Bus drivers Union Chief Larry Hanley is certainly the most outspoken—if not the only—progressive, white, working-class labor leader on largely conservative Staten Island. This has placed him on a steady collision course with politicians from Rudy Giuliani to former borough president Guy Molinari. Hanley, 45, a big man who relishes a good fight, has never shied from battle.
This month, however, his fight is with his erstwhile friends in the leadership of the decidedly liberal Working Families Party, the pro-union group that Hanley helped to found in 1998.
Party leaders have been chewing the carpet this month since Hanley publicly denounced their designated candidate for a Staten Island assembly seat. The internal squabble has irked party officials more than usual because it comes at the precise moment that they are trying to build their strategy for this year’s gubernatorial election.
It also takes place just as state comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carl McCall boosted the party’s stature by calling it the preferred alternative to Ray Harding’s patronage-seeking, Giuliani-endorsing Liberal Party. So the last thing party leaders want is a public fight with one of their hitherto stalwart backers, particularly over an endorsement for a little-known assembly seat on Staten Island.
For Hanley, however, it’s a fight worth having because the issue goes to the core of why the party was started in the first place.
Last summer, then mayor Giuliani got a strong taste of the Hanley treatment at one of his final town meetings in Staten Island’s Tottenville. Giuliani had every reason to expect to be on friendly ground, and the gathering was going according to its tightly controlled script until several dozen city bus drivers, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, started demanding the mayor explain why his administration was subsidizing new private bus routes. The mayor’s people decided to allow a single question and Hanley lumbered to the microphone. Private bus lines, he told Giuliani, have long been a corruption hazard for mayors past, and the recent deal between the administration and a bus firm that was also a major mayoral campaign contributor had a definite taint to it. He got no further.
“I don’t talk to people that accuse me of corruption. That’s it,” snapped the mayor, cutting him off. When Hanley kept trying to talk, a swarm of cops surrounded him. The standoff soon ended with Hanley and his drivers walking out, but the mayor continued to rage. “You all look too irresponsible to be bus drivers. You’re a bunch of idiots,” he shouted at their backs.
Ever since his election in 1987 on an insurgent platform to head his 1300-member union local, Larry Hanley’s confrontational style has made enemies. An ex-bus driver who got fed up with the secretive way his union was run, he is Ralph Kramden with progressive politics and a savvy sense of organizing. Molinari became so irate after Hanley criticized his ties to nonunion bus companies that he held a fundraiser for Hanley’s opponent in a union election (Hanley won, by a two-to-one margin).
Although transit unions have traditionally veered away from opposing fare hikes—reasoning that fares pay members’ salaries—Hanley has always fought high fares as bad for both labor and the riding public. In 1995, Hanley orchestrated a successful campaign by riders and unionists to roll back bus fares from $4 to $3. The result was an explosion in bus ridership. He has brought an often zany creativity to his causes. He once hired a horse-drawn stagecoach to slowly clop along Manhattan streets with a sign, “Is this the future of Staten Island transit?” When commuter buses sat in stalled traffic on the way to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Hanley hired a helicopter to take photos of new express bus lanes at the Lincoln Tunnel and then distributed them to riders with the question, “How come we can’t get this for Staten Island?”
“He is one of the most creative and energetic labor leaders in the city, a combination of Cecil B. DeMille and [the late Transport Workers Union leader] John Lawe,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphanger’s Campaign.
But not all of Hanley’s challenges to authority have worked out as planned. In 1997, frustrated that the county’s Democratic committee was too cozy with the dominant Republicans, Hanley suggested to city labor leaders that unions could become the dominant voice in the party if it filled hundreds of vacant committee positions with their own members. Many leaders, including Central Labor Council president Brian McLaughlin, bought into the idea, and scores of union members spent the hot summer gathering petition signatures, winning more than 500 committee slots.
High-level labor officials, however, later reached a power-sharing settlement with county Democratic officials. Hanley viewed the rapprochement as a sellout; others said Hanley misconstrued the original strategy. In any event, that fall’s Democratic county meeting was marked by angry pushing and shoving. One of Hanley’s members fell, or was pushed, down a flight of stairs. A key player in the talks with the Democratic leadership, according to Hanley, was plumbers union political director Jimmy Hart, a mainstream Democrat with close ties to the state’s labor establishment and little use for Hanley’s radical ideas.
That November, many of the same union leaders, including McLaughlin and Hart, endorsed Giuliani for re-election. An angry Hanley quit the Democrats and helped to form the new Working Families Party. The idea was to promote progressive labor issues and pressure Democrats from the left. “I thought we could win back Reagan Democrats,” said Hanley. The party won its ballot line by backing Democrat Peter Vallone for governor and worked hard for Hillary Clinton in 2000. It was also instrumental in the election of several of last fall’s new crop of city councilmembers.
This month, plumbers union leader Hart decided to run for a vacant Staten Island assembly seat, one long held by conservative Democrat Eric Vitaliano. Hart won the Democratic nod and also told local papers that he expected to receive the nomination of the Working Families Party. To Hanley this was a vivid reminder of what he viewed as the betrayal at the county’s Democratic party committee. He decided to challenge it.
As head of the Working Families Party’s Staten Island chapter, Hanley convened a meeting where a member of his own union local was nominated for the assembly seat by a vote of 19-4. Chapter nominations are only advisory, however, and at the party’s convention in Albany this month, the executive committee—composed of representatives of several unions close to the plumbers—overwhelmingly reversed the chapter vote, giving the nomination to Hart.
Hanley protested—loudly. Party leaders responded that other unions with Staten Island members supported Hart and that Hanley was stubbornly refusing to accept a matter of simple democratic procedures.
“Larry Hanley wants to run the Working Families Party on Staten Island on Larry Hanley’s terms, without regard to other affiliates. We set things up so that shouldn’t happen, so that no one individual can dictate policies,” said Bob Masters, co-chairman of the party and a leader of the Communication Workers of America.
To Hanley, the issue was more basic. “I feel like we are back to where we started. This is what drove me out of the Democrats. The party is saying, ‘The heck with you members.’ It’s incremental, but there is a drift here towards becoming a Ray Harding-type party.”
What’s most unclear, however, is whether the state’s most liberal but still fragile party can tolerate a good old-fashioned battle.