Deval’s dance with labor

Unions spent more to help get Deval Patrick elected than he did. But does that mean he’s in their pocket?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 13, 2006

One of the most revealing currents political observers will soon be watching is how Governor Deval Patrick deals with organized labor. Most unions were in Attorney General Tom Reilly’s back pocket, more or less, until Patrick won the Democratic primary on September 19. After that, however, unions spent more on Patrick’s candidacy than the Patrick campaign itself did.

Four labor unions — primarily representing teachers, health-care workers, and nurses — spent nearly $3.5 million on “independent expenditures” promoting Patrick, between the primary and the November 7 general election. That doesn’t even count committee and individual union-member donations made to Patrick, Tim Murray, and the state Democratic Party, or the many volunteer hours they spent getting their candidates elected. Yet during that same time, Patrick’s campaign spent only $3.1 million.

Independent expenditures allow Massachusetts groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of — or in opposition to — candidates, as long as the effort is not coordinated with official campaigns. Along these lines, the Massachusetts Teachers Association mounted a massive television-ad campaign that cost more than $2 million. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 1999, which represents thousands of health-care workers in the state, bought $400,000 in radio ads and spent another $300,000 on mailings. Another $150,000 in radio ads were bought by Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Given this enormous effort, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether these unions, and their interests, will hold undue sway over Patrick’s policies and appointments. Or whether, as Kerry Healey claimed, Patrick hasmade “quid pro quo” promises to unions in exchange for their support.

“The open question is, because so much money and so much effort was put forward by the unions, how far can he stray from them?” says Jim Sturgeon, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a local conservative think-tank.

But there is another possible explanation for labor’s strong support. Perhaps organizers spent heavily on Patrick because they found themselves so far outside his sphere of influence. By the time many of the unions came on board, after all, Patrick was not only the Democratic nominee, he was also holding a massive lead in the polls.

And given his landslide victory, the support they gave him late in the game probably made little difference. In fact, it may have made it politically harder for Patrick to do their bidding, because all eyes will be watching for evidence of quid pro quos. So, where does that leave their relationship?

With so many unknowns about Patrick’s governing style and priorities, observers on all sides are actively looking for signs. Those who believe that unions have stood in the way of progress and reform are quick to see capitulation in Patrick’severy move. And labor leaders, for their part, are quick to see themselves cut out of the inner circle.

There is no question that after 16 years of anti-labor governors — beginning with Bill Weld’s fetish for privatization and ending with Mitt Romney’s attacks on the civil service — this administration will be far friendlier to unions. But what that means is anyone’s guess.

Late to the party?
Patrick was not the first choice for most of the state’s labor organizations. Indeed, little in his history suggests strong pro-labor sympathy. And he has spent much of his career on corporate boards, and as Coca-Cola’s general counsel — places that are not usually home to unions’ biggest allies.

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Related: Corporate accountability, Reilly should exit - side, Menino’s hit list, More more >
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