News & Events

The candidates and the unions

By Scot Lehigh, Globe Columnist  |  November 25, 2009

IN EVERY important campaign, Massachusetts Democrats vie for union endorsements. But have you ever wondered what they promise in pursuit of the union imprimatur?

I recently asked the four Democratic candidates running to succeed Ted Kennedy to provide the questionnaires they had completed for labor unions. Alan Khazei and Steve Pagliuca did so. Through their campaigns, Martha Coakley and Mike Capuano said they were respecting union requests that their questionnaires be kept confidential.

What? Candidates for public office filling out questionnaires they won’t make public? Egad! Let’s start by giving Khazei and Pagliuca credit – and Coakley and Capuano demerits – for their attitudes toward transparency. That said, Coakley and Capuano did furnish answers when I emailed them 30 queries taken from the labor questionnaires.

Say this for the unions: They get down into the weeds.

“If elected,’’ asks the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, “will you drive a UAW (or other American union) made car and encourage your staff to drive cars made by American union members?’’

Martha Coakley: Yes.

Mike Capuano: Yes.

Alan Khazei: Yes, when he finally trades in his 1994 Toyota Corolla.

Steve Pagliuca: Yes.

Based on the outsiders’ questionnaires and insiders’ responses to my questions, any of the candidates would be a reliable supporter of union priorities. That’s certainly appropriate in those frequent instances where the union interest and the public interest coincide.

When those interests diverge, however, as they occasionally do, one hopes to see some independence of mind.

Take education. President Obama supports merit pay and has called for the elimination of laws that forbid the use of student achievement data to evaluate teachers and principals.

But the National Education Association opposes tying teachers pay, in whole or part, to student achievement or test scores. Sadly, Coakley, Capuano, and Pagliuca all fell squarely in line with the union.

Khazei, by contrast, opposed the NEA position, noting that “teachers should be able to earn additional compensation for demonstrated impact on student achievement.’’

Noting that it supports charter schools that “guarantee education employees the same rights as education employees at noncharter public schools’’ and have the same accountability requirements, the NEA also asked whether the candidates supported or opposed that stand.

Coakley signed onto the NEA position without reservation; Capuano, who also supported the NEA’s position, said he “supports innovation’’ – but then listed a number of oft-made anticharter arguments.

Although Pagliuca signaled his support for the NEA’s position, he noted that he was a strong backer of charters and stipulated that efforts to regulate them should not “stifle innovation and creativity.’’

Khazei didn’t signal support or opposition for the NEA’s position but said in elaborative comments that because charter schools are meant to innovate, “it’s counterproductive to dictate how these schools could be structured.’’

One priority for the AFL-CIO is the Employee Free Choice Act. Among other things, that legislation would let a union be officially recognized when a majority of workers sign a union authorization card. Currently, employers can insist on a secret election. Although its declared goal is to insulate unionizing efforts from employer pressure, the legislation could also open the door to pressure by union organizers.

All four candidates said they support the legislation, which also requires arbitration if a firm fails to reach an agreement with a newly authorized union. Although his questionnaire doesn’t say it, Pagliuca would support the bill only if it doesn’t include card check, a stand he made clear at a recent labor event.

In a Q&A session at the Globe last week, Khazei said that he thought there would be a compromise that retained secret ballot elections, but that he had supported the legislation “as a way of sending a message of support for the labor movement.’’ Hmmm. It would have been more forthright to make that clear on the questionnaire.

All four candidates told the AFL-CIO they supported project labor agreements on federal projects.

Those agreements, which make it very hard for nonunion construction firms to win work on federal projects, are dubious policy, particuarly for a prospective senator from Massachusetts, where most construction workers are not unionized.

The candidates all also declared their opposition to privatizing services now performed by the government, a stand that ignores the potential for saving taxpayer dollars.

Overall, Khazei was somewhat more willing to disagree with union positions, Pagliuca to take a wait-and-see approach. Coakley and Capuano more often gave union priorities a wholehearted embrace.

Regardless of whether you’re seeking some independence of mind in your next senator or looking for someone who will plight his or her troth to labor, that’s something worth knowing.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at