Most of the Democratic candidates for New York City mayor can brag without deceit about having the backing of labor. Comptroller John Liu has District Council 37, the large public-sector confederation, on his side, along with several building trades groups, even though he noted that public unions shouldn’t expect full retroactive pay on new contracts settled under his administration. The United Federation of Teachers and Teamsters Local 237 soon undermined Liu’s public-sector support by backing his predecessor Bill Thompson, who vows not to seek higher taxes on the wealthy. He also has the backing of several cop unions, which is no surprise, considering he has the most of NYPD-friendly platform of the bunch.
To the annoyance of anyone who sees Christine Quinn as a surrogate for outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ (representing building workers like door people, custodians and security guards) and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union tapped the same City Council Speaker who impeded the sick days and living wage bills until they were stripped of real power. To demonstrate how cynically deferential to government power a union as large as 32BJ is that it can’t stick to its principles of worker justice, consider this Tweet from NY1’s Courtney Gross: “Asked about sick leave if 32BJ would support [Quinn] if she didn't move it forward, 32BJ says ‘we would have had to look at that.’”
The bigger SEIU affiliate—1199, also known as United Healthcare Workers East—is backing Public Advocate and former Hillary Clinton campaign manager Bill de Blasio, who has spent four years as the city’s official ombudsman staking out carefully vague non-positions on issues like stop-and-frisk.
Division among unions in an election is, in large part, to be expected. Unions tend not to choose a major candidate based on a general economic record, but on what specific and short-term policy promises a candidate makes to a particular membership. But an inability for labor to change that mentality in an election where New York could have its first Democratic mayor in two decades, and create a more general political movement shows just how ineffective they are even in New York City, where labor has 1.3 million members and still actually retains some power in a country where organized labor is more or less decimated.
This, of course, isn’t the message a union’s president or its public relations representatives will tell any one, and it wasn’t the message at the June 12 rally outside City Hall, where the elected chieftains of the city's public sector unions voiced anger at Bloomberg for stalling contract negotiations for three years and demanded that the next mayor offer a fair raise and protections of benefits for city workers. (Full disclosure: This writer has an editing job for a DC 37 affiliate, Local 371, though it has remained neutral in the race.)
That demand doesn’t have much salience if each candidate looks at the sea of members and knows that it does not represent a real united front. And the consequences of that disunity are widespread. At a recent meeting of labor journalists in New York City the question of why labor hasn’t created think tanks and media organs to counter-balance things like the Manhattan Institute came up. One answer, in response specifically to the failed attempt to create a new union-backed think tank in the city, posited that unions “don’t speak the same language,” a reference to the little policy differences that divide them.
Learning from Business
It’s a sad answer because the business community doesn’t suffer from this. The restaurateur, the financier and the construction magnate all have different direct needs and concerns on an operational level, but they are in general agreement on what they want (to make money) and what they don’t want (regulations and strong unions that could increase costs). That’s why they are able to having things like and places like the Manhattan Institute that pump out anti- union reports and op-ed pieces.
Is uniting people on the left on general economic issues actually impossible? People are learning that such consensus is not out of reach. Anyone who spent any amount of time at Zuccotti Park in fall of 2011 can tell you that was one of the few places one could find a squatter punk with facial tattoos, a stroller pushing Park Slope resident and a transit worker agreeing that the blame for the economic crisis rests with Wall Street and its representatives in government.
Myopic Union Leaders
The real problem, many at the meeting agreed, is that labor leaders aren’t interested in being a part of any entity they can’t control. And sadly, a unified labor agenda that transcends short-term policy goals is something no leader could ever single-handedly control. By the same token, getting the unions to unite behind a single candidate weakens the link between any individual union leader and that candidate.
This is not to say that unified political organizing during a campaign season is the ultimate goal of the city labor movement, but campaign season is the perfect moment for unions to attempt building consensus because it is a time when, for better or for worse, the rank-and-file is generally paying attention to the same issue. If anyone from the Occupy Wall Street movement is still wondering why the labor movement never came out as a united force in support, the fragmentation of unions during this election helps explains why.