Democrats' labor problem

Posted: Jul 22, 2004 12:00 AM

BOSTON -- Thomas M. Menino usually is a happy warrior who has loved being mayor of Boston for the past 11 years, but he is plainly irritated these days. He is furious with the local police union. He is contemptuous of Democratic leaders around the country who worship at the altar of organized labor. And he is even peeved at his longtime comrade in the Massachusetts political wars, John Kerry.

 Mayor Menino caught the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association napping Monday when a state commission forced through an expedited arbitration procedure that will settle a long-pending contract dispute just in time for the Democratic National Convention's opening Monday. However, the threat is not gone. Police union leaders are so angry that they vow to send protesters to the Fleet Center. Calling the arbitration a "political bag job," union president Thomas Nee said: "We're absolutely going to protest, now more than ever." His call for volunteer protesters from "around the country" deepens the problem for Democratic politicians who devoutly observe labor picket lines.

 An aide refers to Menino as "the last of the lunch pail Democrats," but that has not stopped him from crossing many union picket lines over the years in order to go about his business. He realizes that only a small portion of today's working men and women belong to labor unions, and not all those members take orders from their union leaders by any means. Nevertheless, to most Democrats, the link between the party and organized labor is sacred and indissoluble.

 Tom Menino, no conservative, is a firm ally and admirer of the state's senior senator, Edward M. Kennedy. Boston's first Italo-American mayor (following a long succession of Irishmen) opposes private school choice and complains that George W. Bush as president has crippled urban programs begun by Bill Clinton. But he has publicly called Sen. Kerry's campaign "small-minded" and "incompetent" and feels that he will be elected as the next president in spite of himself.

 Kerry's refusal to walk past police pickets when Menino addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston last week still rankles the mayor. He was not alone. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is known to have minimum regard for Kerry, and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose enthusiastic support in a swing state may be needed by the Democratic candidate, both felt Kerry blundered in honoring the picket line. Mayors who have to deal with government unions on a daily basis may have a more realistic view of labor than senators and state party chairmen.

 Art Torres, the California Democratic chairman whose intemperate comments last year helped elect Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, has announced he will walk out of the convention when Menino delivers his welcoming address and the California delegation will not attend the mayor's party. Ohio Chairman Dennis White, who was running a truck freight company in Columbus when he took over the state party two years ago, has taken the same position as Torres.

 What particularly upsets Menino is that Kerry, Torres, White and other assorted Democrats are taking sides against him on behalf of a labor organization whose political loyalties are at least unclear. The Boston police union supported the elder George Bush against then Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for president in 1988, and the mayor contends it has backed Republicans more than Democrats at the local level. While Menino's suspicion of Republican inspiration for the current crisis seems doubtful, there is no question that the union timed the trouble to coincide with the Democratic convention.

 This situation transcends Boston and even the party's national convention. With the dalliance between the Bush White House and James Hoffa's Teamsters now ended in mutual recriminations, labor unions have affirmed their commitment to the Democratic Party. In reciprocation, the party leaders tend to take an uncritical view of organized labor's demands.

 Surely none of the police union's protesters will still be around when John Kerry arrives at the Fleet Center to accept the nomination. But before that event, disrespect will be shown the host mayor of Boston because of the Democratic Party's credo that whatever labor wants, labor gets.