Much of the debate around the power of labor endorsements in the 2013 mayoral race centers around whether a given union can play a significant role in delivering the election to a candidate. While some labor leaders make much of their ability to play “kingmaker” in election years, there is no definitive metric that can substantiate these claims.
What is clear is that unions are a valuable supplement to practically any campaign. They can spend large sums of money on a candidate’s behalf through independent expenditures, bolster his or her field operation and mobilize their often sizable memberships to get out the vote.
But what happens when unions back the wrong horse in the primary? Will the eventual mayor have a short memory with regard to union-sanctioned attack ads against them in July and August? Will unions that flocked to another candidate rake the eventual Democratic nominee over the coals to secure their support?
These questions will all be answered in the coming months, and the consensus among labor insiders is that despite splintering across the primary field, organized labor will eventually unite behind the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she may wind up being. Should a runoff election happen—which, judging by recent polls, is looking increasingly likely, with no candidate close to the 40 percent threshold—many believe that is when the real wrangling will happen, behind closed doors. Primary campaign wounds will be healed, deals will be made and eventually a nominee will emerge with a more unified coalition of labor support.
“What we’re seeing right now is a tremendous amount of relationship spillover for a number of years with electeds now running for mayor,” said Ed Ott, a labor consultant and former executive director of the Central Labor Council. “Who makes the runoff? You’ll see unions meet amongst themselves, the Working Families Party, Central Labor Council, and see if there’s somebody who they can unite behind. The candidates are gonna shop around.”
The runoff “shopping” will reveal a lot about the relationships that unions have with each candidate. Currently it looks to be a three-person race for the Democratic nomination between—in order of the most recent Quinnipiac University poll—Bill de Blasio, Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson, with Anthony Weiner and John Liu looming as potential spoilers in the race with long-shot chances at winning. Among the three front-runners, de Blasio has the city’s largest union in his corner, 1199SEIU, as well as the smaller but politically powerful Communications Workers of America, District 1; Quinn has received the support of 32BJ SEIU, the Hotel Trades Council, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; Thompson has the backing of the United Federation of Teachers, United Firefighters Association and the Transport Workers Union. Liu’s most notable labor endorsement is from District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal union, while Weiner has been largely shut out, with no major union support.
A runoff between any two of the three candidates currently leading in the polls will mean tough choices for all of the unions. A Quinn versus de Blasio runoff would put the powerful UFT up for grabs. Sources say that Quinn enjoys a good relationship with UFT President Michael Mulgrew despite her alliance with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has had a contentious relationship with the teachers’ union. Political observers feel that backing Quinn would be a natural move for the union, although perhaps a tough sell to the union’s membership. De Blasio was reportedly heavily lobbying for the UFT endorsement early on, though he may have jeopardized any second chance at their backing with recent comments that curiously invoked Bloomberg— a common punching bag for de Blasio during the campaign—and asserted that his own lack of municipal labor support reflects his political “independence.”
“Lots of people like to say… Mayor Bloomberg had the great advantage of independence. He didn’t need anyone’s money. He didn’t need anyone’s endorsement,” de Blasio said, according to a report by Gotham Schools. “I have my own independence.”
Should Thompson and de Blasio make the runoff at Quinn’s expense, 32BJ SEIU would likely be the most coveted union for the finalists, owing to its large Hispanic membership and robust field operation. De Blasio would seem to be the most likely choice for 32BJ, with sources saying that previously the decision-making process came down to him and Quinn for their endorsement.
For private-sector unions, specific policy initiatives come into play. For example, the UFCW Local 1500, representing supermarket workers, would want to see the next mayor continue to keep Walmart out of the five boroughs. Building trades unions, on the other hand, will be keeping a close eye on the future of the Midtown East rezoning, because their members would be in line for a considerable number of jobs on any large-scale construction project.
“Unions, whether public or private, are not monolithic, and they have diverse and often competing interests,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College. “You almost have to go to each of the unions and [ask] where they stand in terms of program and policy implications [in order to] begin to figure out where they are and what the interactions and outcomes might be.”
As for DC 37, with Liu now on the outside looking in—though still with a formidable voting base within the city’s Asian-American community—it would be logical for the union, and most other public sector unions looking to shift their support in a runoff, to back a candidate who takes a less hard-line view in settling the city’s outstanding municipal contracts. That is particularly true in light of the fact that the union has been burned in the past by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whom the union endorsed in 1997, after accepting a two-year wage freeze in 1995, with promises of retroactive pay increases when the city’s finances improved.
“DC 37 was told that the city’s finances were tight at the moment—‘When things improve you’ll get your pay back’—and they never did,” said James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute. “There’s a sense that labor will never do that again. City Hall never made good on that commitment.”
There is also the possibility of political retribution. A maxim in politics is “Reward your friends, screw your enemies.” A union that throws its weight behind a losing candidate might be in for some form of payback from the eventual victor in the race. Some labor leaders have indicated that the specter of political revenge is part of the thought process when making initial endorsements.
“It’d be irresponsible not to calculate [potential retribution] as well. Within that calculus, one of the things you have to consider is, if you don’t stand up for what you believe in, then what are you?” said Arthur Cheliotes, president of the Communications Workers of America, Local 1180, which endorsed John Liu for mayor. “You have to make political decisions, but I would rather any candidate who wins an election know that we have the reputation that if you tread on us, we will bite. So tread carefully.”
Of the Democratic candidates, many labor sources feel that Quinn would be most likely to seek some form of retribution, given her reputation as a tough negotiator and for doling out punishments and rewards to the City Council’s members depending upon the level of their cooperation in advancing her agenda. On the other side of that equation, Thompson is the candidate that many believe would be the most beholden to the unions that back him, as he is regarded as a loyal politician, sometimes to a fault.
“Those [unions] who are with Billy, he might be pretty beholden to teachers and uniforms that will endorse him,” said a source with ties to organized labor, who asked not to be identified so as not to antagonize any candidate. “Chris [Quinn] would probably be the one who keeps names and seeks some retribution for those who aren’t on their team.”
The revenge factor has not always held true in recent elections, however, with much depending on the style and political motivations of the chief executive. When Bloomberg was first elected in 2001 he had almost no labor support to speak of. But he worked well with certain unions during his first term, settling municipal contracts and building relationships with many of the powerful unions, who in turn helped him get re-elected in 2005, and, to a lesser extent, in 2009.
“Endorsements are an important factor, but never a deciding factor [in currying favor with the future mayor],” Parrott said. “Particularly for somebody just getting elected, it depends what their governing style is and who they surround themselves with, and what they see as the coalition that they have to retain in place in order to govern effectively.”
An earlier version of this story appeared in our print edition on Aug. 19, 2013.
Tags: 1199 SEIU, 32BJ SEIU, Anthony Weiner, Arthur Cheliotes, Bill De Blasio, Bill Thompson, Central Labor Council, Christine Quinn, Communications Workers of America, CWA, DC 37, Democrat, District Council 37, Doug Muzzio, Ed Ott, Hotel Trades Council, James Parrott, John Liu, Michael Bloomberg, Michael Mulgrew, Midtown East rezoning, Quinnipiac University, Retail, Rudy Giuliani, RWDSU, Transport Workers Union, UFCW Local 1500, UFT, United Federation of Teachers, United Firefighters Association, Wholesale and Department Store Union