Labor Costs

Union endorsements are dirty, if the mayor loses them

One wonders how SEIU Local 1199 union chief Dennis Rivera phrased his alleged quid pro quo offer to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"Mr. Mayor," he must have begun, "I would like you to add 25,000 home health care workers to the city payroll."

The mayor spits out his coffee. "Dennis," Bloomberg probably says, "why would I want to do that?"

Rivera leans forward in his seat. "Because, Mr. Mayor, if you do, I will endorse you—and only if you do," he says. "The fact that we're currently negotiating a contract for 4,000 Health and Hospitals Corporation employees doesn't matter. The fact that you're far ahead in the polls isn't important. It's also no biggie to me that Fernando Ferrer, whom I backed four years ago, is trying to become the first Latino mayor. No, Mike, I want you—under whom even the NYPD has shrunk—to hire so many people they could staff two fire departments. It's that or nothing."

Bloomberg shakes his head, a wan smile on his lips. "Oh, Dennis, Dennis, Dennis," he says, sighing. Then he turns to an aide. "Why don't you show Mr. Rivera the door?"

Yeah, maybe it really happened that way. Specifics aside, the notion that Rivera gave Bloomberg a choice between losing the 1199 endorsement and putting 25,000 workers on the city payroll has gone from a claim by unnamed sources to undeniable fact, and all in a week. In the Post, the price tag for the purported 25,000 new jobs rose from "upward of $500 million" to $1 billion in just a day. Newsday called Bloomberg's bold move to rebuff Rivera "a welcome show of mayoral fortitude."

However, Jennifer Cunningham, 1199's spokeswoman, tells the Voice, "The idea that there was that kind of quid pro quo or that we would even couch it that way—if we did business that way—is just not true." Yes, 1199 did talk with the mayor about ways the city could help home health aides. "There's not a day that goes by that we don't talk about the plight of home health care workers," she says. Did putting them on the city payroll come up during those talks? "Absolutely, in passing," Cunningham says. "I'm not even sure that we know what the mechanics would be on this."

But 1199's telling of the story isn't getting much ink. Instead, Bloomberg's supposed "getthefuckouttahere" to Rivera is being treated as yet another example of the mayor's well-known independence. "Fact is," the Post editorialized, "Mayor Mike may be just about the only pol in all of New York who's not willing to use your tax dollars to buy an endorsement from Rivera's powerful health-care union Local 1199."

One of the pols who didn't resist Rivera's charms was George Pataki, who in 2002 supported an $850 million pay raise for health care workers and received Rivera's endorsement just two months later. Rivera wasn't kidding when he told supporters that April, "The governor has earned our support." The Post has slapped that deal before.

But what didn't get mentioned last week was 1997, when Rivera opted not to endorse Ruth Messinger, announcing instead, at Rudy Giuliani's side, that he'd make no endorsement in the race: "We're basically not a political organization." A few months later, Rivera won from the Giuliani administration a 5.4 percent raise for 60,000 health care workers represented by 1199.

Some of the uproar over the purported Rivera offer has a Claude Rains quality to it—"I'm shocked, shocked!" Unions getting rewarded for their endorsement or granting their endorsement after being rewarded? No way!

In the contract they signed in 2004, massive District Council 37 got the mayor to drop two major negotiating positions. They received a 3 percent retroactive raise for 2003, which is something Bloomberg said he wouldn't do. Raises of 2 percent and 1 percent in the next two years were supposed to be funded by productivity increases—another mayoral demand. But the Independent Budget Office believes the productivity fixes Bloomberg has announced account for only half the $65 million cost of the 2 percent raise for 2004.

According to DC 37, the final 1 percent is supposed to be covered by reductions in sick leave, as well as using more civilians in the police department and fewer outside contractors for other city work. The latter two changes might save money, but they also happen to have been on the DC 37 wish list for years. Soon after news broke about the details of the 1 percent raise, DC 37 endorsed the mayor.

District Council 1707, a day care workers' union, went on strike last year but later received a 14 percent wage hike over five years. After it backed the mayor for re-election, union head Raglan George told Newsday that the mayor promised "that when we negotiate a contract we won't have to wait like we did before . . . that we'd get a contract in a reasonable amount of time."

The New York State Court Officers Association, when endorsing the mayor, mentioned that Bloomberg had backed the opening of new court buildings. The building-services union SEIU 32BJ is also behind Bloomberg, pleased that he has insisted that any new buildings on the West Side or Brooklyn waterfront will have union staffs. When the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE) announced its support for the mayor last week, union president Tom Short said there were three reasons for the endorsement: "jobs, jobs, jobs," which the mayor helped create for Short's members by granting tax credits to film companies that shoot in the city.

"The basic issue when we look at a candidate is how their serving in that office will impact our members in terms of good jobs," says Richard Weiss of the Mason Tenders, which is backing the mayor for, among other things, approving a new agreement to have union workers fix up buildings the School Construction Authority leases from private companies. The scuttled Jets stadium plan—along with the other development projects Bloomberg has supported—is also key to the support Bloomberg has received from a host of trade unions.

The hubbub over 1199 ignores the fact that unions, like other political organizations, are always looking for the best deal possible for their members, and they don't—strategically, they shouldn't—give their endorsements away for nothing. Not that every union sets up an explicit quid pro quo; Weiss stresses that Bloomberg has given no assurances of what will happen over the next four years. Nor do unions robotically back a candidate who gave them a raise: Teamsters Local 237 went with Gifford Miller in the primary even though Bloomberg increased its members' salaries.

But as Tony Speelman of Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which also was on Miller's team, puts it, "Whenever a union endorses, you do it because of what they do for the workers. We stay away from the issues that are divisive. We never talk about gun control or abortion or stuff like that." As of last week, Local 1500 was still deciding what to do in the general election. "At this point we're still going over what each campaign has said to us about what each campaign can do for our members," said Pat Purcell, the organizing director.

Lost in the uproar over the 1199 endorsement are the workers that the purported deal involved. They take care of sick people for around $7 an hour, often with no health insurance. They do, in fact, work for the city; they are just paid through contracts with outside firms. That saves taxpayers money—at least until the workers use Medicaid, or apply for food stamps, or take the Earned Income Tax Credit on their income taxes. It's worth remembering that taxpayers fund those subsidies for employers who don't provide enough benefits and pay to support families.

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