Dot's IBEW Local 103 went ‘all-in’ for the ‘fresh message’ candidate

Above, on election night, Pressley was introduced by her staunch union ally, IBEW Local 103’s president Lou Antonellis.
State House News Service photo

This year’s 7th Congressional district race between incumbent Michael Capuano and challenger Ayanna Pressley saw the city’s labor unions divided over which candidate to support. Capuano earned endorsements from a wide array, including the city’s police and fire unions, Dot’s Laborer’s 223, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

But a handful of key groups sided with Pressley, notably Unite Here Local 26, the Boston-area hotel and food workers union, and IBEW Local 103, the Dorchester-based electricians’ union.

For its part, IBEW 103 played a prominent role in the winning campaign. After officially endorsing the city councillor back in April, the union ran TV and radio ads and publicized its support for Pressley on its high-profile electronic billboard that towers above the Southeast Expressway.

And on election night, the union’s business manager, Lou Antonellis, introduced Pressley on the Freeport Hall stage before she delivered her victory speech.

This week, Antonellis explained in an interview how the union’s role in Pressley’s historic campaign entailed more than just marketing.

“Phone calls, lit drops, door knocking, standouts with signs. When Local 103 endorses a candidate, it’s not just an empty endorsement like ‘Here, put our name on your literature.’ We go all in when we do an endorsement.”

The choice to support Pressley over Capuano came down to a desire to shake up what Antonellis sees as the “status quo,” the Democratic establishment that he believes has stagnated in recent years.

“We’ve endorsed Capuano in the past, and when we endorse someone, it’s not a lifetime endorsement. You don’t just get an endorsement and then we’re gonna endorse you for a hundred years. You know what I mean? Endorsements are earned, we feel.

“We are sick and tired of the status quo in Washington DC, and our feeling is if you’ve been in Washington for 20 years, you’re more part of the problem than you are the solution,” said Antonellis. “So it was nothing personal, it was just that we want some fresh voices and a fresh new message speaking for us in Washington, and Ayanna was that all day long.”

Not all union leaders agreed with Antonellis’s point. Earlier this month at the annual Labor Day Breakfast, a celebration of the city’s labor movement held the morning before election day, both Antonellis and Pressley could sense tension in the room as support lines were drawn.

“We got the cold shoulder from some,” said Antonellis, a 28-year veteran of the trade union local who earned his current role as business manager in a competitive election in 2017. He has served as president of Local 103 since 2014.

“Some were very receptive, and some weren’t so much, but it didn’t throw us off our game. Ayanna Pressley was our guest; we paid for our seat at those tables, you know; we can invite whoever we want to invite, and we were proud to have Ayanna come and sit with us for Labor Day breakfast. As many cold shoulders and hairy eyeballs that we got, she got just as many cheers, if not more than anybody else when she was announced.”

Moving forward, Antonellis said, Local 103 is embracing its role as a community activist, whether or not it draws criticism.

Related story: Pressley sees her victory as a 'mandate for hope'

“We’ve never shied away from our politics,” he said. “We didn’t ask anybody’s permission to endorse Ayanna Pressley, but when we did it, we took some of those folks aback a little bit. It was definitely bold. Some people snickered, and others said, ‘Wow, that’s really bold of Local 103, good for you guys.’ But we never had any doubt we were making the right decision.”

Looking through a more national scope, Antonellis said he senses that the Democratic party may be reaching its tipping point.

“I think, personally, that the Democratic establishment has taken labor for granted,” he said. “And you’re seeing this wave of new progressive Democrats getting elected because they’re sick and tired of the status quo, whether it’s the established Democrats or the Republican party or just Washington and politics in general. People have had it, people are sick and tired, and it’s nice to get a new face that actually makes you excited about voting and politics in America.

“We’re looking forward to getting on to the general election, and hopefully what’s happening here in Boston continues to happen around the country.”