President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to helm the department of labor has been linked to allegations of union extortion over the past decade.
Earlier this month, Biden announced that he had chosen Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as secretary of labor. Walsh, a former president of his city’s building and construction trades council, was considered a favorite of top labor leaders like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka for the role. The mayor’s personal ties to Biden, who spoke at his 2017 city inaugural, also likely helped him clinch the post.
“He’s a friend and knows Joe: They’ve worked together on numerous occasions,” Trumka told Politico last year. “They have the relationship I think is necessary.”
Despite his ties to both Biden and labor leaders, Walsh’s links to allegations of strong arm union tactics and extortion could upend his nomination.
In August 2019, two high profile members of the mayor’s administration were convicted for allegedly violating federal law. Timothy Sullivan, Walsh’s former director of intergovernmental affairs, and Kenneth Brissette, the onetime head of Boston’s office of tourism, sports, and entertainment, were accused of conspiracy and extortion relating to a planned 2014 music festival.
According to court documents, Sullivan and Brissette allegedly extorted a music festival production company between June and September 2014. At the time, the firm was awaiting the issuance of city permits required to host its event. The company was also seeking an agreement from Walsh’s administration to to use the city-owned property for other events in the coming years.
Throughout the process, the company claims, Brissette and Sullivan repeatedly urged the hiring of union labor to work the event, most notably individual associated with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 11. The union, which has longstanding ties to Boston Democrats, had previously attempted to obtain a contract with the production company, but had been turned down in favor of another, non-union vendor.
When the company refused to hire members of Local 11, it claims that Brissette and Sullivan orchestrated the delay of the city permits required to host its event. Three days before the festival was supposed to begin, Brissette and Sullivan again demanded that at least half of the production company’s event staff be union members. The company relented, hiring nine staffers from Local 11 to work the event. The decision, it claims, resulted from mounting financial pressure associated with the event and also fears that Brissette and Sullivan would prevent the firm from hosting future events on city property.
After reports of the alleged extortion became well known, the Trump-era Department of Justice pursued charges against both Brissette and Sullivan, resulting in their conviction by a federal court in 2019.
“Private companies that want to do business in Boston have the right to hire anyone they want – union or not – without fear of being threatened with economic disaster by government officials,” Andrew Lelling, the United States attorney for the district of Massachusetts, said upon the convictions.
In February 2020, the convictions were overturned by an Obama-appointed federal judge, who claimed that “neither Brissette nor Sullivan” personally benefited from the alleged extortion.
Regardless, throughout the case, Walsh hung over the proceedings. Not only was the mayor close to both the aids, but his own record as a labor leader and elected official seemed to indicate that he had acted in a manner similar to Brissette and Sullivan.
In April 2016, the Boston Globe reported that Walsh, himself, had come up in a federal probe into “allegations of strong-arm tactics” by organized labor. According to the newspaper, as a Massachusetts state representative and the president of Boston’s trade council, Walsh was recorded on federal wiretaps in October 2012 discussing strategies to boost union employment.
In that particular conversation, Walsh told a colleague that he had informed a Boston housing developer one of its upcoming projects would be delayed by City Hall if it refused to use union labor. Later that year, in November 2012, another Boston developer would claim that Walsh had forced them into rescinding building contracts that had gone to non-union contractors.
At the time of the Globe’s revelations, Walsh denied any wrongdoing, seeming to suggest that he was only operating by rules that were then acceptable.
“When I was head of the building trades, my role was to advocate for more jobs for working men and women in the Greater Boston region,” Walsh told the Globe in 2016.
“Since becoming mayor of Boston, I have changed the development process to be more open and inclusive,” the mayor added.
It is unclear if Biden knew about the allegations involving Sullivan and Brissette, as well as Walsh’s own conduct, when deciding to appoint him secretary of labor. The president-elect’s transition team did not return requests for comment on this story.
While Biden’s knowledge about his nominee’s links to union extortion remain uncertain, it is clear that by choosing Walsh the president-elect was choosing a candidate favored by Trumka and other top labor leaders.
Trumka, who as head of the AFL-CIO is one of the most influential union leaders in the country, had actively been lining up support for Walsh since the end of the 2020 campaign. By mid-December, the union leader had secured the endorsement of rival labor organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the nation’s largest public employee union.
At the time, Trumka’s efforts on behalf of Walsh contrasted with other unions, most notably the United Auto Workers, who were advocating for Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI).