves to be temporarily inconvenienced Beacon Hill billionaires, it’s still easier to kick the middle class when it’s down.
A former Boston Phoenix staff writer, Chris Faraone is now contributing editor at DigBoston.