Union Politicking in the N.Y.C. Elections

Michael Hirsch

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 24, Winter 1998]

Michael Hirsch is on the New Politics editorial board.

WITH ALL THE TALK OF A RENOVATED LABOR MOVEMENT bringing a fresh breeze to the country, it smells like the same stale air in New York. City unions that are traditionally political players didn't put on a game face for Ruth Messinger, the doyenne of Manhattan liberal politics and the Democratic Party standard bearer in this fall's near-record low-turnout mayoral election. With almost every union leader falling into line behind the juggernaut of incumbent Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the phone banking, dollar contributions, and get-out-the-vote leg work that are keys to any liberal Democratic upsurge were invested instead in a failed bid to take the nation's only House race this year. There, in the Staten Island-Brooklyn 13th Congressional District race, labor-backed eight-term state assemblyman Eric Vitaliano, a "pro-life" and pro-death-penalty Democrat, attracted only one in three district voters. He did even worse in his effort to succeed retiring Republican star Susan Molinari than did the hapless Messinger in her failure to topple this most corporate-friendly mayor.

Two weeks before the election, Queens Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, the umbrella organization of city AFL-CIO affiliates, announced his federation was joining just about every other major union leader and some 40 elected Democratic Party officials in supporting Giuliani. Their backing went to an almost classic right winger who, in just four years, pared some $5 billion from school capital and operating funds, cut the housing capital budget 54 percent and gutted homeless services by 75 percent while boasting that forcing the poor out of the city through horrific welfare cuts was "not an unspoken part of our strategy. That is our strategy."

McLaughlin did more than grease the skids for the best-placed friend the financial, insurance and real estate sector has. While insisting he never personally "endorsed" the mayor, he clung to Giuliani at campaign stops during the race's final days and joined several other city union leaders on the podium with the mayor at election-night celebrations. Pundits are already calling the former International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers official a possible successor to the now lame-duck Giuliani.

Labor's take on Messinger ranged from what one political director called "aggressive indifference" to outright hostility. Armed with incumbency and inevitability, the mayor not only won the backing of developer-friendly construction unions but numerous city employees unions, too. Messinger, a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) charter member, even saw her DSA comrade, Stanley Hill, director of the giant American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 37, jump ship to enthusiastically endorse her opponent. While Hill couldn't easily get his staff to actually campaign hard for the mayor, he didn't have to. Just keeping the labor vote away from Messinger was good enough.

Hill didn't stop there, though. Inedible political breakfasts tried to gin up activists to do the unspeakable, and Hill bragged in a signed post-election editorial (Public Employee Press 11/14) about how he "stood with Mayor Giuliani as he gave his victory speech" and of being "proud to represent this union, whose political word is always backed up by the tremendous political support of our dedicated, hard-working activists and volunteers."

Not that a vote for Messinger should be confused with exercising unalloyed principle or independent political initiative. Her trumpeting city-worker productivity schemes -- including increasing the work week from 35 to 39 hours and eliminating release time for union stewards -- calling for police and teacher raises that would be funded through cuts to lower-paid city workers, and slamming some $600 million in concessions from city unions in 1995 as a sweet deal, ensured that any labor support would be tepid at best.

Some backed the mayor as a reward for boosting policies that would benefit their own members, if no one else's. District Council 37, which never endorsed Ed Koch in his mayoral and gubernatorial outings, did better, many say, under Giuliani than under former Mayor David Dinkins, whose demands for give-backs, layoffs and other threats to job security were less popular than the mayor's proferred, if slim, severance packages.

Lou Albano, president of Local 375, Civil Service Technical Guild of architects and planners, credits the mayor with saving capital programs and fighting for added federal transportation dollars programs vital to his members. About why so many unions support a candidate so ideologically distant from them, Albano said "He's the game in town. And it's nice to have access."

BUT IF LABOR LOVED RUDY IN NEW YORK, SUPPORT FOR VITALIANO REPRESENTED part of labor's larger antiGOP push in Washington. "Punishing the national Republicans is only part of the strategy for putting labor issues front and center," McLaughlin said. The area's 73,600 union members give it " the highest union density of any congressional district in the state," and make it ripe for labor influence, he added. But that can only work if union households prize their leaderships' endorsements above other loyalties, or if unions begin to speak with one voice about common interests, not just common candidates.

Vitaliano, chair of the Assembly's Government Employees committee, is cozy with both organized labor and -- until this year -- the Brooklyn Conservative Party organization, which is hardly a friend of unions. His TV ads called him "the experienced conservative Democrat," a message intended to fend off negative ads paid for with $800,000 in contributions from national Republican donors to pump up Staten Island's City Council member Vito Fossella's winning effort to take one of the three closely watched national races this year.

Even Larry Hanley, president of the Staten Island-based Amalgamated Transit Union Local 726 and a fixture in progressive county politics, was on board for the rightwing Democrat. "Vitaliano s bad on life. He's bad on death. But once you get past life and death, he's fine. Molinari tried to gut every protection workers have. From an economic perspective, Vitaliano is the far better choice," Hanley said.

The union thrust in this traditionally conservative district came after their successful 1995 intervention to stop Republican powerhouse Borough President Guy Molinari from upending District Attorney Richard Murphy in 1995. And their more recent coup in electing half the 900 member Staten Island county Democratic committee with union members, giving them what some hope is institutionalized leverage in the county political operation, was partially responsible for getting Staten Island party head and former also-ran Bob Gigante to back away from a primary run against Vitaliano.

Certainly contingent issues were important in the loss. Vitaliano was an inexpressive and fumble-mouthed campaigner who ran a remarkably inept campaign in the Brooklyn section of the district by vacillating on several unpopular land-use projects that Fosella was quick to attack. Yet if labor's only congressional-election drive, which included a last-minute visit by Clinton, was a test-car run in preparation for a nationwide Democratic Party comeback in rust-belt states, the union-made engine in the '97 Vitaliano blew out.

WHILE VITALIANO'S NUMEROUS LABOR ENDORSEMENTS INCLUDED such election-day powerhouses as Hospital Workers 1199, District Council 37 and the United Federation of Teachers, Messinger boasted a scant 10 union endorsements -- including the tiny Bridge Painters Union, the Lithographers District 1L, Musicians Local 802, the Connecticut-based Autoworkers Region 9a, Communications Workers Local 1180 and D.C. 37's Local 420, a city hospital workers local whose members failed to win job security from the mayor. The rest were either on board for Giuliani or on the fence. And except for Arthur Cheliotis's politically savvy CWA local, none of Ruth's union supporters could substitute for the field operation her campaign never cohered. Among those declared neutral were such get-out-the-vote warhorses as 1199 and the United Federation of Teachers. UFT spokesperson Anne Millman said the union rarely endorses for the mayoralty. "Supporting Dinkins in '89 was an anomaly," she said.

There may not be a lot of daylight between neutralists and new Giuliani converts, either. As a vice chair of the state Democratic Party, 1199's Dennis Rivera could hardly endorse the Republican nominee. And with his union facing a contract round with the home health care industry--employers heavily funded with public dollars -- a vindictive mayor can make things tricky. Rivera peppers his frequent addresses to members with appeals to "realism" and "pragmatism." What could be more pragmatic than not alienating a sure winner?

Or feathering one's nest. If Giuliani's long-shot plans to privatize several of the city's 11 hospitals survive a court challenge, city employees' Local 420 will no longer represent the thousands of affected and newly private-sectored workers. Writing in the Village Voice (Nov. 4), Bob Fitch opined that, "As a member of the AFL-CIO's Executive Board, Dennis stands a better chance to prevail in any future jurisdictional dispute" should the sell-off go forward.

Certainly Debs's adage, "Its better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it," took another beating this year. But by backing the greater of two evils and mutating from liberal Democratic partisans into Giuliani courtesans, many of New York's top union leaders ensured that even the vintage Gompers notion that unions reward friends while punishing enemies was dead on arrival, too.

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