State Rep. Daniel Cullinane didn't name names when he publicly condemned the rhetoric of the one of the state's most powerful labor organizations as "bluster and B.S.," but practically everyone crammed into a State House hearing room knew the Dorchester Democrat was talking about AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman.
Cullinane's remarks earlier this month were widely seen by State House watchers as a rebuke of the labor leader's attacks on long-time House Speaker Robert DeLeo and what's seen as the House's wanting track record on key portions of the labor legislative agenda.
While testifying before the Labor Committee on a wage theft bill, Cullinane, who has a very pro-labor voting record and is the son of a Boston union leader, criticized "the irresponsible and deliberately false rhetoric of some in labor, who on more than one occasion, and far too frequently, chose to attack and slander legislators, legislative leaders and branches of government."
Tolman, a former state senator from Boston, has criticized DeLeo in the past. Last year,according to MassLive, Tolman told a Labor Day Breakfast crowd that the Speaker was "no friend" of labor.
"The issue on the table here is of wage theft. It's far too important of an issue to the workers and to the Massachusetts economy to be left to the usual bluster and B.S. of those who only seek to yell and scream and name-call at rallies when the cameras are on and from the steps of the State House," Cullinane said, an apparent reference to Tolman's panache for passionate and pointed interjection during public events.
Conflict aside, the labor lobby could see a major win later this summer when the House takes up a bill to strengthen organized labor unions knocked back on their heels by the U.S. Supreme Court's Janus v. AFSCME decision which stopped unions from charging fees to workers that declined to take part in union activities, limiting revenue for organized labor. The bill to be voted on by the House, which under DeLeo means almost guaranteed passage by a wide margin, would allow unions to charge for legal aid provided by the union in arbitration cases.
The rift between Tolman and putatively labor-friendly House Democrats is one of several conflicts this year that threaten to undermine legislative initiatives on school funding, wage theft and union representation that labor wants to see pass both chambers.
"That's one person of 160's view," Tolman told WGBH News in response to Cullinane's testimony, referencing the total number of House members.
"People are entitled to their views. I'm working my heart out to get wage theft passed," Tolman said, adding that he and other labor leaders "certainly hope Bob DeLeo and Cullinane are with us on this issue."
"We're working with a lot of legislators and there's a lot of talent in that building," Tolman said of lawmakers.
The wage theft bill was the subject of the hearing where Cullinane made his remarks. It would make general contractors liable for wages illegally withheld by subcontractors, putting large construction companies on the hook for abusive practices by smaller independent companies they've hired to complete work. It's a major priority for labor on Beacon Hill, one that unanimously passed the Senate last year but did not have similar support in DeLeo's House.
Stonehill College dean and political scientist Peter Ubertaccio said many House Democrats split loyalty between labor and institutional leadership.
"The speaker has a lot of respect among many members of the House and they have a lot of loyalty to him and don't take kindly to attacks against him that they view as counterproductive," Ubertaccio said.
Rep. Peter Capano, a first-term member from Lynn, worked alongside Tolman as a labor leader before being elected to the House. Capano said that personalities can clash over the years and lead to rough relations.
"You know, it's a roller coaster sometimes. They don't always agree on some things and tactics are something that you might not agree on either," Capano said.
Several other House members who spoke to WGBH News expressed a desire to see the conflict between Tolman and DeLeo calm down and for the labor leader to hold back on what House members say are counterproductive to accomplishing labor's goals.
"[Labor's] influence is not quite what it was decades ago and there are many other voices in the Democratic coalition, including those that take a somewhat dim view of labor and its tactics," Ubertaccio said.
This isn't the first hot flash of the cold war between DeLeo's House and leading labor organizations. DeLeo accused teachers' unions this month of "juvenile tactics," according to the State House News Service, after union leaders posted a photo from a rally on Boston Common that DeLeo interpreted as insulting his Education Committee Chair Rep. Alice Peisch. The Facebook photo featured three teachers union leaders gripping strands of pearls, jewelry Peisch often wears. The photo's caption read "Alice Peisch, let go of the wealth and #FundOurFuture." Piesch, who represents the wealthy town of Wellesley, is DeLeo's point-person for writing a new formula for funding local education, which many activists say currently benefits the richest towns.
Earlier this year, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 announced that it will withhold all direct political donations for Beacon Hill lawmakers until further notice and will push for more primary challenges of "safe" Democratic members. "For too long, House members in particular have taken labor support for granted. It's time they felt the pinch our working families feel from being ignored by the Beacon Hill elite," IBEW Local 103 Business Manager Louis Antonellis wrote at the time.
Likewise, the AFL-CIO limited their political endorsements in the 2018 election to current card-carrying union members and did not endorse Cullinane in his close primary election. Tolman said a letter he wrote to each legislator explained the endorsement blackout was the AFL-CIO's reaction to the wage theft and Janus bills failing to pass the House in the previous legislative session.
"My board unanimously... took a position not to endorse any House members because our legislation sat in the house, very important bills. That wasn't an individual's decision. That was a unanimous board decision," Tolman said.
Rep. Paul Brodeur, DeLeo's chairman of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, defended the House's record on helping workers, saying they've passed legislation protecting pregnant workers, shielding tech workers from onerous non-compete agreements, defending locked-out National Grid utility workers and creating a new paid-leave system while increasing the minimum wage.
"I hope that this session we can use our momentum to advance the interests of our constituents and all the working people of Massachusetts. We continue to solicit feedback from stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and are eager to create new partnerships with anyone interested in contributing to our ongoing dialogue," Brodeur wrote in an email to WGBH News.
Cullinane also wants lawmakers to approve an expansion of the state attorney general's office's authority and ability to investigate claims of wage theft. Cullinane accused labor leaders of not working hard enough with lawmakers to reach a compromise within the House. Under DeLeo's ten years as Speaker, he has required nearly unanimous support from House members and stakeholders behind the scenes before bringing votes to the floor.
"This is the time for leaders of umbrella organizations to pick up the phone and meet with legislators individually. To do the work personally of building consensus, not by delivering ultimatums from a distance but by doing the real work.," Cullinane said.
Tolman said his letter to lawmakers about not endorsing them stated that the AFL-CIO wants to work with the House if they want to work with the AFL-CIO on wage theft and a response to the Janus decision.
"And that's what we're supposed to do between an advocacy group for working people and the Legislature." Tolman said.
Capano, the former former labor leader who now represents Lynn in the House, is hopeful the labor agenda will proceed this session in the House.
"If they have some kind of beef, with him and the Speaker or President Tolman, I think there's nothing there that they can't work out," Capano said.