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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Why the union-bashing?

After last April’s Marathon bombings, Bostonians love their first responders — at least until a state arbitrator awards a pay raise to Boston police that would begin to bring their salaries in line with those of Boston firefighters.

Like magic, that turns our beloved law enforcement heroes into selfish extortionists, willing to put their private bank accounts ahead of the city’s economic stability.

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Start with the premise that Boston police deserve a raise, but 25.4 percent over six years is too much for the city to bear. Administration officials say it adds up to $87 million — a big number. But if that’s too much for Boston to bear, why aren’t the string of tax breaks handed out to wealthy developers and corporations also too much for Boston to bear?

The Boston Redevelopment Authority just approved a $7.8 million tax break for Millennium Partners, the developer of the former Filene’s property. State Street Corp. got an $11.5 million tax break to construct an office building on the South Boston waterfront. And Vertex Pharmaceuticals got $12 million in tax breaks over seven years in exchange for moving from Cambridge and constructing a $1 billion headquarters on Fan Pier. To build a $300 million Back Bay office tower, Liberty Mutual got tax breaks and credits worth $46 million and still found it necessary to cut back on retirement plans and other employee benefits.

Those are just a few examples. Add up all the corporate tax breaks and Boston walks away from truckloads of revenue in the name of jobs and economic development. It’s money that could be used to pay police, firefighters, and teachers. But there’s no outrage over those giveaways and so far they’re not an issue in the race to become Boston’s next mayor.

No, the outrage is all about the police contract, the school bus driver strike, and candidate Martin J. Walsh’s ties to organized labor. Walsh, a former union construction worker and head of the Greater Boston Labor Council, has received at least $917,000 from union contributors. Voters have a right to question his loyalties and only he can put legitimate concerns to rest.

He has not fully owned up to the impact of the bill he filed as state representative that would make an arbitrator’s ruling final in a labor dispute. But given the traditionally strong connection between labor and virtually every Democratic politician in Massachusetts, the great indignation over Walsh’s union ties is a little overdone.

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Who was a bigger labor champion than the late Senator Ted Kennedy? And who bailed him out in 1994, when he faced a serious challenge from then newcomer Republican Mitt Romney? Laid-off union workers traveled from Indiana to Massachusetts to tell voters what happened after Romney’s Bain Capital took over the Ampad manufacturing plant. Their story helped turn the tide for Kennedy.

“I would not be here right now as a US senator without the AFL-CIO,” declared Ed Markey at Boston’s recent Labor Day breakfast. At that same event, Senator Elizabeth Warren told the cheering crowd, “You sent me to Washington to fight . . . There’s no one I’d rather fight shoulder to shoulder with than the people in this room.”

The people in the room were also Walsh supporters. When labor stands with Warren or Markey, its representatives are viewed as working people fighting for their rights. But in the context of this mayoral election, they are collectively seen as thugs and manipulators trying to grab more than they deserve from city coffers. Little distinction is made between private and public sector unions, and public sector union employees are automatically demonized as lazy, overpaid keepers of the status quo.

Unlike a US senator, the next mayor must negotiate a slew of city contracts and Boston has given away a lot over the years. As the city prepares to elect a new mayor, it’s fair to wonder if less rather than more hostility would help on both sides of the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, bowing to prevailing anti-union sentiment, both Walsh and rival John R. Connolly say police are asking for too much money.

When will someone say corporations and developers are also asking for too many tax breaks?

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

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