Mike Bloomberg's Dance With Dennis Rivera

The most important M.I.A., standing on the 2005 sidelines after fielding an army for Freddy Ferrer in 2001, is health care union president Dennis Rivera. Mike Bloomberg has taken him and his Democratic powerhouse of a black and Latino union out of the action.

Bloomberg labor commissioner Jim Hanley is now quietly negotiating a new contract for the 4,000 Health & Hospitals Corporation workers that Rivera’s Local 1199 represents. Jennifer Cunningham, Rivera’s top aide, told the Voice flat-out that these negotiations "are a factor" in the union’s decisionmaking about possible mayoral endorsements, though she added they are not "dispositive." The importance of this contract to the union doubled in December or January, when Cunningham says another local in the omnibus union that 1199 is part of, SIEU, "merged with us," adding 2,000 HHC licensed practical nurses to Rivera’s rolls. Rivera has* long represented lab technicians and pharmacists at the city’s hospitals corporation.

Cunningham said the union "could’ve signed a me-too contract" with the city, getting the same raises already granted District Council 37, which represents the bulk of HHC staff, but Rivera is holding out for more. The largest union of municipal workers, DC 37 has already endorsed the mayor. Ferrer spokeswoman Jen Bluestein, who declined to discuss her own candidate’s efforts to woo Rivera, said that ongoing negotiations with any union "certainly put pressure on labor leaders," who are "forced to negotiate with someone while simultaneously making an endorsement decision about what’s best for their membership." She said it makes union leaders "be really steadfast and honest in assessing" their members’ interest.

The union was "very pleased," said Cunningham, by Bloomberg’s earlier support of a "groundbreaking living wage" for the 50,000 home attendants Local 1199 represents, a bill Council Speaker Gifford Miller actually passed but that the mayor signed. Bloomberg has also been "receptive to hearing" about other 1199 issues, pushing city contractors who employ thousands of home health aides, a different category of union members, to boost bargain basement salaries. Cunningham said "the mayor’s office is now being helpful" in getting city lawyers to figure out ways "to navigate" these complex contracts, and that some of these workers, for the first time, have secured health benefits from the contractors.

Cunningham would not discuss a private dinner that Rivera and Bloomberg had in 2004 that she attended, as did the mayor’s Cunningham, Bill. But as the two drank wine most of the night, the exchange got increasingly tough, with Rivera and Bloomberg reportedly talking past each other. Rivera was offering "a mystical view of the world," said one informed source, and Bloomberg wanted to stick to "concrete issues," leading to a clumsy combine of "two different conversations." Senate Republican Leader Joe Bruno, who is extremely close to Rivera and both brokered and attended the dinner, "pushed Dennis to back Bloomberg," and Rivera didn’t like the pressure. It ended so badly that word of it quickly filtered back to the Ferrer campaign, and hope once again sprang eternal.

But the mayor and the leader were soon back on track, this time minus the wine.

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