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Backing unions a delicate mission for Elizabeth Warren

ELISE AMENDOLA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Elizabeth Warren must craft a message that shows her passion for working families without crossing political fault lines.

Organized labor leaders have been among Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s earliest and most ardent supporters, funneling thousands of dollars into her campaign, offering her a high-profile speaking platform in the run-up to her election announcement last fall, and introducing her to voters in South Boston this week.

But harnessing that energy — to woo back the legions of rank-and-file union members who supported Republican Scott Brown in 2010 — also carries risk, as some voters view unions as special interests, intent on preserving perks at the expense of businesses and taxpayers.

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“It can be a doubled-edged sword in the sense that, for all of those who want to embrace labor and the unions, there are probably a good number who find that unions are as much a part of the economic problem as a solution,’’ said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

An event last week underscored the challenge for Warren in crafting a message that shows her passion for working families without crossing political fault lines on union issues. The first-time candidate criticized a law championed by the state’s leading Democrats that curbed rights for teachers, firefighters, and other municipal workers to bargain over health care, saving cash-strapped cities and towns tens of millions of dollars a year.

She said the law, signed last year, was responsible for “undercutting collective bargaining rights’’ at the expense of families, a sentiment she had expressed earlier in the month to a local reporter in Brockton.

Her campaign later dialed back the comments and put her in line with the rest of the state’s top Democrats and labor leaders. Two days later, the Warren campaign said she had initially misunderstood the question.

The state’s Democratic establishment, from Governor Deval Patrick to Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, viewed the law as a signature accomplishment, one that allowed them to assist struggling local governments without the contentious battles that roiled state houses around the country last year.

Patrick, the state’s top Democrat, has successfully used a nuanced strategy to court unions, winning their support while at times distancing himself on issues that have stoked public anger. In speeches on the national level, he cites his stance on public employee benefits to demonstrate his philosophy that contentious political issues can be tackled without excessive strife.

From the start, Warren has linked herself more closely with unions. Just before declaring her candidacy last year, she made her first major public speech at the Greater Boston Labor Council’s Labor Day breakfast, where labor leaders compared her favorably with Senator Edward M. Kennedy. When she addresses groups, she often mentions family members who have held union jobs and thanks organized labor for helping her win congressional approval for the federal consumer protection agency she championed.

Tuesday, when she greeted voters at South Boston’s Castle Island, four local union officials were brought along to give her a tour of the neighborhood.

“My campaign is all about working people,’’ she said in an interview last week, explaining her appeal to organized labor. “The middle class has been hammered, and that’s true both for those who are in unions and those who aren’t.’’

Warren holds some positions on education that challenge union orthodoxy. For instance, she favors charter schools and the use of student test scores as a factor in evaluating teachers, as long as teachers help craft the evaluations.

But the state’s municipal health care law signed last year created a challenge for Warren. Even as many union leaders signed on to compromises last year that they said would protect the most vulnerable workers and preserve basic bargaining rights, some rank-and-file members remain angry about the law.

During a talk with party activists at an Attleboro diner last Tuesday, a teacher told Warren he was worried that the new law limiting city and town workers’ rights in bargaining for some health benefits would cost teachers in her town $1,000 to $2,000 a year. “This is unconscionable,’’ the man said.

Warren responded generally that she was “fundamentally shocked by the attacks on collective bargaining’’ and went on to discuss her vision for rebuilding the middle class.

Asked by a Globe reporter afterward to clarify her position “on what Massachusetts did last year,’’ she responded that “undercutting collective bargaining rights is not a way to strengthen America’s working families.’’ Asked if that was what last year’s bill did, she responded, “yeah, yeah, yup.’’ She answered a third question on the subject, about the problems local governments faced in paying for those benefits, responding that the problem was really caused by a crumbling infrastructure.

Two days later, her campaign retreated from those remarks.

“Elizabeth misunderstood the question asked,’’ spokeswoman Alethea Harney said. “She recognizes that municipalities here in the Commonwealth need help with health care costs and she supports efforts to reduce costs. Elizabeth is very concerned, however, about efforts in other states to undermine collective bargaining.’’

Supporters of the Massachusetts law, including selectmen and mayors, argue that it has benefited workers, sparing layoffs while ensuring that local health plans offer at minimum the same benefits offered to state workers. Union leaders have largely held their fire.

They say they plan to redouble their efforts to help Warren get elected this year after Brown’s surprising 2010 victory. Union-funded political action committees have donated at least $47,000 to her campaign. The AFL-CIO offered an early endorsement of Warren this month, while a political committee called MassUniting, whose principal officers are officials from the Service Employees International Union, was one of the first committees to target Brown with a “Bobblehead Brown’’ ad last year.

In the abbreviated 2010 special election, labor did not fully coalesce around Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, said Richard M. Rogers, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council. During the primary, labor had been split between Coakley and US Representative Michael E. Capuano of Somerville.

During the general election, Brown’s likability and strong record on union issues while in the state Senate helped him win over many union voters, said Steven A. Tolman, president of the state AFL-CIO. He added, however, that Brown has voted against workers’ interests on multiple occasions since going to Washington, including votes against jobs bills and prevailing-wage legislation.

Still, Brown’s campaign says he appeals to fiscally conservative union members “because they view him as a regular guy with an independent voting record,’’ said spokesman Colin Reed.

To win over the rank and file, Warren has to meet with workers, something she has already been doing across the state, Tolman said.

Tolman recognizes that many candidates worry about being tagged as too close with labor. Union members have to help Warren make the case that they are not a special interest, but part of the same broad middle class that she has been appealing to, he said.

“This isn’t about a top-down fight, this is about the working class taking it on the chin too many times,’’ Tolman said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.
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