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Union can’t agree on Democratic Senate candidate

In a contentious meeting Friday, one of the state’s most politically powerful unions tried but failed to unite around a Democratic candidate for US Senate, dealing a blow to US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a former ironworker and union leader.

Lynch and US Representative Edward J. Markey, who are squaring off in the Democratic primary, made their pitches to the state AFL-CIO but the executive board remained torn ­between the two politicians, both seen as friends of labor.

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The move infuriated Lynch’s allies, who had pushed for a vote on the endorsement.

“Stephen is one of us,” said Leo Fahey, business manager for the Pipefitters Local 537. “If you can’t back and take care of one of your own, it hurts.”

While Markey has established a strong pro-abor record during his 36 years in Congress, Lynch has a fiercely loyal following, particularly in the building trades. “He’s one of us; that’s the difference,” Fahey said. “There’s a difference ­between a friend and a brother.”

The AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for many of the state’s ­labor unions, could have stayed out of the primary race, rather than stage a fight between two favorable campaigns. They ­abstained in 2006, voting unanimously not to endorse in the Democratic primary that Governor Deval Patrick won. The union also stayed out of the 2009 primary for the US Senate special election in which Attorney General Martha Coakley prevailed.

But Coakley’s tepid support from labor was ultimately seen as one of the key factors in her loss to Republican Scott Brown in the general election. Republicans have been hoping that a less-than-united front from unions this year could create an opening for one of their own in the general election.

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But the leaders of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and AFL-CIO president Steven A. Tolman tried to spin the enthusiasm for two candidates as a good problem to have.

“We have really good candidates with good records,” said Tolman, who added that the unions will be out in force for whichever Democrat prevails in the primary.

State Representative Martin Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat, also suggested the vote was a tough one for labor.

“One is a card-carrying member; the other’s a member of Congress for 36 years,” he said. Still, he was firmly in Lynch’s corner and in the hallway of the Omni Parker House trying to influence the vote.

“It’s not every day you’re going to have an opportunity to make a member of the union a member of the US Senate,” said Walsh.

Many local labor groups ­affiliated with the AFL-CIO have endorsed Lynch individually and intend to work for him in the primary, despite the lack of mobilization by the AFL-CIO.

“We’re going to work as hard as we possibly can,” said ­Edward A. Kelly, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts. “We’re going to be out doing sign-holding, traveling all across the Commonwealth. There is so much risk to the sustainability of the middle class in America. It’s so important, and Stevie Lynch will be a champion of working people in the United States Senate.”

Lynch was once president of Iron Workers Local 7 in South Boston, and had been hoping labor could help him overcome the fund-raising and organizing advantage Markey claimed as dean of the congressional delegation and as the first to declare his candidacy for Senate.

But Lynch broke with labor by voting against President Obama’s health care law, costing him some allegiance. ­Markey stood with labor on the health care law.

Lynch has emerged as a fiery challenger who would not be cowed into staying out of the race, despite the early support Markey had picked up from the Democratic establishment. His allies echoed that theme yesterday, saying the national players in the AFL-CIO had overwhelmed the support of locals. “Even though the room was firmly in Lynch’s corner, the bigger majority voted not to ­endorse anybody,” said Fahey.

Lynch has already picked up the backing of 44 labor organizations, including locals, ­umbrella groups, and inter­nationals, said Lynch campaign spokesman Conor Yunits.

Markey has the support of two: AFSCME and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a Markey spokesman said.

When a Markey endorsement was considered, Fahey said, only two members voted in favor. Lynch picked up many more, but did not win the two-thirds majority needed for an endorsement.

Tolman would not confirm vote totals, but said, “The members here made up their own minds.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @StephanieEbbert.

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