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No matter who emerges as the winner of next week's Democratic gubernatorial primary, the party's candidate will be forced to campaign as much against organized labor as for it.
Whether it's Carl McCall or Andrew Cuomo, any candidate seeking to describe how the Republican administration of incumbent Governor George Pataki has failed to serve the interests of working New Yorkers will run smack up against many of the state's biggest unions, which have already lined up with Pataki.
The labor support stems from a series of realpolitik maneuvers by Pataki that appealed to the unions' most pressing needs. They included a controversial $1 billion state deal to help health and hospital workers in contract talks with their employers ("Blue Cross Hijacked," Voice, Feb. 13-19, 2002); backing for legislation that made it easier for unions to organize at planned new casinos; and a so-called "neutrality" law barring nonprofit employers from using state funds to oppose union organizing drives.
The result is that Pataki's already well-oiled re-election machine will square off against the Democratic winner with the combined clout of unions representing more than 600,000 workers behind it, including 1199/Service Employees International (the state's biggest union), the Teamsters, the Public Employees Federation, and the Hotel Trades Council. Several of the state's building-trades unionsthe carpenters, painters, operating engineers, and the utility workershave also endorsed Pataki, and more are expected to follow.
Even the textile and garment workers union, UNITE, normally a steadfast Democratic backer, is expected to wind up in the governor's column soon, thanks to timely state assistance to the union's health insurance programs, which were badly hammered in the wake of the 9-11 attack.
In another move with major between-the-lines union significance, the city's Central Labor Council asked Pataki to address its big post-Labor Day event at Battery Park. Billed as a 9-11 commemoration as well as labor rally, the ceremony handed Pataki a rare pre-election stage from which to declare his newfound solidarity with labor.
The confluence of events has Pataki supporters glowing. "By the end of the day we will have unions representing close to two-thirds of the state labor movement," said Greg Tarpinian, an adviser to the Pataki campaign and head of the pro-union think tank Labor Research Association.
On a practical level, the pro-Pataki labor support isn't hard to understand. "Labor needs to grow to survive; it needs to be able to organize," said Denis Hughes, head of the state's AFL-CIO, which has yet to endorse any candidate for governor.
But at the same time, the politics-as-usual endorsements by several of organized labor's key leaders place them in essentially the same position as any other favor-seeking special-interest group. That's ironic, since the special-interest label is one Republicans have been energetically trying to pin on unions for years, and one that labor has, with equal energy, been seeking to duck. Unlike other special-interest groups, however, organized labor appears to be a fairly cheap date.
The endorsements show that, when push comes to shove, unions will quickly shed their progressive rhetoric, effectively abandoning the field in terms of defending the broader needs of New York's poor and working classes.
How else to understand labor backing for an administration that made a dramatic refusal this spring to go along with an increase in the minimum wage, one that would have put the state back in line with other high-wage states, such as California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts? Or an administration that has allowed its workers' compensation benefits to slip to the lowest level in the nation?
Pataki's labor backers had hoped to persuade the governor to boost both rates, a move they thought would cement the Republican's image as a pro-worker governor, and persuade fence-sitting unions to come aboard. But, in a demonstration of its real concerns and allegiances, the Pataki administration backed off those initiatives once it faced a challenge on its right wing from multimillionaire businessman Tom Golisano, who has mounted aggressive and expensive TV and radio campaigns for both the Conservative and Independence party ballot lines. Pro-Pataki unions are helping the governor in those primary contests as well, identifying union members who make up roughly a third of the membership of the two minor parties and encouraging them to support Pataki in next week's primary contest.
How also to understand labor support for an administration that has allowed the gap between rich and poor to become the widest in the nation? And the gap between the middle income and the wealthy to become the second-largest in the country? Both of those findings are contained in a new report by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal research organization that draws on unions for financial support.
Pataki has pointed to job creation and economic development as hallmarks of his administration, claiming a half-million new jobs created in his eight years in office. But on a national scale, the state's job growth was so lackluster that it ranked 41st out of 50 states, the institute found. Job growth in the economically depressed upstate region was so slow from 1994the year Pataki took officeto 2001 that it would rank next to last among all states if ranked separately.
While the state hemorrhaged well-paying manufacturing jobs, many of the new positions created were low-wage, service sector positions. New York City, the institute found, lost more than 68,000 middle-wage jobs in the decade between 1989 and 1999, while gaining 52,000 low-wage positions. Overall, in the 1990s, the city lost 30 percent of its manufacturing employment.
Even benefits of the fast-vanishing boom of 1990s, the institute found, were concentrated at the highest income levels. Median family incomes, which grew by 9.5 percent in the U.S. as a whole, fell in New York City by 6 percent, according to the study. Wages, which were up by 5.7 percent nationally, declined in the city by 3.7 percent.
Adjusted for inflation, real wages for everyone except the highest income earners in New York City are at approximately the same level as the 1980s.
Pataki has garnered praise from health workers' leaders and others for championing new health care coverage initiatives (albeit under intense labor pressure). Despite those moves, however, the proportion of New Yorkers without health insurance grew from 12 percent in 1988 to 17 percent in 2000, the study found. (A separate investigation by the Commonwealth Fund, released last month, found that New Yorkers pay more than other Americans for health care coverage and that small businesses here are less likely to offer coverage than elsewhere in the country.)
How well did poor people fare under the Pataki regime? At the same time that the nation's poverty rate was falling by 1.5 percent, the state's poverty level rose by 0.8 percent, the institute found. Welfare reform is another Pataki campaign hallmark; the governor claims credit for a 1 million drop in welfare cases statewide, much of it in New York City. The city's accomplishment was aided by a rejection rate for welfare applicants that went from 27 percent in 1994 to 75 percent in 1998. The Fiscal Policy Institute estimated that those moves pushed more than a quarter million New Yorkers into such low-paying work that they pulled down wage rates for other low-wage workers.
Once, that record of dubious achievement might have galvanized labor into the forefront of a campaign to unseat a Republican governor. But that would have been a different labor movement. Today, instead of leading the charge for progressive leadership in Albany, unions are becoming just one more bump in the road.