For all the cinematic drama in New York state politics, there’s a buddy movie playing in the labor world.
New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, 43, and Central Labor Council President Vinnie Alvarez, 44, were born just months apart. They share the same native New York accents, and grew up surrounded by family members in labor unions. They’ve been working together now to represent around 4 million state and local union members for about six months.
“We talk on weekends just to catch up with what we do. It’s a seven-day week,” Cilento said as he sat next to Alvarez in a 16th floor conference room at the Central Labor Council’s headquarters.
Alvarez elaborated: “We text, we talk, we email, call each other.”
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said the two are “very much in sync.”
“This is somewhat peculiar, to tell you the truth,” Mulgrew said. “It’s refreshing.”
According to other labor leaders, the pair’s good relationship is helping the labor community win contract battles and ease tensions between labor unions—public and private, city and state—after years of declining union membership and a half decade of rising antiunion sentiment.
Alvarez, a former chief of staff at the Central Labor Council, and Cilento, a former chief of staff at the state AFL-CIO, were hired within six months of each other.
Alvarez took his position in July 2011, and Cilento came on the following December. One of the first problems they faced was Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Tier VI proposal, which promised to significantly reduce government employee pension benefits. Cilento had been president for two weeks, and Alvarez for six months.
Cilento: “We worked together on Tier VI.”
Alvarez: “Right. It was rough stuff.”
Cilento: “Rough stuff.”
“Tier VI was the first campaign where we started to bring everything together to coordinate the activities between state and city and everyone who was going to be affected by it,” Cilento said. “Everyone stayed together.”
Union leaders described a collective sigh of relief at their working relationship. When Alvarez took over the position as president, he replaced Jack Ahern, who resigned after a two-year ethics investigation into his role as business manager at Operating Engineers Local 30.
“I think both of them are very cognizant of the public relations war that’s gone on against both public- and private-sector unions,” said Gary LaBarbera, who was president of the CLC before Ahern. Ahern’s problems created tension between the CLC and the state organization, LaBarbera noted.
“Both [Alvarez and Cilento] understand the key component to a strong labor movement is to have unity within it,” LaBarbera said.
Mulgrew agreed. “Denis [Hughes] kept us in constant communication, but the relationship between the city and state was not as smooth as it is now,” Mulgrew said. “It’s not just about our members any more. It has to be about community. We’re all getting beaten up.”
Alvarez said that organized labor has to do more to coordinate and work together.
“When you look at the other side of the table—corporate America—I guarantee that those institutions, their regional organizations, are coordinating in a highly effective manner,” Alvarez said. “We have to coordinate in a similar way, in an effective way. We have to do it in a time when there is ever-increasing pressure on working people.”
One of the first real tests of that unity came this summer during a three-week-long Con Edison worker lockout. The lockout began on a Sunday morning, and Alvarez and Cilento, already in touch several times a day when there’s no crisis, were able to sign up thousands of union members for unemployment insurance by Monday morning.
“Vinny and the CLC did most of the mobilization efforts in the city, making sure that we had people online and various parties leafleting and all that,” Cilento said.
The state AFL-CIO worked on the political outreach with the governor’s office and his staff, Cilento said, and the Assembly almost immediately granted a request for a public hearing on the safety issues.
“They expedited it, and we had it within two weeks,” Cilento said. “You realize when you’re comfortable with each other, there’s no pride of ownership in these sorts of things.”
That sort of coordinated approach is necessary as labor unions face better-funded opposition and are forced to campaign 12 months out of the year.
“They get it that labor needs to be more like a movement in order to respond to ongoing attacks,” said Héctor Figueroa, the incoming 32BJ president.
With crises managed at home, the labor movement in New York has been able to expand across the country, helping organizations in states like California and Wisconsin in the face of opposition to unions.
Cilento said it is the state labor movement’s duty to help the rest of the country along.
“One out of every seven members in the country comes from the state of New York,” Cilento said. “The rest of the country, I think, does look to us for leadership, whether they want to admit it or not. The labor movement in this country begins and ends right here.”
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