Labor’s Election Day Flop

The Union Coalition That Wasn’t

"I have to tell you I am very angry about the way the [Democratic] party seemed to implode," said Saunders. "The blame can go around to all the various groups. You have people within the party who feel they have been disenfranchised, and that has to be dealt with. But I feel soiled on this one. Like I have been used. It got to be personal politics rather than practical politics. DC 37 played by the rules. We gave a lot of money, put people in the street. But we got caught up in internal warfare. And the people who get hurt first are my members. I resent getting caught up in bullshit politics of the worst kind."

Saunders isn't alone in his resentment.

The city's Central Labor Council, the umbrella organization for more than 1 million union members, was divided among the four major candidates who entered the Democratic primary. It was also unable to muster a two-thirds majority for either Green or Ferrer for the runoff. So while individual unions went their own ways, the council itself remained neutral. But after Green won the runoff, the group voted to back him almost immediately.

"With everyone pulling in the same direction, and a well-coordinated outreach to the membership, the labor movement in New York City is one of the most formidable operations in America," said council president Brian McLaughlin. But it didn't work out that way. "A few [unions] could have done more," said McLaughlin, who would not offer specifics.

Most alarming, he said, was the specter of Bronx County Democratic headquarters staying closed on Election Day, on orders from county leader Roberto Ramirez. "For key leaders of the Democratic Party to see what is at stake in an election, to know that workers are in harm's way, and to decide to sit out the election, this has to leave some doubts," he said. "Essentially, for reasons that could have been laid aside until after the election, they decided to pull the plug. I am terribly disappointed."

The 2001 election was to have been an affirmation of how the city's labor movement has regained much of its old strength. It was to have been a repudiation of 1997, when panicky unions either endorsed Mayor Giuliani for a second term or stayed neutral. It was to have been a show of new strength by several unions—the municipal workers, the building maintenance employees, the laborers—that have emerged from scandal as healthy, representative bodies.

Instead, labor's ambivalent performance only further undermined that old boast, the one about this being a union town.

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