A Labor House Divided

After the Investigators, an Electoral Battle at City’s Biggest Union

Roberts said she was approached by most of the council's key officials to take a leadership role and help end the three-year-long trusteeship imposed by the parent international. "They could never agree among themselves," she said in an interview. "I was delighted to do it."

"The union was fragmented. We needed a mother figure," said Rosenthal. Yet Roberts's honeymoon ended quickly. The reform faction lost faith in her because of her insistence on keeping her nephew's law firm on the council payroll long after the union's outside ethics monitor advised her to drop it. She also seemed adrift amid the ongoing municipal labor negotiations, unable to prevent layoffs of city workers or effectively rebut City Hall.

To those who observed her, Roberts appeared to show more vigor in the internal battles than she did in dealing with the city. She left important positions within the council unfilled, including that of its political director, a crucial role for a union that relies on government for key assistance. City Council leaders watched in puzzlement as Roberts continued to bring legislative proposals before the Civil Service and Labor Committee headed by Queens councilmember Alan Jennings, long after Jennings became a pariah with Council Speaker Gifford Miller for his opposition to the budget. At the recent Municipal Labor Coalition confab on Long Island, officials of other city workers' unions described Roberts as distant and unfocused.

Charles Ensley (right) and supporters rally outside offices of District Council 37.
photo: Cary Conover
Charles Ensley (right) and supporters rally outside offices of District Council 37.

Roberts insists that's not the case. "We've had our most active legislative year ever," she said. "We got more than 18 bills passed." She credited her research work on city contracting for prompting the city to make major changes.

The decision by Ensley and his allies to mount a campaign against her re-election, in a delegate vote to be held in late January, amounts to a distraction from her job of winning a new contract, she said. "I think their ambition got ahead of their concern for the rank and file," she said. As for her role in the union, she said, "I am the 'former glory' that they keep talking about."

Richard Steier, editor of The Chief, the weekly paper read religiously by civil servants and municipal union officials, said that despite Ensley's large bloc of votes, the contest is far from over. "Don't count out the sentimental factor or the power of incumbency," he said. Adds Deidre McFadyen, the Chief reporter who has broken many of the stories about misdeeds within the council, "This union is much too fluid for anything to be wrapped up yet."

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