Labor pains

The Democratic Party/labor union alliance is on shaky ground

It’s always sad to witness the estrangement of a long time committed couple who have been good for each other over so many years. Could we be seeing this today in the marriage between the Democrats and labor?

There’s no reason to clear time on the probate court calendar for divorce proceedings, but things have undoubtedly gotten strained.  Witness the recent vote in the Massachusetts House of Representatives to cut back municipal worker unions’ right to collective bargaining over their health care benefits. The measure was proposed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and attracted 81 Democrats. That would have been unthinkable not long ago.

A furious Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, compared the legislation to attacks on labor in Wisconsin and Ohio and decried it as “clearly union busting.” A May 1 Boston Globe headline captured the situation perfectly:  “Unions reel as budget crisis, ebbing clout collide; Stunning setbacks in a House they once owned.”

At one time a labor warning that a legislator voting against its interests would be ousted in the next election was enough to discipline any potential wanderers. That ritual threat was brushed aside this time.

And that is ominous. The AFL-CIO commissioned a poll the night of Scott Brown’s victory in 2010 and the pollster declared, “This was a working class revolt.” Though Coakley had won by five points among college graduates, Brown bested her by 20 points among voters without a college degree. In an October 2010 Boston Globe poll, Deval Patrick actually trailed Charlie Baker by 31 percent among voters with a high school education or less. Patrick held narrow leads among voters with some college or a college degree, and commanded a 27 percent margin among those with a post-graduate education. On the other hand, in 2006 an exit poll showed that Patrick won about 75 percent of union household voters. He barely held union households in 2010 according to a Suffolk University poll, with only 51 percent of the vote. So Democrats have some sorting out to do here.

In the summer before the 2010 gubernatorial race, in Identity Politics, I offered a preview of the contest based on four different cultural types in Massachusetts, the most important of which were the Managers and the Workers. The Workers lost in the House and the Managers were the big winners. State House News Service reported that Speaker DeLeo’s backers included “a broad array of business and education groups” as well as those who have to manage municipal budgets – mayors and administrators.

So could this marriage wind up on the rocks? Well, the Managers have been ascending and the Workers declining for decades. Political alliances and coalitions can be long-lasting but they do change. 

Consider that the modern Massachusetts Democratic Party found its way to dominance in 1948 when a young Cantabrigian named Tip O’Neill engineered the takeover of the Massachusetts House with campaign backing from labor and the Catholic Church. In that era, workers and Catholics formed the Democrats’ biggest constituency bloc. The Church organized a campaign against a ballot proposal to liberalize the commonwealth’s birth control laws. Labor mobilized its members in favor of ballot measures crucial to unions.  The propositions so inflamed the Democrats’ key constituencies that turnout skyrocketed, to the party’s great fortune.

The years have torn asunder the Church and the Democrats. The party has replaced whatever has been lost and more with seculars, pro-choice voters, gays, and others. Recent efforts to revive the religious vote have foundered in the face of a divided Catholic electorate that is not so different on the issues than other citizens. Some legislators were concerned about a Catholic backlash at the polls after votes on gay marriage – but nothing of the sort happened. The Church can no longer deliver its members.

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
Of course labor and the Catholic Church are very different entities, yet politicians will be eyeing labor’s ability to turn out loyal voters. Too many “working class revolts” and the party might conclude it needs some new partners. Labor has a chance to show its muscle by targeting Democrats who voted for DeLeo’s bill. That will give a sense of their ability to impact legislative races. Failure could leave labor looking increasingly like today’s politically anemic Catholic Church.

Marriages that have succeeded for so long should not be lightly set aside. The Democratic Party/labor union rift is no War of the Roses, but this couple needs counseling.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.