For Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, candidate for governor, labor matters.
Lynch has been courting unions and other progressive types in the run up to the Democratic primary in September, hoping to carve out space to the left of rival Frank T. Caprio.
And if he wins the party’s nomination, Lynch will have to face Republican-turned-independent Lincoln Chafee, who can make a more than credible bid for the support of labor.
So eyebrows arched, a couple of weeks back, when Lynch said during a gubernatorial debate that he opposed a bill designed to give new life to Deepwater Wind’s plans for a 110-turbine wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island.
The wind farm, which could mean hundreds of jobs here, nearly ran aground in March when the state’s Public Utility Commission dealt a major blow to an eight-turbine demonstration project that is to serve as precursor for the larger farm.
The PUC found that Deepwater’s proposed sale price for energy from the small wind farm would place an undue burden on Rhode Island ratepayers.
Deepwater and its allies argued that the commission did not give enough weight to the environmental benefits of the project or the long-term price stability it might provide.
And a bill authored by State Senator V. Susan Sosnowski aims to fix the problem by allowing Deepwater Wind to circumvent the PUC and win approval from four other state agencies.
Lynch, while supportive of the wind farm, came out in opposition to the bill, arguing that it would set a bad precedent by allowing a single company to subvert the regulatory process.
And he has company: good-government groups like Common Cause and even environmentalist organizations in favor of the wind farm, like the Conservation Law Foundation, have voiced objections to the bill.
Lynch, moreover, argues that high electricity rates could damage Rhode Island’s economy at a particularly vulnerable moment. “From a jobs perspective, it might sadly be a loser for Rhode Island,” he says.
But George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, says the attorney general’s position on the bill is “extremely disappointing” given what the wind farm could mean for the state. “In a lot of people’s eyes, this is a key component for the economic future of Rhode Island,” he says.
Indeed, the wind farm is that rare project that has the backing of labor and business, the Republican governor and Democratic legislature — all of whom view green jobs as an important part of Rhode Island’s return to economic health. And Lynch’s position on the bill, whatever its merits, seems to have placed a ceiling on his level of union support.
But the attorney general, in truth, never had a clear path to wide-ranging labor endorsements. Union leaders say the attorney general was slow to push for ramped-up enforcement of the state’s “prevailing wage” law, which requires contractors on publicly funded projects to pay tradesmen the prevailing wage for the area.
And union leaders say Lynch has not pressed hard enough to crack down on companies classifying workers as contractors, rather than full employees, in order to cut costs.
Lynch insists he has been a leader on both issues and points to a bill he offered up in March that would allow for stepped-up enforcement of prevailing wage and classification laws.
The campaign also voices confidence that Lynch will garner the majority of labor support as the race wears on. And he has already secured an endorsement from one key union: the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 328.
But building on that support, it seems, will take some serious fence-mending.