Why Is Organized Labor Supporting Joe Mallahan?
The Executive from a Union-Unfriendly Corporation Finds an Unlikely Ally: Unions
Joe Mallahan, who is campaigning to be Seattle's next mayor, has amassed an unusual coalition of support: business and labor.
It's a little weird—not least because during the primary, Big Labor and Big Business attacked Mallahan, paying $50,000 for robo-calls disparaging his lack of political experience and publicizing T-Mobile's hostility to unions. As a former vice president of "operations strategy" at T-Mobile, Mallahan was predictably able to woo business support, such as the recent endorsement of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. But a flood of recent endorsements from local unions and the county labor council is a little surprising.
T-Mobile is owned by Deutsche Telekom, a German company. Deutsche Telekom's union, TU, recently released a report condemning T-Mobile USA for discouraging union organization. "T-Mobile workers in the U.S. have no union representation and are not allowed to bargain collectively for their working conditions," the group reported. The report noted that "unfairness of this treatment of T-Mobile USA workers" is compounded because the American T-Mobile workers generate 43 percent more revenue and cost the company 30 percent less per employee than their German counterparts.
"There is hostility by T-Mobile management across America to any union activity," said Al Kogler, an organizing coordinator for the Communications Workers of America. "We won an unfair-labor-practice charge in Portland, where T-Mobile asked for antiunion surveillance from its employees."
In July, a memo surfaced from T-Mobile's human-resources division that outlined ways for U.S. executives to bust potential labor unions, including reminding staff that T-Mobile rules "prohibit all third parties, including union organizers, from soliciting or distributing materials on T-Mobile premises."
Asked why a vice president at T-Mobile headquarters would attract so much political support from Big Labor, Kogler, who lives in Colorado, said, "That is a complete mystery to me." However, he added, "This is me playing fortune-teller without a license—but it's my understanding you have a tunnel project out there. The trades are always supportive of big projects."
Indeed, while mayoral contender Mike McGinn has built a campaign on his opposition to replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a multibillion-dollar deep-bore tunnel under downtown, Mallahan has resolutely embraced it. And on September 16, the Mallahan campaign announced a slew of union endorsements, including Laborers' Local 440 Street Pavers, Sewer, Watermain & Tunnel Workers (emphasis on the tunnel workers). This month, the M.L. King County Labor Council, the AFL-CIO umbrella with 125 affiliates, voted to back Mallahan. Meanwhile, individual unions representing laborers, Teamsters, police officers, and firefighters have all rejected McGinn in favor of Mallahan.
Those unions could be crucial for Mallahan's success in November. Organized labor is widely credited with swinging the narrow 2001 Seattle mayor's race in favor of Greg Nickels, and it could do it again this year. For instance, the labor council alone mobilizes many of its 75,000 members for a "labor-neighbor campaign" to work phone banks, drop literature, and spend campaign season promoting their candidates.
The irony is that McGinn, who has yet to report any union endorsements, may have brought this on himself. By being a single-issue candidate in the primary, on the wrong side of the unions, he may have forced them away. "They really want a tunnel, and Joe Mallahan is their man," acknowledged McGinn.
But why have the unions reversed their position on Mallahan—a man they attacked just a few weeks ago and who worked at the top echelon of a virulently antiunion business? They could have remained noncommittal, right?
For one thing, unions have an incentive to pick one of the candidates, lest they be forced to lobby all nine offices of the city council, trying to piecemeal votes to their favor. But even the council doesn't run the day-today operations of the city.
"Unions are used to having a strong representative in the mayor's office," said local political consultant Cathy Allen. For that reason, she said, labor invests heavily in local elections and is "one of the determinants of who wins, if not the most determinant."
And while Mallahan hasn't necessarily given the unions a lot to love, they don't fear him.
"Mallahan said he didn't have anything to do with the antiunion activity at T-Mobile," said John Masterjohn of Laborers' Local 1239.
Seattle Police Officers' Guild president Rich O'Neill echoed: "Look, because you're a vice president doesn't mean you're the CEO—you're not calling the shots. How much influence can he really have?"
Good question. And what was Mallahan's job at T-Mobile, exactly? The Mallahan campaign submitted this job description: "Led a team charged with identifying and executing breakthrough profit drivers and customer-experience improvements in all aspects of T-Mobile's Customer-Facing Operations." Mallahan, apparently, had some achievements in the handset game—installment plans, promotion of, etc. In other words, more sales than personnel management. Fair enough.
Meanwhile, unions are wary of McGinn. David Freiboth, chief executive officer of the M.L. King County Labor Council, explained, "He has made a religion of attacking this compromise that was put together on the viaduct replacement."
"There's a concern that McGinn represents the kind of progressive environmentalism that takes economic growth for granted," Freiboth said. "McGinn shares a lot of our values and is emphatic about the way he lines up on our issues. But some of our members got the sense that if we were at odds on an issue, we'd be able to work better with Mallahan to find a responsible compromise."
Every union representative contacted by The Stranger, with the exception of the Police Officers' Guild, mentioned the tunnel as a central issue (and even the police mentioned it eventually). And all noted Mallahan's "management experience."
"Management isn't all bad," said Chris Dugovich, president of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees.
"Look, I have concern for the people in the telecommunications industry," said Eric Franklin of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. "But we're carpenters. We build things. We're concerned with infrastructure issues."
"Mallahan has spent a lot of time reaching out to labor," said Franklin, adding, "They're both relative political unknowns."
Does McGinn, who was trailing Mallahan by five points in the most recent SurveyUSA poll, plan to reach out to any specific unions? "I think it's premature," McGinn said. He agrees that the union support—and some of the business support—for Mallahan is all about the tunnel. "That's the overriding issue of concern for unions and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce," McGinn said. "There's a lot of money behind that tunnel and a lot of people against that tunnel."
Masterjohn, who represents the laborers, said, "We had talked to Joe earlier and didn't get any interest from Mr. McGoo or McGee or whatever. Joe had good answers to the questions we asked—and if he doesn't know a lot about unions, we're hoping we can educate him and get him on board."
So Mallahan is simply more malleable?
"With McGinn, there's an underlying fear of gridlock," said Freiboth.
But if replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct weren't an issue and if labor didn't conflict with McGinn about building Highway 519 (a freeway link between I-90 and Pier 46), would the unions still have endorsed Mallahan?
"I'm not sure they would've," Freiboth said. "There are still folks uncomfortable with Joe's corporate background. And they're both still relative unknowns. In my 25 years in politics in this state, I've never been in this kind of situation with these kinds of stakes.
"We're gambling here."