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Usually amicable Baker keeps sparring with labor

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Governor Charlie Baker testified in support of the MBTA overhaul bill at the State House on May 11, 2015.
Governor Charlie Baker testified in support of the MBTA overhaul bill at the State House on May 11, 2015.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker has aggressively courted constituencies traditionally out of range for Republican politicians, but there is one longtime antagonist of GOP leaders with whom he is increasingly crossing swords: organized labor.

Having won election two years ago by the narrowest margin in a half-century, Baker has cultivated relationships in communities of color and among Democratic politicians at the state and municipal levels, hoping to expand his coalition before an expected reelection bid in two years.

But Baker has also begun picking fights with public-sector unions, opening up a multifront, headline-generating war with labor. The battles, say strategists in both parties, come with a healthy dose of political upside. But he has angered union leaders who say he is scoring political points at their expense.

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"I would say that Governor Baker seems to be at war with the public good, which includes the working people who sustain things like our public schools and the MBTA," said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Teachers' unions are actively campaigning against one of Baker's top priorities for the fall, a ballot measure that would allow the state to add up to 12 new charter schools each year.

Seven members of the Boston Carmen's Union were arrested last week after physically blocking the MBTA's money trucks — shortly before Baker's MBTA board turned over the agency's cash-counting operation to a private firm. And the union, the T's largest labor group, has protested a move to outsource maintenance and bus-driver jobs.

In August, MBTA janitors held a sit-in at Baker's office over the prospect of layoffs.

For Baker, the political pain of angering organized labor is outweighed by the chance to be viewed as championing a "reform agenda," advisers say.

"I don't think that there is a ton of sympathy in the electorate for the carmen's union, for example, or the janitors, who work for a private company, who come barreling at the governor and say, 'How dare you reform the T? Everything is fine here and we want to protect the status quo'," said James Conroy, Baker's 2014 campaign manager, who remains an outside adviser.

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"That's the same for the teachers union," added Conroy, who is also advising the pro-charter campaign.

Targeting public-sector unions and unpopular government agencies in the name of reform is a staple of many Republican governors' political strategy.

Bill Weld took highway maintenance jobs away from organized labor and, unsuccessfully, sought to end police traffic details at construction sites. Mitt Romney vetoed a minimum-wage increase and asserted greater control over the department overseeing the Big Dig after a tunnel ceiling collapse.

Baker has, to some extent, followed suit. After the T's historic dysfunction two winters ago, Baker successfully lobbied lawmakers for a three-year suspension of the "Pacheco Law," which makes it difficult to outsource state jobs. Unions were furious, accusing Democratic legislators of abandoning their allies.

Labor leaders think Baker is using Democrats' pliability to bolster his own standing at the expense of the working and middle classes.

"Who is going to stand up and say we need to invest in our community, in our state?" said AFL-CIO president Steven A. Tolman.

"I'm extremely disappointed in the way the governor is portraying my employees. He's basically scapegoating," said James O'Brien, president of the Boston Carmen's Union, last month, even before he joined several members in the arrest last week.

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"We want to fix the T. We're not opposed to reforms. We want to fix the T just like the governor wants to fix the T," OBrien said, adding that the T's woes lie heavily in the infrastructure's disrepair, not the performance of the employees.

People in Baker's inner circle say there is little political risk to the governor's combative stance, and that challenging unions that provide some of the state's most criticized public services carries with it some political benefit.

"He ran on cleaning things up and bringing CEO skills to the job to fix things, and part of that is not caving to the public-employee unions when they're in the way of fixing things," said a second adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.

Indeed, Baker turned to two former private-sector colleagues to push changes at both the T and the public education system. Paul Sagan, Baker's chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Brian Shortsleeve, chief administrator of the T, both came from General Catalyst Partners, the venture capital firm where Baker worked before his 2014 election.

"In this case, the governor is smart enough to have other people do the dirty work," Tolman said.

Baker has also built bridges to other unions. Last year, the administration negotiated a boost in the starting wage for personal care attendants with the Service Employees International Union Local 1199.

Earlier this year, in his State of the Commonwealth address, Baker thanked Peter MacKinnon, a top official from SEIU 509, which represents social workers — a rare shout-out from a GOP governor. Two months later, MacKinnon stood alongside Baker as the governor announced a new set of policies at the troubled Department of Children and Families.

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"I think it's a smart, calculated move by him to go after particular unions, not all unions, and he's smart to work with the SEIUs because they organize, they're engaged, and if you're good to them, they're good to you, unlike the others," a Democratic House leader said.

But, political watchers say, the conflicts are likely to spread as Beacon Hill continues to grapple with worsening budget woes. Facing a budget gap just a few months into the fiscal year, due to evidently flawed revenue projections, lawmakers expect Baker to use his executive authority to trim the state's bottom line.

Those cuts, which could threaten more layoffs, may create further problems with public-sector unions, a prospect that labor leaders find unappealing.


Jim O'Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.