In September of 2013, when it was clear Bill de Blasio was destined to become the mayor of New York and not a political footnote, there were two people ready to introduce him to the raucous crowd at his primary-night party.
One was the actress Cynthia Nixon, perhaps de Blasio’s most aggressive (and glamorous) campaign surrogate. The other was a bald and goateed man unrecognizable to most New Yorkers.
“As excited as I am, we still have work to do. We’re not there yet,” George Gresham, the president of 1199 SEIU, said from the stage of the Brooklyn venue hosting de Blasio’s bash. “We have to continue to be vigilant and strong and make sure that we complete the job that we started.”
It’s easy to overlook Gresham, an understated 62-year-old who often talks like he just roused himself from a nap. It’s a lot harder to overlook the bloc he leads, the largest union in New York State and a political force few can cross, with an army of 350,000 members nationally. Ask a Democrat or Republican who’s labored in Albany or City Hall and seen the titanic union up close, and they’ll tell you that, for better or worse, it does right by its members and gets what it wants.
And what it wants will become clear on Election Day. With New York’s state senate hanging in the balance, progressives are praying for Democrats to somehow retake control of the chamber. Yet while the ostensibly liberal union is fighting for Hillary Clinton, it’s propping up the Donald Trump–friendly conference back home.
In July, after announcing it would support the state senate GOP’s quest to remain in the majority, 1199 funneled $100,000 to the state Republican Party’s coffers, a whopping sum by Albany standards that made clear what side it was on. In the swing races that matter for Democrats, 1199 is either helping the Republican or standing down altogether. Someone not schooled in the Alice in Wonderland nature of New York politics might, in the era of Black Lives Matter and democratic socialism, call this cognitive dissonance.
The battleground for the state senate centers on places like Long Island, where Republican incumbents Carl Marcellino and Kemp Hannon enjoy 1199 support as they try to fend off vigorous Democratic challenges. Before backing Todd Kaminsky, a Democratic state senator from Nassau County, the union was supporting his Republican opponent in an April special election that Kaminsky won by fewer than a thousand votes.
And in other parts of the state, like Orange County and the Hudson Valley, 1199 is defending endangered Republicans at the expense of Democrats. The union’s support may not necessarily mean cash infusions to individual campaigns or ground troops; rather, the advantage for the GOP lies in the sidelining of a crucial resource for Democrats who would advance a city-friendly agenda were they elected.
No matter what, 1199 will never have a problem getting a call returned from City Hall. The same holds true for the governor’s office, where Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, plots de Blasio’s destruction while counting Gresham as one of his dearest allies. It’s a balancing act the union has mastered — whether it helps or hurts the progressive movement it claims to support.
“They look out for their own interests first. They don’t necessarily ask, ‘What’s best for working people in New York State or New York City?’ ” said a prominent labor leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Part of their power is they’re so focused on themselves and willing to support elected officials, even if it’s to the detriment of the rest of the labor movement.”
The influence of Gresham’s union was reaffirmed when Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, investigating the de Blasio administration’s bungling of a Lower East Side land deal that appeared to allow a hospice for AIDS patients to be turned into luxury condos, released a trove of emails and text messages that showed how closely 1199 worked with City Hall to make sure the disastrous deal, also under state and federal investigation, came to fruition.
According to the emails, 1199 helped the Allure Group, a for-profit nursing care provider, court the de Blasio administration as it successfully persuaded the city to modify a deed restriction on Rivington House, the hospice facility. After the deed change, Allure sold Rivington House to a luxury housing developer, a move that de Blasio and 1199 didn’t seem to anticipate. Hoping for a nursing home, 1199 wanted to save jobs for the union. De Blasio has said Allure lied to him.
There are several sources of 1199’s strength. One is its sheer size and the amount of cash it can pour into local and statewide races. Million-dollar TV ad buys are no great strain.
In Albany, 1199 has the advantage of lobbying in alliance with the people who employ much of its membership. Both the Greater New York Hospital Association and 1199 want as much spending on healthcare as possible. “On many health policy issues, 1199 and hospitals have a united interest in getting increased financial support from the government,” said Richard Gottfried, the longtime chair of the state assembly’s Health Committee.
Another strength is the makeup of the union: predominantly black and Latino, many of them city residents who will vote in Democratic primaries. 1199 engenders fierce loyalty in its membership (benefits include summer day camps for children and scholarship funds), and an endorsement from Gresham is obeyed by the rank and file. Other sprawling unions don’t have it so easy. The United Federation of Teachers, for example, struggles to tell teachers how to vote.
When 1199 endorsed de Blasio, then a little-known mayoral candidate, he was immediately taken more seriously by donors and the media. Though many other labor unions deserted him in favor of his rivals, Gresham had the foresight (or luck) to stick by the eventual winner.
“Out there during parade season or a rally before a debate, you show up and get your 25 to 30 people there. An extra 75 people show up from 1199 and you feel really good,” said Bill Hyers, de Blasio’s 2013 campaign manager. “They have a long tradition of really high-quality staff coming through there.”
Indeed, top political talent like Patrick Gaspard, a de Blasio confidant who now serves as the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, and Jennifer Cunningham, a top Democratic operative in the state, cut their teeth at 1199. Kevin Finnegan, the union’s most recent political director, played an instrumental role in whipping votes for Melissa Mark-Viverito (a former 1199 organizer herself) before she was elected City Council Speaker.
Originally a small union of drugstore pharmacists, 1199 operated in the shadows of more vociferous labor leaders a half-century ago, playing second fiddle to men like Albert Shanker, the revolutionary head of the UFT, and Harry Van Arsdale Jr., the first president of the New York City Central Labor Council. As 1199 began to organize hospital workers, growing in size, it became more politically active, joining the civil rights movement and the women’s rights struggles of the 1970s.
A turning point came in 1998, when 1199 joined the Service Employees International Union and dramatically bolstered its membership. Dennis Rivera, Gresham’s predecessor, is still regarded as one of the most formidable labor leaders in New York history. Under his eighteen-year stewardship, which ended in 2007, the union tamped down on infighting, almost quadrupled its membership, and battled, successfully, for the creation of Family Health Plus to provide health insurance for more low-income children.
“1199 is the biggest change agent in New York,” said Jonathan Westin, the director of New York Communities for Change, a progressive group. “When they put their weight behind things, they can move the needle.”
One part populist firebrand — championing gay marriage, universal healthcare, and the withdrawal of the Navy from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques — and one part accommodationist, Rivera strengthened an 1199 tradition dating back to the midcentury reign of Governor Nelson Rockefeller: joining forces with the Republican Party.
“Their political strategy has been remarkably consistent over a half-century, even more,” said Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the CUNY Graduate Center. “On one hand it has a kind of left-wing progressivism in its attitudes, and on the other hand it’s been practical in trying to win financial and legal arrangements to make advances for its members.”
Rivera perfected this art under Republican governor George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. After negotiating $1.8 million in pay raises for healthcare workers, Pataki won the endorsement of 1199 in 2002 as he ran for his third term. New York spends more on Medicaid than Florida and Texas combined thanks in part to 1199’s efforts. Despite the GOP’s dominance in Albany, healthcare cuts were averted because Bruno and Pataki knew they needed the union’s help to remain in power in an increasingly Democratic state.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle learned to never cross 1199 after Eliot Spitzer was elected governor in 2006. A Democrat, Spitzer declined 1199’s endorsement, seeking drastic cuts to hospitals and the state’s ballooning Medicaid budget. In an infamous PowerPoint presentation, Spitzer dubbed 1199 “guardians of the status quo.”
With Bruno’s encouragement, 1199 launched a startling counteroffensive: a $4.5 million television ad campaign that brought Spitzer to heel. A year later, a prostitution scandal had felled Spitzer, and 1199 was able to wrap its arms around a new governor, this time someone who owed his political career to the union: Cuomo, who attributed his first electoral win to 1199’s heavy backing.
“When I went to run for attorney general and I had been knocked on my rear end before and I needed a friend, I went to…George Gresham,” Cuomo said at an AFL-CIO conference this month.
Unlike Spitzer, Cuomo has nurtured the Republican senate, belittling liberal agenda items like raising the minimum wage and shrinking income inequality through much of his first term. 1199 helped undercut one of Cuomo’s mortal enemies, the left-leaning Working Families Party, by breaking away from its labor coalition and depriving it of funds and manpower. This year Cuomo promptly took a left turn, switching positions and endorsing a $15 minimum wage. Then the Republican conference did the same, in exchange for 1199’s endorsement.
“Historically, we have supported elected officials on both sides of the aisle,” said Mark Riley, a spokesman for the union, in a statement. “Going forward, we will continue to build the strongest, most effective movement of working people in New York and throughout the nation, so we can achieve good jobs with a living wage, equality, rights, and social justice.”
As Cuomo has felt growing pressure to support Democrats trying to retake control of the senate this fall, the calls for 1199 to do the same have been sotto voce at best. The reasoning is fairly simple: Democrats want the union in their corner next year, and many of the most liberal members of the chamber represent districts with a lot of 1199 members. And it’s not as if the union doesn’t support Democrats more than Republicans overall: Since 2006, it’s funneled at least $12.5 million to Democratic candidates and $1.8 million to Republicans, according to an analysis by Competitive Advantage Research. (Other unions, to a lesser degree, will occasionally support labor-friendly Republican incumbents.)
But how can a union that led marches against stop-and-frisk and hosted a dialogue between Justice League NYC, a leading civil rights group, and City Hall also bankroll a political party so hostile to its social-justice agenda?
Ed Cox, the chairman of the state GOP, is an enthusiastic Trump supporter. For all the liberal victories 1199 has racked up in New York, there’s the inescapable fact that most of them, and probably a lot more, would have been possible with a fully Democratic state legislature. And that would be possible if 1199 actually tried to help senate Democrats in Nassau and Suffolk counties, where several toss-up races this fall will determine the makeup of the upper chamber, and where Republicans have held sway through a mix of gerrymandering and weakened opposition.
1199’s position is unassailable. Don’t expect a peep from de Blasio — a consistent critic of senate Republicans — the Working Families Party, or even senate Democrats, who are resigned to reality. The union’s pragmatism, though, has cost the working class and poor in the five boroughs, even factoring in recent achievements. Just look at the city’s rent regulation laws, controlled by Albany and gutted repeatedly over the past two decades by a GOP majority proudly in the pocket of the real estate industry.
The union has also enabled Cuomo’s divide-and-conquer strategy on organized labor, as he cozies up to private-sector unions while warring with public employees and schoolteachers. The governor’s counterproductive and absurd obsession with undermining de Blasio — where does he find the hours in the day to so thoroughly plot a man’s downfall? — has not been curbed by Gresham, the rare person who counts both men as friends and could act as peacemaker if he so desired. The city only suffers.
But it’s not as if the status quo has been so bad for 1199.