Without DeLay

Nothing divides the labor movement like a good city
election. To watch the calculus of narrow self-interest play out in the scrambled
union endorsements of candidates in this month's New York mayoral primary is to
be grateful that all politics isn't literally local--that at least rudimentary
concerns of ideology tend to loom larger in state and national contests.

In the several recent presidential elections, the national labor
movement has gone to great lengths to unite behind a single Democratic candidate
early and to stay unified. Though some of these candidates were not everything
labor might have wished, a look at the fragmentation in many local elections
gives one a new appreciation for the unity-above-all strategy.

To be sure, the four-way contest for the Democratic nomination, culminating in
the September 11 primary, hasn't exactly been a rousing battle of ideas--or one,
for that matter, of contesting political forces or charismatic candidates. "So
far, this is a race where nobody has much reason to do anything for any of the
candidates; they're all identical," says one of New York's leading longtime
progressive activists. They're not identical, of course, but the more liberal
candidate (Mark Green) has thus far run somewhat to his right while the more
centrist candidates (the other three) have tacked left.

So it should come as no surprise that many of New York's unions have surveyed
the field with an eye toward their own parochial concerns; this, in fact, is the
normal course for local unions in big-city elections. But this year, it stands in
sharp contrast to the course charted by labor in Los Angeles's mayoral election
this spring. Both cities' labor movements have faced essentially the same set of
circumstances: their populations grown increasingly nonwhite and Democratic,
their Republican mayor ousted by term limits, and an array of chiefly Democratic
candidates vying for top office. But the two cities' movements could not have
responded more differently from each other.

Over the past several years, under the leadership of the County Federation of
Labor, L.A. unions have been remarkably successful in advancing a common, broad
progressive agenda; this year, much of that agenda set the terms of debate in Los
Angeles's mayoral election. Most of those unions came together early to endorse
the candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa, a former state-assembly speaker and
onetime local-union organizer who'd come to personify the city's labor-Latino
alliance every bit as much as Al Smith once personified Tammany Hall. By so doing,
the Los Angeles labor movement risked more than its New York counterpart did in
this election cycle and may well have lost more, too, when Villaraigosa went down
to defeat.

In the long run, however, it also achieved more. "The exceptional thing about
the Villaraigosa campaign," says David Koff, a Hotel Employees and Restaurant
Employees union staffer who is a key figure within L.A. labor's brain trust, "is
that you had a charismatic leader with a charismatic following--a movement
intensely supportive of a leader they learned from but whom they also instructed,
as they did the city." That's an assessment no one is likely to make of any of
New York's candidates or unions at the conclusion of this fall's mayoral contest
there.

At first glance, the most logical recipient of union support in
New York's mayoral race would seem to be Mark Green, long a standout among the
nation's most progressive and intelligent leaders-in-waiting. Green has been a
major figure in New York politics for at least 20 years; over the past eight, in
the city's elected position of public advocate, he has emerged as Mayor Rudy
Giuliani's most trenchant critic--forcefully condemning Giuliani's pro-developer
and anti-minority biases and his generally sadistic intemperence, while
championing the economic interests of working-class New York.

In return for all this, Green has won the institutional backing of
much of New York's working class--but not as extensively as he might have
anticipated. Unions representing a total of 330,000 members--roughly one-third of
the city's unionized workers--have endorsed him, but they are preponderantly
private-sector locals and they include none of the city's big-three
public-employee unions: the United Federation of Teachers (UFT); Service
Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199, the city's hospital and health
care workers; and District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County
and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a local that represents the lion's share of
New York's other municipal employees. Green has long championed
teacher-evaluation standards to the point that he was never going to be the UFT's
first choice. Not surprisingly, the UFT endorsed Alan Hevesi, a highly articulate
and intelligent pol who was a leading liberal in the state legislature but who,
during the past eight years as city controller, was more reluctant to criticize
Giuliani than were many of his fellow Democrats. (It is a mark of New York's
political underdevelopment that Giuliani still dominates the city's
discourse--both as commentator and as topic.)

More surprising was District Council 37's endorsement of Peter Vallone, a
67-year-old clubhouse Democrat who has outlived the clubhouses and has served as
city-council speaker since 1986. By most measures, Vallone is not the most
obvious recipient of support from this heavily African-American union: He's the
most conservative Democratic candidate, and his political base is outer-borough
white Catholics. His endorsement by the city's police and fire unions made perfect
sense, as his career has been marked by a consistent silence regarding the
departments' racist practices and an equally consistent support for their
contract demands. But then, Vallone had also delivered for DC 37, repeatedly,
on matters contractual--as had the two city-council members whom DC 37 supported
for controller and public advocate, the other citywide positions on the ballot.
If anything, these endorsements seem intended to impress the many incoming
members of the council, which is undergoing wholesale recomposition as a result
of term limits: Deliver for us, and we'll deliver for you.

More significant is the late shift of Dennis Rivera, head of 1199, from
neutral to pro-Fernando Ferrer. Under Rivera, 1199 has become the city's leading
union in articulating a broad progressive agenda--and its most effective
deliverer of votes on election day. "If you polled our members," says one
activist in this heavily Latino megalocal, "they'd vote for Ferrer." But Rivera
has had close ties to Hevesi and had reason to be suspicious of Ferrer's recent
conversion to champion of the poor and nonwhite--"the other New York," as Ferrer
puts it. After a career as a moderate Democrat and following an abortive 1997
mayoral run in which he supported the death penalty and the fingerprinting of
welfare recipients, Ferrer has morphed this year into a scathing critic of the
racism and brutality of New York's finest, of the city's stunning economic
inequality, of virtually every aspect of Giuliani's mayoralty. Until the final
week, Rivera had evidently concluded that Ferrer couldn't win. For a
public-employee union, few acts are more reckless than backing a loser. But
Ferrer's late surge in the polls was enough to bring Rivera on board.

This utter absence of solidarity among New York's unions, alas,
is precisely what makes this a normal big-city election. Public-sector unions
are everywhere "enmeshed in the culture of incumbency," in the phrase of one
longtime New York union politico; their endorsement is characteristically an
attempt to get more leverage, consolidate what leverage they have, or simply
avoid retribution from the candidates who will soon be or already are their
employers. In 1981, when many New York unions backed the insurgent mayoral
candidacy of Brooklyn assemblyman and stellar labor champion Frank Barbaro
against incumbent Ed Koch, who was then in his most demagogic, union-bashing,
right-wing mode, DC 37 felt compelled to stick with Koch, since he was obviously
going to win big.

In 1999, Los Angeles's main city-employee union, SEIU Local 347, had
carefully monitored the rewriting of the city charter and made sure that it
preserved all worker rights and benefits. But when members of the city council,
including the chair of the budget committee, came out against the document
because it weakened the council's power, the local abruptly abandoned its very
considered support and opposed the new charter when it was placed on the ballot,
rather than displease its members' employers. Given unions' obligations to cut
the best deals for their workers, such endorsements are always defensible--which
doesn't mean that some of them aren't more than a little absurd.

At the federal level, the two largest public-sector unions, AFSCME
and SEIU, can and do adhere to more broad-based endorsement criteria, since
virtually none of their members is a federal employee. At the state and local
levels, however, incumbent endorsements--even Republican ones--are more the rule
than the exception. Within SEIU, which is half private-sector, half
public-sector, this creates some rifts. In New York, SEIU's building-service
and janitorial local, under new progressive leadership, has backed Green, even as
1199 has sat it out. In Los Angeles, the janitors' local was perhaps the most
fervent and effective supporter of Villaraigosa, while the city workers' Local
347 was the most vehement backer of City Attorney James Hahn, whose modest
virtues included having been an exemplary employer of the unionized lawyers and
clericals in his office.

More important, unfortunately, is an incipient racial fault line. Los
Angeles's city-employee union is preponderantly African-American; and as Los
Angeles's private-sector working class and its unions have become overwhelmingly
Latino, a gulf has opened between them and the disproportionately black
public-sector workers. With Latino immigrants playing an ever larger role in the
unions representing blue-collar and low-end service-sector workers all across the
country, while public-sector city workforces remain heavily black, the occasions
for public-sector unions charting their own course in local elections are only
likely to grow--most especially, as was the case in Los Angeles and will probably
be the case in New York, if the black community is unwilling to vote for a
Latino, even a principled anti-nationalist like Villaraigosa.

The divide between public- and private-sector unions isn't the
only source of labor disharmony in city elections, of course. Many
building-trades locals invariably prefer the developers' choice for mayor,
provided that he or she wants union construction workers on the job. For most of
the past half-century, Chicago's trades-dominated labor council has been the
"handmaiden of the Daley/development machine," as one dissident union leader
terms it. In Los Angeles, some building-trades locals joined the city workers to
plump for Hahn, partly out of nostalgic affection for his late father, County
Supervisor Kenny Hahn, the greatest pothole-filler Los Angeles has ever known.

Despite these defections and Villaraigosa's defeat, the L.A. labor
movement nonetheless both set and legitimated a broad agenda (expanding the
living-wage ordinance and funding more affordable housing) during the mayor's
race that even Villaraigosa's rivals, including the newly elected Mayor Hahn,
were compelled to embrace. Indeed, L.A. labor has accrued more power precisely
because of the scope of its social unionism--because it has proven effective in
championing the interests of all immigrant workers, members or not. In an utterly
anomalous strategy for a big-city central labor body, County Federation of Labor
election campaigns are waged, with great success, not just among union members
but in immigrant communities generally. Armed with this added moral and
political clout, the L.A. labor movement, even in defeat, remains a pre-eminent
and creative force in city politics. Would that the same could be said of its
larger but less focused counterpart in New York.

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