Politics

Unions gaining power in Mass.

Supporters of proposed ballot initiatives to raise the state’s minimum wage and require more employers to allow workers to earn sick days rallied at the State House last July.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff/file

Supporters of proposed ballot initiatives to raise the state’s minimum wage and require more employers to allow workers to earn sick days rallied at the State House last July.

If labor leaders were to march in front of the State House this year, their chant might go something like this: “Two! Four! Six! Eight! We’ve got a lot to celebrate!”

Among the victories unions are savoring: the highest minimum wage in the nation, new workplace protections for state employees, a bill of rights for housekeepers and other domestic workers, limits on nurse-to-patient ratios in intensive care units, and, nearing passage, a $1 billion expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

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The union score card is filled not just with bills they helped to pass, but also those they helped to sink: an increase in the number of charter schools in Boston and other cities, and changes in unemployment benefits sought by business groups.

“I’ve been at this 25 years, and I’ve never seen them this strong,” said Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which unsuccessfully fought for a lower teen wage during the minimum-wage debate.“I can’t remember a time when they were sweeping everything.”

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The win streak marks a return to power for a traditional cornerstone of the Democratic coalition whose leaders were howling in protest only a few years ago, as their allies in the Legislature curbed bargaining rights for municipal employees, raised the retirement age for state workers, and expanded charter schools.

For unions, the nadir came in April 2011 when House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to curtail the ability of police officers, teachers, and other local workers to bargain over health insurance, saying the change would save tens of millions of dollars for financially strapped cities and towns.

Robert J. Haynes, who was then president of the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts, was so irate that he stood outside the doors of the House and declared that the long-running friendship between Democratic legislators and state labor leaders was over.

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“It’s a done deal for our relationship with the people inside that chamber,” he fumed.

But over the next three years, labor would find a path back to political power through changes in leadership and strategy.

Several months after Haynes’s outburst, he retired and was replaced by a popular inside player on Beacon Hill, former state senator Steven A. Tolman.

Lawmakers say Tolman’s close ties to House and Senate members helped heal relationships that had frayed from Haynes’s frequent threats to oust legislators who opposed the AFL-CIO.

“People who want to burn the barn down and operate in it are at cross-purposes, and you get more with understanding and cooperation on some issues,” said Senate Ways and Means chairman Stephen M. Brewer, who called Tolman “a well-respected and well-loved member of the Senate.”

As the economy recovered but wages remained stagnant, legislators who had focused on cutting and cost-saving during the recession became more willing to expand benefits, Brewer said. The election last year of Martin J. Walsh, a labor leader and former state representative, as mayor of Boston, added to the sense of growing clout.

This year, unions pushed to the forefront two major bills designed to tap into the broadening national interest in income inequality: one measure would grant basic rights, such as meal and rest breaks, to 67,000 housekeepers, nannies, and other domestic workers; the other would increase the minimum wage from $8 to $11 an hour by 2017.

Those issues, labor leaders say, mobilized religious groups and neighborhood activists, not just the blue-collar trades that form the historic backbone of the labor movement.

As part of a more muscular strategy, labor leaders also threatened to place the minimum wage increase on the November ballot, giving them added leverage to force legislators to negotiate. Additional pressure came from President Obama, who made raising the minimum wage a centerpiece of his second-term agenda.

Last month, Governor Deval Patrick signed the state minimum wage hike into law, and the unions withdrew the ballot question. This month, the governor signed the domestic workers’ bill.

“What we gained, we developed by working in a coalition, and knowing we can’t do it alone as big labor,” Tolman said.

Left-leaning states and communities across the country have also approved union-backed wage and benefit increases. California, for example, raised its wage floor to $10 an hour by 2016, and Connecticut required companies to give employees paid time off if they get sick. Those laws are a response to federal inaction on income inequality, said John Schmitt, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank in Washington that receives some union funding.

But in other states, the changes have been limited to one or two pieces of legislation.

“What is striking,” Schmitt said, “is the success in Massachusetts on a number of different angles.”

Business groups in Massachusetts say they are frustrated with how much influence unions have gained. Hurst said many lawmakers told him they would support a lower minimum wage for teen workers. But when the bill hit the floor and labor leaders voiced their opposition, the proposal went nowhere.

“Good public policy . . . was snuffed out by the political pressure of the unions,” he said.

Business groups also fought to lower the cost of unemployment benefits by increasing work and wage requirements, and reducing the duration of benefits from 30 weeks to 26 weeks, in line with most other states.

But the building trades’ unions mobilized their members to oppose the changes, and they were not included in a final bill that Patrick signed last month making more modest changes to the unemployment system.

“There’s no question the unions are able to organize their side much more effectively,” said Bill Vernon, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “Given the political realities, you find yourself on the defensive end.”

The final show of union force came this month when the Senate voted down a bill expanding charter schools that had passed the House. That measure was strongly opposed by teachers unions, whose members lobbied senators to oppose the bill.

One big question remains: Will unions be as successful this fall when voters, not legislators, will decide whether to repeal the state casino law, which labor worked hard to pass. Union leaders will be fighting that ballot question while separately promoting another that would allow workers to earn up to 40 hours a year in paid sick time.

“We’ve got a lot of work still to do,” Tolman said, but he added: “My members like the feel of winning.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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