Unions Back Bill de Blasio for Mayor, Even While Preparing to Battle Him

By Colby Hamilton on September 25, 2013 6:28am 

 Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio in front on the steps of City Hall in August 2013.
Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio in front on the steps of City Hall in August 2013.
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DNAinfo/Colby Hamilton

CIVIC CENTER — The city’s biggest private and public sector labor unions have rallied behind Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign after being splintered during the primary race, in the hopes of electing the first Democratic mayor in two decades.

While some of de Blasio’s supporters have high expectations about what a Democrat in Gracie Mansion could mean for a progressive policy agenda wish list, labor officials are taking a more measured approach.

"We make no assumptions that he's going to be easy," said Arthur Cheliotes, president of the city agency administrators’ CWA Local 1180, which is among the groups readying to renegotiate the approximately 152 labor contracts up for renewal. "But we think that if he respects the process and he's willing to actually negotiate, we can reach an agreement."

Héctor Figueroa, the president of property service workers' union 32BJ, praised de Blasio’s vision and said he was confident he would be a partner on a host of progressive issues.

But he acknowledged the need for labor to remain proactive about its agenda.

“We would like him to be the person at the other side of the table,” Figueroa said before noting. “We should not be naive about the fact that New York City is a very complicated city to run.”

De Blasio irked some in labor by declaring in early August that his relative lack of primary endorsements left him “unburdened” should he be the one negotiating public sector contracts next year.

Additionally, de Blasio’s reverence for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s handling of labor unions, which de Blasio said amounted to a policy of “walk softly, carry a big stick,” gave some in the labor movement pause.

De Blasio has also invoked his admiration for former President Bill Clinton as inspiration — something that hasn’t been well received by some in labor.

"Bill [de Blasio] comes out of the Clinton model," said one union official, referring to Clinton’s sour relationship with the Arkansas AFL-CIO, which yanked their support for him in his 1990 reelection campaign.

With the next mayor responsible for the renegotiation of labor contracts, many of which have been expired for years, the public sector unions have a tremendous amount invested in the person replacing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But it’s not just the negotiating of contracts moving forward. Some, like the UFT, are calling for retroactive pay raises — a demand that has set off warnings over a possible fiscal meltdown.

De Blasio has repeatedly said he won’t negotiate labor contracts in public. Yet some labor leaders are already calling on their colleagues to dampen expectations when the negotiations actually begin.

“I'd love to tell you [de Blasio] doesn't need pushing. In a vacuum, he doesn't need pushing,” said Kevin Finnegan, the political director for one of de Blasio’s staunchest labor allies, the healthcare workers’ union 1199 SEIU. “But he's not in a vacuum. He's going to be under a lot of pressure."

The de Blasio campaign declined to comment, but instead pointed to what it claimed were numerous public declarations of support for labor made by the candidate.

In the event that de Blasio struggles to meet the expectations of unions and their members after taking office, multiple labor sources said it's no accident unions are spending a lot of effort backing pro-union candidates Scott Stringer for comptroller and Letitia James for public advocate.

Having strong pro-union voices in the other citywide offices creates a line of defense for labor in the event de Blasio proves to be less supportive than planned, sources said.

"No matter how strong he is on your issues during a campaign, you always want other actors out there pushing him to the left," said one labor source in the coalition supporting de Blasio's bid for mayor.

"We have to have some protection," said another labor insider. "We can't leave ourselves exposed."

There’s also the issue of the other guy in the race. For some, former Rudy Giuliani aide Joe Lhota represents the worst possible follow-up to 12 years of Bloomberg.

"He comes out of the mold of a [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie who has openly said, ‘Watch what I'm going to do to the unions, I'm going to drive a knife right in through their hearts,’” said CWA Local 1180’s Cheliotes.

Given the alternative, labor officials see an easy choice in de Blasio, even as they work to manage expectations, should he get elected.

“He's going to have people coming at him from 20 different directions. We’ve got to make sure our agenda is heard and hopefully understood by the new administration,” said G.L. Tyler, the political director for DC 1707, which represents child care workers. “And if there are problems, we want to be able to have an honest dialogue.”

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