All the unions’ letters, signs and phone calls couldn’t overcome the GOP’s national political machine and a frustrated electorate.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way in this, the bluest of blue states. Getting through the Democratic primary was supposed to be the tough part for Attorney General Martha Coakley, especially because she could count on the state’s powerful unions to back her in a general election.
Apparently, those unions weren’t powerful enough. Coakley’s loss to Scott Brown, the Republican state senator from Wrentham, in the election for U.S. Senate on Tuesday was one of the state’s most memorable political upsets. His come-from-behind victory raises the question of whether organized labor still carries the same clout around here.
Robert Haynes, the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the state’s most visible labor leader, says Coakley’s energetic union supporters were no match for the outside forces that propelled Brown into the Senate seat. Fears about the federal health care bill and widespread anger over the economic downturn cast long shadows over this race – especially with the delicate balance of power in Washington that hung on the outcome.
But Haynes also concedes that more could have been done. Grading the unions’ efforts in the race, Haynes gives them a “B,” not an “A.”
Haynes says he would have liked to have seen more union members campaigning, but some have become disenchanted with the Democratic party. He rattles off several measures on Beacon Hill that have rankled union workers, such as undermining collective bargaining rights at under-performing schools and at the Massachusetts Turnpike. On a national level, union members had been worried that their health benefits could be taxed.
Haynes says none of these can be blamed on Coakley. But it’s easy for people to take out their unhappiness on the party’s most prominent political candidate.
Perhaps the biggest risk to Coakley’s union support was the sense of comfortable complacency that Democratic operatives had wrapped themselves in like a warm blanket.
This was a seat held by Ted Kennedy, the Senate’s Liberal Lion, for all these years, after all. How could it end up in a Republican’s hands?
Mark Erlich, the head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, knows his members are thankful for Coakley’s crackdown on the “underground economy” of contractors who took advantage of illegal or undocumented workers. He says the carpenters made signs and manned phone banks, leaving “no stone unturned” in this race.
But Erlich says he didn’t see the same level of effort among all other unions across the board. Too many union members, Erlich says, took Coakley’s victory for granted until the final weeks of the campaign. By that time, it was too late.
Gary Sullivan, president of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 369 in Braintree, agrees that union leaders probably should have done heavier campaigning earlier in the race. The polling results only became close within two weeks of the election. At that point, Sullivan says his union swung into a different gear. He says he’s never worked as hard on a political campaign as he did in the past two weeks.
If he knew of the extent of the crisis earlier in the campaign, Sullivan says his team would have started the aggressive push at an earlier date. But it was tough to fully ramp up the campaigning efforts with fewer than two weeks to go.
All the unions’ letters and phone calls couldn’t overcome the GOP’s national political machine and a frustrated electorate.
Sullivan says unions nationwide have gradually lost some clout, but they remain stronger here than just about anywhere else: They represent roughly a half-million workers in the Bay State, or about one-sixth of the work force.
There’s no question organized labor continues to be a formidable force here – a force that could still be the deciding factor in an important election. One thing’s for sure, though: The unions won’t be taking it for granted next time.
Jon Chesto, business editor at The Patriot Ledger, may be reached at email@example.com.