WORCESTER — Representative Stephen F. Lynch arrived more than an hour before his rival, and began shaking hands with the two-dozen union steelworkers, carpenters, and retired firefighters sipping beers in a function room at Leo’s Ristorante.
“You ask any member of Congress who the labor guy is in the House — it’s me,” Lynch said. “And I’m proud to wear that label.”
After Lynch left, Representative Edward J. Markey showed up at the meeting of Central Massachusetts unions. He held up his congressional ID card and called it a symbol of his union support.
“For 36 years on the House floor, I had a union card, and this is my union card,” Markey said. “It’s my voting card. I’ve been your guy, your shop steward, voting for you every time there is a chance.”
Away from their diner visits and bunting-bedecked rallies, Lynch and Markey have been courting union crowds like these all across the state in hopes of winning the kind of support that helped Elizabeth Warren beat Scott Brown in last fall’s Senate race.
The battle between the two labor-friendly Democrats, however, has split unions that just months ago were united in their support of Warren. A divisive primary could create tensions that hurt the Democratic nominee in the general election, where that candidate will need united support from labor.
Lynch, a former ironworker, has strong personal relationships with union leaders, while Markey is backed by national Democrats and, unlike Lynch, sided with labor in supporting President Obama’s health care law. Some unions may feel pressure to follow the Democratic establishment and endorse Markey.
A broad spectrum of union leaders say that Lynch, however, has been able to parlay his close ties to labor leaders into an early advantage over Markey. Lynch said he already has the backing of 34 unions, including the state firefighters’ union. The 75,000-member Massachusetts Building Trades Council is also expected to endorse Lynch, according to its president.
But some labor leaders are not so quick to back Lynch. Some say they have not forgiven him for his vote against the health care law, while others dislike his long history of opposing abortion rights. Labor is in the midst of what Steven A. Tolman, president of the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts, called a “family dispute.”
He insisted that, despite the disagreements, “It’s a good place to be because we have two very good candidates.”
At Leo’s Ristorante, Joseph P. Carlson, president of the Central Massachusetts Labor Council, agreed that both candidates have strong labor voting records, but said he had concerns about Lynch’s stance on abortion.
“People are kind of wrestling with what’s the right thing to do,” Carlson told his fellow council members. “As Congressman Lynch said, him and I go back a long time, but I would be less than honest if I wasn’t willing to admit that I wrestle with those issues that are problematic for him. They work great in South Boston, but once you get out of Southie, it’s not where the Commonwealth is.”
The stakes are high for Lynch. A onetime president of Ironworkers Local 7 in South Boston, he is counting on labor to help him overcome Markey’s $3.2 million campaign account and endorsements from national Democrats.
With strong union backing, Lynch believes he can field hundreds of supporters to make phone calls, hold signs, and usher voters to the polls on primary day, April 30. That support could be pivotal in a special election where turnout among the broader electorate is expected to be low.
“A lot of these unions are statewide, and they’re on the ground, so once they’re supporting you, you have an organic organization that basically rises up,” Lynch said. “It’s hugely important.”
But Lynch faces hurdles with some potent unions outside of his core base of support in the blue-collar trades. Some labor leaders say his opposition to abortion rights could also dent his support with the Massachusetts Teachers Association. While the issue is not a formal part of the association’s endorsement process, 85 percent of its members are women.
Lynch has begun softening his opposition to legalized abortion, saying that, in the Senate, he would only vote to confirm Supreme Court nominees who support Roe v. Wade.
His vote against the health care law could also be a problem in his pursuit of an endorsement from the Service Employees International Union, one of the most politically active unions. The union strongly supported the law, and many of its members work in the health care industry.
At Leo’s, a letter carrier from Milford asked Lynch why he opposed the health care law. Lynch said he would offer a “thumbnail response,” then launched into a winding, eight-minute answer.
He explained that he had voted for an earlier House version of the bill but against the final legislation because it included a tax on generous health plans — which affects many union members — and because it did not allow states to open government-run health insurance plans.
After hearing from both congressmen at Leo’s, the labor council, an umbrella group of Worcester-area unions, voted not to endorse either one and to allow the locals it represents to make their own separate endorsements.
“It’s two guys with very good labor voting records,” Carlson said. “Congressman Lynch has a better relationship with a lot of folks, having come out of the ironworkers. But they’re two very good candidates.”
Markey insists he is not counting on Washington support to carry him to victory.
“The only time I got anointed was when I was baptized and confirmed, OK?” he told the workers at Leo’s. “You have to earn this. No one’s handed anything to anybody, and no one’s ever handed anything to me, I’ll tell you that much.”
Several Boston-based unions, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, traditionally follow Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s lead before making an endorsement. So far, Menino has not said which candidate he will back, if he even chooses to take sides in the primary.
A crucial test of the candidates’ labor support will come March 1, when the state AFL-CIO, which represents 400,000 workers, will vote on its endorsement. Labor leaders said if neither Lynch nor Markey can muster the two-thirds support from the executive board needed to win the group’s backing, it will stay out of the primary.
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