Joan Vennochi

That old, angry union rhetoric

If labor groups want to make progress, they need an image makeover

(Istockphoto/Globe Staff illustration)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / April 17, 2011

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WHERE ARE Stacy and Clinton from “What Not to Wear’’? Organized labor desperately needs a makeover.

All the classic accessories were on display at last week’s union rally in downtown Boston: Burly guys in sweatshirts hoisted “Solidarity’’ signs. The song “We’re Not Gonna Take It’’ thumped in the background. Cigarette smoke and angry rhetoric filled the air.

“We’re going to hold those sons of bitches accountable,’’ bellowed Rich Rogers, executive secretary of the Greater Boston Labor Council. This time, labor’s ire was directed at State Street Corp., which confirmed that it expects to receive a federal tax refund of $855 million for 2010 — even though this Boston-based recipient of a $2 billion taxpayer bailout reported a $1.6 billion profit last year.

That really is outrageous. But watching the usual suspects take on the injustice of it all in their usual fashion felt a lot like watching Snooki in “Jersey Shore.’’ Stereotypes make entertaining TV, but they don’t always get action or respect.

These rally attendees didn’t. According to a press release, the gathering was supposed to take place at 1 International Place, directly outside the office towers housing Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Deutsche Bank, and near the offices of State Street and Barclays. But because of a permitting issue, it moved away from the targets of protest and ended up in that sliver of still-unrealized potential that Boston calls the Greenway. Some people gazed curiously out of office windows and an occasional horn honked in support, but this was not your grandfather’s rousing union rally.

One Boston city councilor, Felix Arroyo, was in the crowd. US Representative Stephen Lynch, a longtime member of Iron Workers Local 7, sent regrets from Washington, where he and the rest of the Bay State delegation were voting on the federal budget. But Lynch was probably in no great rush to get to the kind of setting that embroiled US Representative Michael Capuano in controversy recently, when he urged union protesters to “get a little bloody.’’

Organizers said that they achieved their goal of attracting a broad coalition of community, religious, housing, and labor interests. The rally was not that big, acknowledged Mark Erlich, executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. But “it did bring public and private sector workers together, which is an interesting development,’’ he said the next day.

Erlich attributes that new spirit of cooperation to Wisconsin’s infamous move to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees. The fallout, he said, is “game-changing.’’

Yet, even in Massachusetts, the game is changing to the detriment of unions. On the same day that State Street reported its tax windfall, House Speaker Robert DeLeo set up a major fight with unions by proposing to strip local public employees of most of their rights to bargain over health care.

That is not what labor expects from Massachusetts Democrats, and the union response to DeLeo’s proposal was predictably hostile.

Union leaders — led by the ever-resentful Edward Kelly, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts — threatened to oust lawmakers who vote for the plan.

But if labor continues to play the role of spoiled child who throws a tantrum when things don’t go his way, it will be hard for the public to see the sympathetic side of the union story. It shows a blindness to how much debate has changed. The fact that DeLeo, a longtime union ally, sees political benefit in a proposal that enrages labor is as telling as it gets.

Unions have legitimate grievances. Somehow, blame for the country’s financial collapse has shifted from greedy CEOs to greedy public employees. Banks and corporations that contributed to the economic meltdown are off the hook, while public workers are losing jobs and benefits. Corporate profits are exploding. Meanwhile, financial institutions are still holding back on loans to small business, refusing to modify home loans in risk of foreclosure, and siphoning billions away from job creation and local economies through exorbitant executive pay.

How do you get that important message of unfairness to break through?

The old style isn’t working the way it used to.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at