Labor’s Election Day Flop


New York is a union town, its labor leaders proclaim proudly and often. It is a bit of bluster designed to inspire confidence among members while at the same time deterring aggressive employers who might be inclined to test the waters in an era of union slippage around the country.

But no boast rang emptier than that one this month after the pro-union Democratic mayoral candidate roundly defeated by the billionaire Republican head of a non-union company.

Mark Green went into Election Day with 57 separate unions on his endorsement list, a group that included all of the city’s major private- and public-sector labor organizations. Green’s endorsers ranged from musicians to mason tenders, cops to garment workers, teamsters to teachers, hospital workers to hotel workers. Republican Michael Bloomberg’s list held just one lonely union name, that of the correctional officers, a maverick group that also found Republican Rick Lazio superior to Hillary Clinton in last year’s Senate race.

On paper at least, Green had the most formidable array of union clout enjoyed by any mayoral candidate since David Dinkins’s first mayoral run. Along with it came the vaunted phone banks of the teachers union, the street operation of the municipal workers, the get-out-the-vote apparatus of the health workers, the neighborhood networks of the building trades.

‘DC 37 played by the rules. We gave a lot of money, put people in the street. But we got caught up in internal warfare. And the people who get hurt first are my members. I resent getting caught up in bullshit politics of the worst kind.’

Several large, mainly private-sector unions had been aboard Green’s campaign bus since the beginning and were coordinating their efforts. Local 6 of the Hotel Employees, UNITE, the garment and textile workers union, Local 32B-J which represents building maintenance employees, the Laborers union, and several teamsters locals were meeting regularly in the days leading up to the general election, dividing up territory and responsibilities.

The rest came aboard later, some grudgingly, still angry over Green’s use of ads that questioned Ferrer’s competence and the anonymous flyers and calls that portrayed him as a craven disciple of Al Sharpton. Other unions accepted the outcome with the simple logic that the well-being of their members was safer in the Democrat’s hands than in those of an unknown Republican.

All told, they were supposed to comprise a roll-up-your-sleeves coalition of mass people power, the only thing capable of overturning Bloomberg’s massive $60 million spending advantage. “Message beats money,” Green thundered from the podium on the night of his tarnished victory over Fernando Ferrer in the Democratic runoff, and everyone who heard the call knew that union ground troops would be the most effective purveyors of that message.

But on Election Day, what emerged from several large union halls was not a juggernaut but a kind of phony war. The declarations had been made but the artillery remained silent, the enemy never engaged. The health care workers union mustered just 300 members into the streets, down from the 8000 that union president Dennis Rivera said had worked for Ferrer in the primary and the runoff. The problem, Rivera said, was lack of enthusiasm. The mighty teachers union put about 200 members into the Election Day effort. Teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten also said she had a hard time finding volunteers.

But both unions sent purposely mixed messages to their members. After Ferrer’s loss to Green in the runoff, Rivera hosted Bloomberg at his union headquarters and invited the press to observe; Weingarten had the media mogul address her union’s executive board and ran his picture prominently in the union newspaper.

The same unions have also exhibited more Election Day energy in the past on behalf of far less sympathetic candidates.

Last year, for instance, Rivera’s Local 1199 sent scores of members door to door on behalf of the city’s state senate Republicans, including the reactionary Serph Maltese in Queens, and Guy Velella, the ethically challenged Bronx legislator who was facing his first serious Democratic challenge in years. Is it believable that Rivera’s members got excited about Maltese and Velella, but not Green?

“No, there was no excitement there either,” Rivera acknowledged. In Green’s case, Rivera said, “it was not at all clear he was going to appreciate the work we would do on his behalf. Up until the last weekend, he said he didn’t need us to win.”

Whatever the circumstances, the aftermath of November 6 has left other union leaders steaming. District Council 37, the giant municipal workers union, saw its first choice, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, lose badly in the primary. It then shifted, along with the teachers and several construction trade unions, to Ferrer in the runoff. Council officials felt some of the same post-election resentment over Green’s tactics. But the union endorsed him nevertheless, believing that, regardless of differences, their agenda would be heard in his City Hall. DC 37 administrator Lee Saunders, who was going through his first mayoral campaign in New York, assumed that everyone was by then on the same team. His union put more than 1000 members to work on Election Day, only to discover that other unions weren’t taking the race seriously.

“I have to tell you I am very angry about the way the [Democratic] party seemed to implode,” said Saunders. “The blame can go around to all the various groups. You have people within the party who feel they have been disenfranchised, and that has to be dealt with. But I feel soiled on this one. Like I have been used. It got to be personal politics rather than practical politics. DC 37 played by the rules. We gave a lot of money, put people in the street. But we got caught up in internal warfare. And the people who get hurt first are my members. I resent getting caught up in bullshit politics of the worst kind.”

Saunders isn’t alone in his resentment.

The city’s Central Labor Council, the umbrella organization for more than 1 million union members, was divided among the four major candidates who entered the Democratic primary. It was also unable to muster a two-thirds majority for either Green or Ferrer for the runoff. So while individual unions went their own ways, the council itself remained neutral. But after Green won the runoff, the group voted to back him almost immediately.

“With everyone pulling in the same direction, and a well-coordinated outreach to the membership, the labor movement in New York City is one of the most formidable operations in America,” said council president Brian McLaughlin. But it didn’t work out that way. “A few [unions] could have done more,” said McLaughlin, who would not offer specifics.

Most alarming, he said, was the specter of Bronx County Democratic headquarters staying closed on Election Day, on orders from county leader Roberto Ramirez. “For key leaders of the Democratic Party to see what is at stake in an election, to know that workers are in harm’s way, and to decide to sit out the election, this has to leave some doubts,” he said. “Essentially, for reasons that could have been laid aside until after the election, they decided to pull the plug. I am terribly disappointed.”

The 2001 election was to have been an affirmation of how the city’s labor movement has regained much of its old strength. It was to have been a repudiation of 1997, when panicky unions either endorsed Mayor Giuliani for a second term or stayed neutral. It was to have been a show of new strength by several unions—the municipal workers, the building maintenance employees, the laborers—that have emerged from scandal as healthy, representative bodies.

Instead, labor’s ambivalent performance only further undermined that old boast, the one about this being a union town.