LESSONS FROM LAST NIGHT’s BOSTON CITY PRIMARY

St.-Guillen-Mejia

The lessons that I find in last night’s results should unsettle those of us who see the issues differently from the coming majority. So what are these ?

( 1 ) Labor-oriented candidates lost to social justice and climate crisis folks. That much is clear. But there’s much more to the lesson than this. Ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s day, and to some extent before that, labor unions and government worked together to build  new, fairer America with securer jobs and higher wages, government aid, and stronger infrastructure. The GI Bill of Rights after World War II put millions through school and financed the purchase of homes. This partnership of labor and government found political expression in the Democratic party, and at times it fueled the Republican party as well. It was an immense social movement that fully engaged the immigrants, of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Slavic stocks, in big cities all across the nation. The partnership has continued down almost to our own day.

Yet this major social and political movement has been losing force for some time. The new Boston has been  created in large part by people from elsewhere in America who come here for school and stay to work and innovate. They don’t share the immigrant traditions of “old Boston,” and they aren’t labor union kids. They’re independent minded, or they work in offices, and they draw salaries, not wages. Many are professionals — doctors, lawyers, architects, financial advisers — who work for themselves or in contract partnerships. These voters are building a political movement entirely different from the partnership of big labor and government.

( 2 ) the new workplace isn’t only a place to make money. It’s filled with moral dictates. Notices are posted, on walls or in employee handbooks, or in company mission statements, to the effect that “we are an equal opportunity employer.” In these office-work organizations, “sensitivity training” is now mandatory, in which workers are taught — required — to respect everybody’s sexual orientation, skin color, national origin, faith, disability, etc. Breach of these dictates can result in termination. The same is true for accusations of sexual harassment — a term interpreted a s broadly as possible. After all, no firm or organization wants to be known on social media as a place of “rape culture” or of “hate.”

Nothing could be more unlike the customs of workplaces in which labor unions s were formed or in which their members do a job.

( 3 ) the new workplace of dictated — preached — morality is not something new. It has been done before. In the major economic expansion that took place in Europe during the  century from 1050 to 1150, the upsurge of commercial guilds and the creation of an apprenticeship workforce was spurred by a religious revival that led to the most important reform the Papacy has ever undergone. A similar religious renewal accompanied the Industrial revolution. It was the merchant aristocracy of the North that funded Abolition of slavery and sent its sons to the Union Army, often to die, in pursuit of a moral mission. (famously, among others, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Robert Gould Shaw, of the 54th Massachusetts and the Beacon Street Shaw family.) 

( 4 ) This new movement, of commercially-based moral idealism gains strength also from the population movements accompanying it. As students from away move into Boston and stay to work, so immigrants come into our City and, as immigrants do, join the trend for job and social reasons. Most unions in the City are closed to immigrants because it’s hard to get a union job, most of which are spoken for years in advance if not decades. Thus most immigrants go to non-union jobs no matter what their skills level. (In the past two decades they’ve also fueled powerful, new unions. Notably, these new unions — Service Employees International Union and Local 26 Hotel & Hospitality Workers –have ast tended to link with the business-moralism model rather than with the old Labor Union & Government coalition. In the City primary they backed the candidates who did best, both city-wide and in some District races.) In addition, as most unions have been slow to add African-American members, for that same reason — jobs long spoken for — and as City Hall has long been staffed by the descendants of the Labor Union – Government partnership era, most of the City’s African Americans have joined the new movement of commercial moralism.

( 5 ) residents of Boston don’t just stay in the city. They move out, to the suburbs, usually in search of schools systems they have more confidence in. 40 years ago the descendants of Irish, Italian, Jewish and (some) Slavic immigrants dominated all Boston. Today, immigrants from the Caribbean, Hispanic nations, Viet Nam, the Maghreb and the Middle East, Nigeria and Albania have moved in, even as the City’s Irish, Italian, Jewish, and African-American descendants have moved away. The demographic foundations of labor Union – City Hall partnership are no longer the majority, not even close.

All of the above ranks highly in why last Alejandra St Guillen, Julia Mejia, and Michelle Wu topped labor-backed, native Bostonian Erin Murphy and David Halbert beat out Boston-born Marty Keogh city-wide and why Ricardo Arroyo edged out Maria Esdale Farrell in the District Five primary. (Different dynamics drove the result in the District Eight contest, where both the top two finishers voiced the commercial moralism theme, albeit differently from each other.) 

We can expect more of the same. This movement last year placed Ayanna Pressley atop Mike Capuano and Rachel Rollins over Greg Henning. It will not be denied.

By the way ; this movement is not by any means socialist as the Trump folks think, nor is it uniformly Democratic, as its leaders want it to be. Governor Baker last year won 49.3 percent of Boston’s vote — 65 percent in the Downtown neighborhoods where mostly new Bostonians live — and close to 40 percent of its voters of color, the same voters who gave Rachel Rollins and Ayanna Pressley 75 percent support. (Baker also had the support of the Unite Here, Hotel & Hospitality workers and benevolent neutrality from SEIU locals.) It’s a business-oriented, salaried, free-wheeling and socially directed generation that behaves like an institutional establishment, which is not surprising, because many of its people are as institutional as it gets in their thinking and connections. 

These are the lessons that i draw from last night’s results. I am personally not thrilled by it; my world is that of the labor Union partnership with government, of public service jobs and workplaces physical and constructing. I like big skyscrapers. I love the sight of rodmen walking steel beams. I like the noise and odor of factories. Suffolk Construction is the sort of firm I would love to have worked for — if I weren’t a journalist. I wanted the 2024 Olympics here. I like to see city hall guys out working a poll on election day. You are heroes all, a great bunch to down a frosty or two with after winning an election.

I also don’t like to be preached to by moralists, commercial or otherwise.

Yet I recognize that my world is passing from the scene, as are our pubs and taverns, and me soon with it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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