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Less than 10 hours after the announcement of his endorsement by health care workers union leader Dennis Rivera, Governor George Pataki stepped into a midtown hotel ballroom to the resounding cheers of officials from organized labor's most liberal wing.
The event was the annual dinner of the Labor Research Association, a nonprofit pro-union group once strongly connected to the left, which advises Rivera and other labor leaders. LRA executive director Greg Tarpinian rose to introduce Pataki, the night's keynote speaker.
"He is a man who stands tallor even tallerin the great tradition of another trailblazing Republican, Abraham Lincoln," Tarpinian told the crowd. He read several quotes from the Great Emancipator on the subject of working people, including Lincoln's dictum that "To secure to each Laborer the whole product of his Labor is the most worthy object of any government." Pataki, Tarpinian summed up, was nothing less than "the leader of the Lincoln wing of his party."
Over the top? Certainly. But in an election year in which other traditionally pro-Democrat unions are expected to follow Rivera's lead in endorsing the Republican incumbent, such pretzel-twisting ideological defenses become crucial for the labor defectors. The day after the dinner, Pataki's campaign announced it was hiring Tarpinian as a consultant to coordinate labor support and run get-out-the-vote activities. Just last May, Tarpinian wrote a $1000 check to Pataki challenger Andrew Cuomo.
Other such reversals are to be expected in the near future. "We can no longer say that labor is beholden to one political party," Tarpinian said.
Rivera's union, 1199/SEIU, now the state's largest, with 210,000 members, is a case in point. It provided the ground troops for liberal Democrats Mario Cuomo, David Dinkins, and Fernando Ferrer, to name just three candidates it backed. It has long prided itself as the union with a social conscience, and its leaders have allied themselves with civil rights causes from the days of Dr. Martin Luther King to Amadou Diallo.
But in a masterful display of political maneuvering, Rivera pushed Pataki in 1996 to create additional state health insurance for poor families. When the governor obligingly raided a new $1 billion state health fund this January to provide wage hikes for Rivera's members (see "Blue Cross Hijacked," Voice, February 19), the endorsement became a foregone conclusion.
Nor is Rivera alone.
In this month's edition of Hotel Voice, the official publication of the hotel workers union, Local 6 leader Peter Ward had this to say: "Governor Pataki has done more for working families than any Democratic governor in the country." And this: "We don't care if someone is a Democrat or a Republican. What we care about is whether they will act on our behalf and on behalf of working families. Governor Pataki has proved that he is willing to do exactly that."
What Ward is talking about is Pataki's decision to sign legislation last year that allowed the union the right to organize workers at new Native American-owned casinos once they are built in the Catskills and elsewhere in the state. Pataki backed a measure that gives unions the right to be recognized once they sign up a majority of workers, a tactic known as "card check" agreements. Employers loathe such union shortcuts to recognition, preferring long, drawn-out battles and endless court challenges that can hamstring organizing drives for years. Pataki has done nothing to curb the behavior of other anti-union employers. But expect the governor to win the backing of the hotel workers next month.
Teamsters locals won't be far behind.
"I will wind up with Pataki," said Dan Kane Sr., leader of Teamsters Local 111 and the New York representative of national Teamsters chief Jim Hoffa, who has been actively courted by another Republican, George W. Bush.
"I've never endorsed a Republican before," admitted Kane. "But maybe we've all become a little too parochial, and we ought to be asking Democrats just what they've done for working people lately."
There's no telling what the fallout, locally and nationally, could be from a labor-backed Pataki victory this November. But few people are kidding themselves that there is any ideological turnaround under way. What Pataki has exercised, in a clever and judicious manner, is simply the enormous power of incumbency that sitting governors lay claim to.
Neither the health workers' agreement nor the card check legislation is expected to have widespread ramifications for the rest of industry. New York is a highly unionized state compared to others, but the numbers are still low, and they are dropping fast. Just 15 percent of the state's private-sector workers belong to unions, surveys show, and as manufacturing continues to decline (something Pataki has made little effort to reverse) those numbers will fall even more.
And those workers who don't belong to unions are not getting much of a break from this modern-day Abe Lincoln. New York once led the nation in promoting minimum-wage increases, regularly hiking the state's level ahead of the federal minimum. But under Pataki, the state has allowed the feds to lead the way, and the minimum has been stalled at $5.15 since 1997. Governors in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington, and Delaware have all raised their state minimums. "Of all high-wage states, New York has the lowest minimum wage relative to average wages," reports the labor-backed Fiscal Policy Institute.
Nor does the Lincoln of Albany have much standing on another issue long considered crucial by organized labor: workers' compensation. The state's level of reimbursement for injured workers has fallen so low that New York now registers dead last of all states in the nation. New York's weekly benefit of $400 has remained unchanged throughout Pataki's two terms, and now represents just 49 percent of the state's average weekly wage. This, the Fiscal Policy Institute found, puts New York far behind even next-to-last Georgia, which allots 60 percent of its weekly wage for people hurt on the job.
Unemployment insurance has been another embarrassment under the Pataki administration. Despite years of warnings that the state needed to increase its payroll tax rate and create a reserve trust to meet a potential surge in unemployment claims, Pataki did neither. Rankings showed New York third from the bottom among states in terms of unemployment reserves, which are supposed to be the equivalent of a year's worth of payments.
When the recession and the September 11 tragedy hit, forcing more than 100,000 workers out of their jobs, New York had less than a third of the reserves required to meet the new claims. Now the administration is scrambling, and among the proposals is to use funds from the state's federal welfare block grant to fill the gap.
The ability of the sons and daughters of working families to get an affordable college education also hasn't gotten much help from the new Abe. The Pataki administration has advanced a series of cuts and changes in the Tuition Assistance Plan since the mid 1990s. Its latest proposal is to hold back one-third of a student's TAP grant until graduation. The rhetoric supporting the idea holds that this is a way to assure that students graduate. But Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group said, "This is a fairly naked scheme to shift the cost of paying for school onto the credit cards of students and their families."
Of course, this isn't the first time labor has fallen for the GOP. In the 1960s, many unions, including what was then Local 1199, backed another Republican gubernatorial incumbent, Nelson Rockefeller. Unlike Pataki, Rockefeller had a solid record with labor. What had he done for working families? A partial list: the right of hospital workers to organize, the nation's first state minimum wage, improved workers' compensation, a new state university system, and massive transit expansions.