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joan vennochi

Politicians still seek the labor vote

Just before Democrats convened in Springfield last week, local union leaders held their traditional breakfast rally. This year, the main purpose was to fire up the troops for Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat who is challenging Republican Senator Scott Brown.

“We’re in a fight for our lives,” Lou Mandarini Jr., the secretary-treasurer of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, told a packed ballroom. “It’s a fight for survival.”

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Warren, said Mandarini, “is one of us.” Then, referring to Brown, the pickup-truck-driving politician who cultivates an Average Joe persona, Mandarini added, “The ‘Regular Guy’ is killing us. If we give him six more years, shame on us.”

The big-picture battle for survival that Mandarini addressed so passionately looks even more dire now, after labor failed to oust Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker from office. Walker cut collective bargaining rights for most public workers and lived to fight another day. With his triumph, the political ground shifts. But how much?

Don’t count labor’s political influence out just yet. In the Massachusetts Senate race, at least, both sides want the votes of union members. But the Democratic and Republican camps are both recalibrating how to secure them.

Democrats are still seeking union support overtly. But post-Wisconsin, they don’t want to alienate voters who view unions as greedy protectors of perks and benefits that are bankrolled by taxpayers. Republicans are happy to tap into anti-union sentiment. But post-Wisconsin, they don’t want to alienate modern-day “Reagan Democrats” who make up the union rank and file membership.

Before the recall vote, President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney kept their distance from the battle. Not wanting to look too cozy with labor, Obama tweeted some tepid words of support right before the vote. After Walker prevailed, Romney declared it a new day. But labor leaders are still with Obama, even if they’re miffed at his arms-length shout-out. Romney, who is already dealing with angry union auto workers in Michigan, will try not to anger any more union members. Instead, he will woo them with a promise of jobs and a strong economy under a Republican president.

Post-Wisconsin, what happens next in traditionally labor-friendly states like Massachusetts is another test for union clout.

Labor leaders backed Martha Coakley in 2010, but Brown won at least half the rank and file labor vote. In part, the leaders were lazy. They were used to having Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry in their corner and never thought they would lose to Brown. Beyond endorsing Coakley, labor leaders didn’t engage much in the race. That left the average union member to vote on style, not issues; some Democrats say privately that sexism was also part of Coakley’s downfall.

Brown’s union supporters were shocked when the new senator demanded to be seated earlier than planned, so he could block the confirmation of a pro-labor nominee for the National Labor Relations Board. Since then, Brown’s voting record has earned him a 23 percent rating on the AFL-CIO scorecard. In April, he voted for a motion meant to block an NLRB regulation that would help speed up labor elections. The measure failed, but unions noticed where Brown stood on that and a series of other anti-labor votes.

On paper, Brown’s voting record should be enough to bring labor home to Warren.

The Harvard professor and consumer advocate courted labor from the start. She made her first major public speech at the Greater Boston Labor Council’s Labor Day breakfast and when she introduced herself to Massachusetts voters, she mentioned family members who have held union jobs.

Yet even in Massachusetts, and even before the Wisconsin recall vote, Warren’s passion for labor’s causes had her searching for the sweet spot between union love and public sentiment for reining in union benefits.

The tension was apparent after she criticized a law championed by Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas M. Menino, which curbs some rights of teachers, firefighters, and other municipal employees to bargain over health care. On the stump, she said the law, signed last year, was responsible for “undercutting collective bargaining rights” at the expense of families. She soon retreated to a position more in line with the state’s top Democrats, and her campaign said she misunderstood the question.

In Springfield at the AFL-CIO breakfast, the crowd cheered when Warren declared that unions “built the American middle class.” She blamed Republicans for taking the country in “a different direction”, which she described as “I got mine . . . The rest of you are on your own.” Republicans are wrong, she said, to attack pensions, labor, and working people.

“We’re here to fight back,” she told them, adding that she isn’t scared by Republican attacks because “I’ve got you. Right here, right now, we are ready to make a stand!”

After the Wisconsin vote, the Warren campaign said the candidate had no time to address its larger meaning. A campaign spokeswoman instead offered this statement: “Elizabeth is focused on the concerns of voters in Massachusetts and the votes of Scott Brown in Washington, D.C. She is very proud of the support she’s received from hard-working union members who do their jobs every day and just expect to be treated fairly by their employers. Scott Brown has turned his back on these workers.”

Like Warren, Brown has had little to say about Wisconsin. They both want and need labor votes in the fall.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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