Lingering ill will over the AFL-CIO’s decision not to endorse in the US Senate Democratic primary has roiled the close-knit world of Massachusetts unions, with a coalition of building trades and firefighter groups lashing out at what they see as a betrayal of US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a former union president.
The decision, made earlier this month, robbed Lynch of a potentially pivotal injection of campaign cash and manpower as he continues to trail US Representative Edward J. Markey in public polling. And Lynch’s labor allies are worried that the snub could dilute the movement’s influence with its go-to guy if he loses and remains in the House, where he cofounded the Congressional Labor and Working Families Caucus.
“Steve’s out of our ranks, and it’s not just that,” said Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, which has endorsed Lynch. “He’s not just a union member, he’s a former union president.”
The friction speaks to a larger divide within the national movement, between its more progressive and centrist wings, old rivalries that flare up sporadically. In the race to fill the seat left open when John F. Kerry became secretary of state, the hardhats and firefighters are backing Lynch, while teachers’ unions and the politically influential Service Employees International unions prefer Markey.
But the personal nature of the local discord, among union members who have been friends and worked on campaigns together for decades, has imbued it with added intensity
“This is not Deval [Patrick] versus Chris Gabrieli versus Tommy Reilly, where we were all over the map and we were able to stay out of the primary,” said one senior labor official, referring to the 2006 Democratic primary for governor, when the AFL-CIO also declined to endorse a candidate.
“This is different, because he’s got a card and he is, as he says, our guy in Congress. There was not a lot of thought, I think, as to what happens when he goes back to that caucus,” the official said.
State AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman defended the umbrella group’s hands-off approach to the primary, noting that individual unions have endorsed on their own.
Many of the unions that are angered over what they see as a Lynch snub, such as the pipefitters and firefighters, are the same groups that in 2011 played key roles in electing Tolman as AFL-CIO president.
“I don’t think we let Stephen down at all; I really don’t,” said Tolman, adding that his friendship with Lynch dates back to when they worked on railroad issues together in the 1980s.
He said that Lynch’s wife, Margaret, designed an early brochure for Tolman’s first campaign for public office. “I think the members voted their conscience. They weren’t corralled into doing anything. They made up their own mind.”
But he acknowledged acrimony after the vote and said that one union leader had threatened to work against his reelection as AFL-CIO leader.
Asked if he expected to be challenged for the presidency in 2015 when his term expires, Tolman replied: “Who knows? Everybody got hot tempers. I’m not worried about it. We’ve got to build a movement, and building a movement isn’t siding with one guy when 50 percent of the members want the other guy. To say that we screwed [Lynch backers] or took a walk on them is totally inappropriate.”
At the March 1 meeting of the state AFL-CIO executive board, an initial vote on whether to endorse at all barely carried a majority, an indication that Lynch would not have the requisite two-thirds majority support, according to board members.
On a subsequent vote about whether to endorse Markey, only two board members lined up behind him, unflattering for a 36-year congressman who has solid labor record.
On the next tally, Lynch received 32 votes, well shy of the 39-vote, two-thirds majority threshold.
Since then, Tolman and other unions leaders have sought to soothe tensions, publicly proclaiming that either Markey or Lynch would be organized labor’s preference over whichever Republican emerges from the GOP primary. But the rancor from the vote earlier this month will probably take longer to subside.
Adding to the Lynch bloc’s resentments is a suspicion of outside interference, fueled largely by national Democrats’ decision early in the primary to line up behind Markey, with both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Kerry, who had already been nominated as secretary of state, publicly supporting Markey.
That frustration simmered again Tuesday, when Callahan, head of the state building trades council, fired off an angry response to a billionaire California investor threatening to spend heavily against Lynch unless the South Boston Democrat pulls his support for a controversial pipeline project that would run from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Tom Steyer, a self-identified “clean energy philanthropist,” said he would launch an “aggressive public education campaign” unless Lynch altered his stance.
In response, Callahan, the building trades chief, hinted at broader indignation among the pro-Lynch forces.
“As a lifelong resident of Massachusetts, I’ve had enough of Washington insiders and outside environmental groups attempting to dictate who we can have for our elected representatives,” he said in a statement.
“I and my fellow residents of Massachusetts are perfectly capable of deciding who will represent us the United States Senate.”