Which Side Are They On

Labor was showing its muscle and the television news cameras were rolling. Inside stately Faneuil Hall in Boston, the two candidates for governor, just eight days away from last fall’s election, were preparing for their final debate. Outside in the October night, thousands of placard-waving union supporters – most for Democratic candidate Scott Harshbarger, a smaller number for Republican Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci – were squaring off. The scene escalated from dueling placards to angry shouting to scuffling with a few punches thrown in. “Four or five [pro-Harshbarger union supporters] started whacking me with signs. Then they just started whaling on me, hitting me with punches,” a local Teamsters union member and Cellucci supporter told The Boston Globe.

Two nights later, things were even uglier outside J. J. Foley’s Café, a South End bar that has recently served as a film-at-11 sound stage for Republican candidates seeking blue-collar photo ops. When Cellucci showed up at Foley’s – staging a beer-buddy pose with former Boston mayor and one-time union favorite Raymond Flynn – a crowd of seething building trades members paraded outside. Epithets flew. Threats were allegedly hurled at certain Cellucci supporters.

The demonstration turned so nasty that Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert J. Haynes–a former steelworker who can be pretty fiery himself–used a bullhorn to urge infuriated demonstrators to leave. “I think there is a little emotion associated with this because these guys made Ray Flynn,” Haynes said at the time.

To some union stalwarts, these scenes of union members bashing and threatening each other were depressingly off the “Solidarity Forever” key. “That whole [Faneuil Hall] thing just disgusted me,” says Russ Davis, a union machinist at the General Electric plant in Lynn and director of Jobs with Justice in Massachusetts, a labor/community activist coalition. “What I saw was a bunch of union guys duking it out with each other over which politician was going to screw them the most for the next four years,” says Davis (who hastens to add that he is speaking for himself, not his organization).

For the AFL-CIO, electoral politics has long been Job One. The ballot box is the pressure point for that old labor edict about rewarding friends and punishing foes. But last fall’s election – in which neither gubernatorial candidate bore the slightest resemblance to Eugene Debs – has triggered some re-thinking about that traditional focus.

Do elections–and politicians–represent the best use of labor’s political and financial capital? If organized labor’s mission is to advance the cause of all working people, it must broaden both its tactics and its focus on elections, say voices within and outside the union establishment.

All that money and energy spent by labor on a single political campaign could accomplish more if spent directly on a massive education effort, organizing around issues, not candidates, some say. “Elections offer one of the best opportunities to actually make labor’s agenda come to life for the unorganized,” says Rand Wilson, who, as a Teamsters official in Washington, helped develop the union’s successful United Parcel Service strike in 1997. “But that means directly involving union members in new ways to advance a populist economic and social agenda,” says Wilson, who returned to Boston to work for the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

To Endorse or Not Endorse?

Despite Harshbarger’s best (and perhaps only) remembered campaign mantra–“labor’s agenda is my agenda”–his years as attorney general were not marked by ardent activism on wage enforcement or other labor issues. But to the leaders of organized labor in the Bay State, opting to sit out an election was unimaginable. Even before the Democratic primary, Haynes, the longtime Massachusetts AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer who had just become the labor federation’s president, pushed hard to secure the group’s endorsement of Harshbarger, whom Haynes believed had the best chance of any Democrat at beating Cellucci. After Harshbarger won the primary, the AFL-CIO deck was cleared.

Phone banks started ringing. Labor’s field organizing went into high gear. Pro-Harshbarger leaflets were hand-delivered neighborhood by neighborhood, door to door. Though other unions, some with significant membership and status, backed Cellucci, Harshbarger benefited from the experience and clout of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella federation of 750 local unions. The AFL-CIO and Haynes proved their political effectiveness. By all accounts, the federation field effort nearly bailed out a Harshbarger campaign run mainly by lawyers and consultants who had none of labor’s grasp of either issues or voting districts.

Haynes says Harshbarger won union support because the attorney general backed a labor agenda centered on issues such as economic security, education, workforce development, health care, the right to organize, and opposition to privatization. “In the old days, the endorsement process might have been just a beauty contest, involving just some of the more powerful players,” Haynes says. “But I allowed the members to speak and the issues to surface. The other [Democratic gubernatorial candidates] could have been good too, but Harshbarger took our work and family agenda and ran with it.”

But Haynes’s push for Harshbarger came at a great cost, and not just in union resources and dollars. The election left behind bitter feelings toward Haynes among leaders of some individual AFL-CIO unions who felt that Haynes crossed sensitive lines of protocol – such as using the internal mailing lists of member unions – during the campaign.

Members of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, whose 12,000-member union endorsed Cellucci, “were harassed, assaulted, and treated like management strike breakers by our brothers and sisters of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO under your ‘leadership,'” an angry Fire Fighters President Robert J. McCarthy wrote Haynes shortly after the election. “You have set back organized labor at least 25 years.”

Massachusetts Laborers’ District Council business manager Paul McNally also sent a steaming message to Haynes. “This election proved that your actions are guided more by your own self-interest than concern for the membership who look to you for leadership,” McNally wrote.

Several unions backed Cellucci. The Boston Carmen’s Union, whose dogged pursuit of former Gov. William Weld over his support of privatization helped doom Weld’s 1996 challenge to Sen. John Kerry, backed Weld’s “co-governor” Cellucci after he agreed to a new contract that met most union demands on wages, privatization, and other issues.

“I can understand why [the Carmen] did what they did,” says Haynes, “but the biggest disappointment and the thing that gave Cellucci credibility was the firefighters [endorsement]. That effectively took away the argument that we had labor for Harshbarger,” despite support from most AFL-CIO unions.

Months later, McCarthy, one of the state AFL-CIO’s 55 vice presidents, said the rifts between pro-Cellucci and pro-Harshbarger union leaders have been patched. “It was a family fight,” McCarthy says now. “Bobby acknowledged he made some mistakes and now we’ve moved beyond it.”

McCarthy, formerly a Harshbarger supporter, had a simple explanation for his union’s endorsement: Cellucci proved more available and more responsive to Fire Fighters’ concerns than Harshbarger, who McCarthy said failed to even return phone calls until it was too late. “I would have been willing to agree to disagree with Bobby [over the endorsement]. But then he just dove into it. He went over the line by going around my back [and sending pro-Harshbarger mailings to McCarthy’s members]. My guess is that any of my guys who had been thinking about Harshbarger went for Cellucci because they were offended by Bobby’s heavy-handedness,” says McCarthy.

Cellucci rewarded McCarthy in February by naming him to the labor slot on the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees. The seat had previously been held by Haynes. The Cellucci administration also found a state job for Ray Flynn’s son.

Earlier this year, Haynes held a series of “bury-the-hatchet” meetings with McCarthy and leaders of other pro-Cellucci unions, including the Carmen’s Union and Teamsters Local 25. “I wonder in whom they buried it,” said one Boston union official who feels last fall’s bitterness lingers over Haynes’s ambitious plans to revitalize and reshape the state federation.

Nevertheless, the union locals were closing ranks again this spring. Teamsters Local 25 President George Cashman says that as a result of Haynes’s appearance before local Teamsters members in Charlestown, his union is once again paying dues to the state AFL-CIO.

Labor History

Not that long ago, to become president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO was to find a safe, happy, and easy retirement. That mold was broken when Arthur Osborn assumed the post in 1979. Osborn, a former Raytheon worker and union official at that company, marked the beginning of a transition that continues under Haynes, who served as secretary-treasurer to Osborn as well as Joseph Faherty, who succeeded Osborn as president in 1990.

Osborn and Faherty both sought–sometimes in fits and starts–to extend the AFL-CIO universe beyond its white, male, building-trades foundation. Like Haynes, they spoke, and sometimes backed up with action, the rhetoric of inclusion, of labor’s need to represent all workers, union and non-union.

“Arthur could be aggressive and moderate at the same time,” says Myles Calvey, head of Quincy-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2222, which represents telephone workers. “Joe got things accomplished as a perfect gentleman. Both were effective and kept the movement in the forefront.

“Bobby is a completely different style. He’ll make it clear that [labor] is not going to be as patient as it’s been. He can be more aggressive because he wears his emotions on his sleeve. That’s just the way Bobby is. Bobby will absolutely keep this thing interesting.”

Calvey is ambivalent about political endorsements. “On the one hand, political endorsements have absolutely annihilated us. Every union that’s left the AFL-CIO has done so because of endorsements. At the same time, we are in a quid pro quo system. You have to be able to go up to someone and say we’ll help them if they help us. If we don’t use our clout for political endorsements, we’re putting handcuffs on ourselves.”

In any case, Calvey says, endorsements don’t mean that much to the rank and file – though Haynes maintains that nearly 70 percent of union members who voted last November backed Harshbarger. “If you’re not dealing day to day with policy matters, you can’t just say to members, ‘Vote this way, it’s a labor issue,'” says Calvey, who is also a state AFL-CIO vice president. “I wouldn’t support Cellucci because I don’t think his interests are our interests, but my members voted for him. They’re for the death penalty and things like that. They simply felt more comfortable with Cellucci because they felt Harshbarger was more of an elitist.”

And therein lies the crux of Haynes’s challenge: He must somehow convince AFL-CIO member unions – and the members of those member unions – that reaching out to community groups and pushing a broad social agenda is as much in their self-interest as pushing certain candidates at election time. To some AFL-CIO member unions, including some of the more conservative trade unions, talk of a social agenda is at best just that. At worst, it cuts across their deep-set, old-boy network grain.

Jobs with Justice’s Davis never endorses candidates; his group endorses causes. Rather than leafleting for candidates, Jobs with Justice members were active last fall backing a nursing home strike, and not just at special rallies.

Davis hopes Haynes succeeds in shifting the AFL-CIO from its traditional election-day focus. “The challenge is that change happens much slower within the actual unions that make up the AFL-CIO,” says Davis. “There is only so much the state Fed can do to affect that change.”

Even if AFL-CIO unions truly embrace a reach-out agenda, the constituency on the other end of the reach – non-union workers, immigrants, low-wage families – may not be convinced that the union label is necessarily a positive one. “There is so much cynicism toward unions among immigrant workers that most see unions as just another group taking money from their paychecks,” says Kevin Whalen, coordinator of the East Boston Ecumenical Community Council, which for 20 years has been involved in housing, education, and other issues.

A major problem is what Whalen called organized labor’s “big victory mentality, which means getting as many dues-paying members as you can. They’ll win a particular factory, but then the organizers move on to another shop, leaving behind scarce resources for the workers who just succeeded within the factory.”

“To us, the definition of victory must be that the workers in the factory develop their own leadership to create sustained worker power, because the workers will be there for the long haul, even if the union organizers aren’t. You have to look at how unions operate from the ground up,” Whalen says, “and that involves a whole change in consciousness.”

Getting Organized

At about the same time that the AFL-CIO was kicking its campaign apparatus into high gear last fall, about 150 workers were on strike against two chain-owned Massachusetts nursing homes – one in Brighton and one in Lowell. The strikers, whose starting pay was just $7.10 an hour–or about $15,000 a year–soon faced threats by the homes’ owner that they would be permanently replaced.

The issue of permanent replacement is one of labor’s hot buttons. And these workers – low wage, service sector, immigrant – are exactly the kind of people for whom labor holds itself out as champion. When Service Employees International Union Local 285, which represents the nursing home workers, called an Oct. 8 rally in their support, Haynes and some other union leaders did appear. But neither the turnout nor the publicity was equal to that at any of several candidate rallies.

“We did get 200 people out on a rainy day, mostly through the Greater Boston Central Labor Council,” says Local 285 President Celia Wcislo. “And that was helpful. But we have to broaden labor’s organizing capacity well beyond just getting someone elected. We need to be able to get a thousand people rallying outside the offices of an employer that’s intransigent [over a union issue]. All it takes is doing that once or twice before that employer and a lot of other employers get the message. What I would like to see Bobby [Haynes] do is take that capacity he has in politics and apply it to organizing.”

“We will focus more intently on organizing,” says AFL-CIO chief Robert Haynes.

Haynes agrees. “We have to become an organization that is not just heard from in November,” he says. “We have always been the central point around politics and legislation, but we will focus more intently on organizing. There’s no reason we can’t play that same role when it comes to organizing.”

So Haynes intends to redefine what it takes to win – and retain – a labor endorsement from the AFL-CIO. “In the past, the basis for that endorsement was very narrow,” consisting mainly of a record on certain key “labor votes,” he says. Elected officials will now be more broadly measured. They will be expected, for example, to push for the release of labor-backed bills bottled up in committees by hostile politicians such as, say, House Speaker Thomas Finneran.

Politicians who fail to support union organizing efforts within their districts may also lose labor backing, Haynes says. Haynes’s AFL-CIO may even be willing to sit out statewide, high-profile races. “Without doubt or equivocation, I can see a time when we do not endorse a candidate,” Haynes says.

Haynes also plans to hire the state AFL-CIO’s first full-time director of organizing. But to do what? The AFL-CIO is not a union in itself, does not bargain contracts or organize workers itself. Rather, it is the federation of 750 local unions that often do their own organizing or do so through their national parent organizations. Indeed, much of the anger directed at Haynes last election by some local labor leaders, some of whom are AFL-CIO vice presidents, wasn’t over his decision to push so hard for Harshbarger as it was over his seeming insensitivity to local autonomy.

“The guy just doesn’t understand that he works for us,” says John Laughlin, a former state AFL-CIO spokesman and current communications director for the Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35. “I supported Bobby [to become AFL-CIO president] because I thought he’d be willing to get into fights. But not with his own people.”

Haynes is certainly aware of, if not chastened by, such sensitivities. So when asked to clarify the role of the AFL-CIO’s would-be organizing director, he’s careful to do so in cooperative terms: “People haven’t been organizing in any great way in this state, so what we want to do is take the best practices we see elsewhere, assemble resources, and turn them over to our local unions and support them in their activity.”

That’s good news, says Wcislo. “A couple of years ago, I had maybe two organizers on my staff of 28 people. Maybe five percent of my resources went to organizing. Then we realized that we had to shift resources to organizing – which now gets 25 percent of our resources – or it simply wasn’t going to happen. So if Bobby is hiring a director of organizing to support work around the state, that’s a step in the right direction.” Massachusetts unions are already outstripping national counterparts on organizing. In 1998, Bay State unions added nearly 30,000 workers to their roles. That still leaves five of every six Bay State workers non-union. “You can’t be self-satisfied,” says Russ Davis of Jobs with Justice. “Labor may be back from the dead, but that’s not where we should be.”

Haynes isn’t hesitant about using his power to bring labor back to life. And he acknowledged that one of the first things friends and foes alike cite about him – a personal style that can be abrasive – can be a plus or minus in that regard.

“I’m very passionate about the labor movement,” says Haynes, a former local ironworker union official (see profile, CommonWealth, Summer 1998). “I like to think that unlike some people in the labor movement who talk too much, I’m on point. My advocacy may upset people, but I hope it is challenging them. I may be a little too strong for some people, but it’s part of the genetic blueprint – I’m a Haynes and that’s where we came from. Maybe I have to learn how to use it the right way.”

Which means trying to move what Haynes calls his work and family agenda beyond mere rhetoric and toward measurable action. “It’s very difficult to move a new agenda without leadership at the top,” he says. “I intend to deliver the message of a new direction to my members and to put resources together to do that. It’s a big challenge to energize and activate” even union officials, some of whom are just as conservative as the Republican candidates they sometimes back.

The Challenge

Labor leaders before Haynes had similarly sincere intentions to expand organized labor’s horizons, even at the risk of alienating conservative affiliates.

Labor’s challenge is to be part of a broader
social movement, says MIT’s Thomas Kochan.

“That’s a big challenge for the AFL-CIO,” says MIT Professor Thomas Kochan, a labor relations expert. “It means reaching out to other organizations and community groups and asking how can we work together on a set of common agenda, beyond just a political campaign or election. In the end, they have to change the political discourse so they are not talking about what I consider issues that are far removed from the workplace, like the death penalty. They must get down to health care and education and family and work issues and try to get political campaigns focused on those issues.”

Can Haynes pull that off?

“Haynes is very bright, energetic, sometimes volatile, but he’s open to ideas and he has brought together a leadership team that complements his skills and his approach nicely,” says Kochan. “He sends a message that this is what we’re going to see in the labor movement of the future.”

Kochan is part of a group of a dozen or so academics and labor leaders, including Haynes, who have been meeting informally and without publicity to explore ways to rebuild the region’s labor movement. The AFL-CIO “is really searching for ways to work with community and religious groups, educational advocates, women’s organizations, academics, and others,” Kochan says. “They are being a little more open to diverse groups. That’s a slow process, and it comes with political risks, because of the [AFL-CIO’s] widely varying constituency. It’s tough for the state Fed to take this on, but it’s essential.”

Haynes says he is committed to that long-haul effort. “The strength of this movement is in building coalitions,” he says. “We have a lot more work to do along those lines. We have to open up the shell a little bit.”

But old ways do die hard.

What would happen, Haynes was asked, if Ted Kennedy faced a serious challenge in his reelection bid next year? Haynes didn’t hesitate: Organized labor would try to put all its muscle behind a Kennedy endorsement.

Meet the Author
“This guy is a champion for working families not just here, but for the whole country,” Haynes says. “As chief elected official [of the AFL-CIO], I have control of the resources. If Ted faces a serious challenge, everything else will be back-burnered. The Fed will have all hands on deck. If that requires standing down any other part of our organization, it will be done.”

Phil Primack, who covered labor while a Boston Herald business reporter, is a free-lance writer in Medford. He also worked as a policy aide to former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II.