Billionaire Buys Union

But big bucks Mike gives the tab to taxpayers

The most important event so far in the 2005 mayoral campaign was Mayor Mike Bloomberg's endorsement by District Council 37, the largest municipal union, with 121,000, mostly minority, members. Yet, bizarrely, no one in a town where tabloids bash unions for sport has examined how Bloomberg snared it. That's because every pro-Bloomberg insider knows he bought the endorsement with taxpayer funds in broad daylight and, as battered as Governor Pataki was in 2002 when he cut similar deals with the teachers and health care workers, Bloomberg's heist was cheered from the sidelines. A Daily News editorial actually called the choice "enlightened," its kindest words about a union since the paper broke its own 12 years ago.

The reason the addition-by-subtraction endorsement is so important is that it costs the Democrats, particularly likely nominee Freddy Ferrer, a critical field operation. In the 2001 runoff, Ferrer had a union army in the streets that included District Council 37, handing out palm cards and literature, ringing doorbells, driving voters to the polls, making calls, generating electoral juice. That's why he got 84 percent of a record Latino turnout in the runoff, and 71 percent of blacks, and that's what he needs to spur street buzz in 2005. Without troops on the ground, usually union, the sense of movement that helped David Dinkins unseat Ed Koch in 1989 and propelled Ferrer in 2001 may never develop.

The untold endorsement story has a tabloid simplicity. In 2004, DC 37 and Bloomberg agreed to a belated 2002-to-2005 contract that, contrary to the mayor's prior bluster, included retroactive raises, albeit modest ones. For the first time in the history of city collective bargaining, however, the agreement dangled another 1 percent hike if the parties could find common ground before June 30 on productivity concessions. On May 19, the union held a mayoral forum where 800 of its leaders were entertained by Mayor Mike's tease that the city and the union were close to a productivity agreement, one that would instantly put another $300 in the average member's pocket. Wild applause and whistle-blowing followed his "good news" declaration.

On June 28, an agreement was reached that was such a fake that DC 37 executive director Lillian Roberts openly told The Chief, a newspaper for city workers, that she'd kept her promise that "we would get the 1 percent and that we would not have to give anything back." Two of the three so-called productivity improvements involved more jobs for DC 37 members at the Police Department and the Human Resources Administration, with the city acquiescing to longtime union demands for greater NYPD civilianization and less contracting-out at HRA.

On July 14, the union's executive board voted 14 to 12 to endorse Bloomberg, the only time it's endorsed a mayoral candidate for a general election before the primary. It was also the only time in modern history that the union's backed a Republican, except its endorsement of Rudy Giuliani in 1997, an alliance that later led to jail time for the union brass who fraudulently fixed the vote on the contract they'd already signed with Giuliani.

Incredibly, DC 37 was in such a rush to close its end of the transparent transaction that it bypassed its own constitution, which requires that the 327-member delegate assembly vote on endorsements except when "time is of the essence." In a Voice interview, Roberts acknowledged that the union had never before made a mayoral endorsement without a delegate assembly vote. But she said that the assembly was "on vacation" in July and August and that the board "didn't feel they should wait." Actually, the assembly convened in July 2001 to vote on all its major city endorsements, but it is such a difficult body to control that the pre-Roberts leadership won by a narrow 50.01 percent of the vote.

Denying there was any link between the endorsement and the 1 percent raise, Roberts nonetheless boasted that the city agreed in the productivity deal to hire more DC 37–represented secretaries and slash temp contracts, a recommendation in union white papers that Bloomberg had previously spurned. Asked if the union would've endorsed Bloomberg had no agreement been reached by June 30, Roberts said, "We would have had a problem" and "we would have kept pushing" for it, apparently unaware that she could not get the 1 percent beyond that deadline. A union spokeswoman told the Voice that DC 37 now intends to mount a large field operation for the mayor, not merely deduct one from the Democratic nominee.

Roberts conceded she had not only met with Ferrer in New York early this year, but joined him at a meeting in Washington with the head of the national union, Gerald McEntee. While she tried to make it appear that the McEntee meeting was happenstance, occurring only because she happened to be at a meeting of the national board, a top Ferrer aide says "she set it up" at Ferrer's request. Ferrer declined during a Voice interview to discuss the meetings, but according to one ally, was so convinced he had a commitment from Roberts that he asked for the McEntee meeting to see if he could also get the backing of the national union. Roberts claims she made no commitment and merely noted at the Washington session that "we have a process" for endorsements that would have to be followed. The 1 percent dance with Bloomberg went into full swing after this Washington sideshow.

It wasn't just Roberts who flip-flopped. Bloomberg has been the toughest negotiator with city unions ever, refusing to cut contracts with the police, fire, and teacher unions and forcing the first two to arbitration. He is still demanding real work rule concessions from the teachers, just as he did with the uniformed services. His contract with DC 37 was no giveaway; it agreed to raises rejected by the other unions. But the productivity collapse contradicts the core of his bargaining position and was a crass political deal.

Not only is Ferrer facing the primary and the general without DC 37 and the so-far neutral health care workers at 1199 that were keys in 2001, he can't expect much from other Democratic field operations like the community group ACORN and Local 32 B-J, which represents building maintenance workers. ACORN's John Kest, who ran Mark Green's 2001 field operation, says that the group plans a "series of meetings over the next two weeks" and that there is "at least a 50-50 chance that an endorsement will come out of that." Kest and other ACORN leaders have been meeting with Ferrer and his associates, but Kest made it clear the group is too busy with "a multitude of issue-oriented campaigns to do what we did in 2001" for any candidate. Ferrer ran his affordable-housing plan by ACORN before announcing it recently.

The prospective, half-hearted-at-best ACORN support of Ferrer is another measure of Bloomberg's tactical skill. Though the administration and the group once warred over everything from predatory lending to the living wage bill, Bloomberg backed their 4,500-unit Bruce Ratner housing plan in Brooklyn, and ACORN leader Bertha Lewis famously kissed him at the announcement. ("No tongue and no booty," she told the Voice, while Bloomberg spokesman Bill Cunningham contended she grabbed the mayor by the head, calling it "illegal use of the hands.") The other convert, 32 B-J, was a field linchpin for Green and recently endorsed the mayor at no cost to taxpayers.

It's not just field forces that have come full circle in four years. A couple of days before the general election in 2001, Ferrer called Green, who had just beaten him in the runoff, and demanded that he fire Kest, holding the organizer responsible for Green-tied leaflets that the Ferrer camp called racist. Green refused, and an outraged Ferrer failed to appear at a unity dinner that night, a decisive snub that contributed to Bloomberg's triumph. Nonetheless, early this year, Ferrer and his firebrand consultant, Roberto Ramirez, sat down with their former devil and talked deal. It may even happen soon. Such are the ever changing currents of New York City politics.


Research assistance: Nicole D'Andrea, Bryan Farrell, Alex Gecan, Leslie Kaufmann, Ian Kriegish, and Stephen Stirling

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