Union electrical workers decry biotech greed

Conflict between the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  March 4, 2009

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When young nerds were told that they would one day boss around guys who pummeled them in grade school, consoling parents and teachers should also have warned their prodigies about labor unions. Only then might overachievers have understood that, no matter how much cash and power they accumulate, there will still be gangs of angry dudes who want to dunk their heads in toilet bowls.

While there have yet to be any incidents involving swirlies, the current conflict between the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MBC) lobbying group and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has certainly pitted economic and political muscle against what can best be described as high-stakes name-calling. And while the battle has been looming for years, the scuffle recently has moved into the nerd section of Greater Boston's proverbial cafeteria: Kendall Square.

In mid February, unions unveiled three billboards around Kendall to address what they describe as "biotech greed." With signs reading IT'S NOT GENETIC . . . IT'S CEO BEHAVIOR, the Local 103 IBEW expressed its dismay over biotech executives earning eight-figure state-subsidized salaries. This past Friday, about 50 workers rallied in front of MBC offices at One Cambridge Center to protest new biotech building projects in Framingham (Genzyme Corporation), Lexington (Shire Human Genetic Therapies), and Billerica (EMD Serono Inc.), where foremen are exclusively employing non-union electricians while nearly 30 percent of the IBEW is unemployed.

"We say that MBC stands for 'Massachusetts's Biggest Chiselers,' " said one IBEW member who held a sign reading BIOTECH PAY MAKES ME SICK!!! "This is hardly just a union issue," added Local 103 business agent Louis Antonellis. "There are a lot of people out there who aren't happy that these CEOs are making more than $30 million a year."

While union organizers hope to give a few black eyes with their "Stop Biotech Looting" campaign (stopbiotechlooting.org), they don't expect Beacon Hill honchos to impede biotech momentum. At the urging of the council this past July, Governor Deval Patrick signed a $1 billion life-science research bill to help fund biotech building projects, including those that Local 103 workers are now protesting. Workers will also have difficulty budgingthe influential Massachusetts Life Sciences Center — a local biotechnology cheerleader and industry-development force that was picketed by more than 120 IBEW members last Wednesday — since theagency was created by the legislature in 2006.

To understand the biotech lobby's arguably hypocritical, quasi-Hegelian power position here in Massachusetts, one needs to look no further than the rather vague response from MBC president and CEO Robert Coughlin — a former state representative — to Phoenix inquiries regarding union accusations: "The Life Science Initiative continues to be a widely supported initiative recognizing the state's need to invest in an industry that creates jobs in Massachusetts," Coughlin wrote in an e-mail. "Industry leaders that are under significant financial constraints must continue to remain competitive on an increasingly global stage."

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