For a few hours at the annual Somos conference in Puerto Rico, the political balance in New York state tilted heavily in the direction of New York City firefighters. State Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio were the biggest names at a welcome reception hosted on Thursday afternoon by the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York and the New York City Fire Officers Association, and plenty of other elected officials and lobbyists were on hand as well to pay homage to one of the state’s least controversial interest groups.
The two unions have plenty on their legislative plates as they aim for new contracts with New York City, but the reception was neither the time nor the place to get into the nitty-gritty of collective bargaining. Instead, the firefighters were aiming to make new friends and renew their relationships with Democratic elected officials who oversee everything at the city and state levels that is important to the public-sector unions: pay grades, pensions and safety. While the conversation at the reception – co-sponsored by City & State – tended towards platitudes and pleasantries, politics had a place in the conversation, though elected leaders had a way of couching their remarks.
“Having the majority allows for good things to happen,” Stewart-Cousins told the crowd of several dozen at the reception. “You don’t have to pay us back because we value everything you do.”
Past endorsements by the Uniformed Firefighters Association show that the union tends to favor incumbents from both parties. Democratic state lawmakers at the reception such as Stewart-Cousins, Queens Assemblyman David Weprin and state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky of Queens have all received past endorsements from the union, as have Republicans like former state Sen. Marty Golden of Brooklyn, a former chairman of the state Senate Civil Service and Pensions Committee. “We’ll reach across the aisle and work with elected officials to get things done,” Fire Officers Association President James Lemonda said in an interview.
One reason for this is the narrow political interests of the firefighters, who tend to lobby for legislation directly related to their bottom line rather than the more high-profile issues that often involve other unions like those representing building trades, nurses and health care workers. The agenda of the Senate civil service committee, for example, is filled with tweaks to state law that have a much narrower and less controversial political significance than issues in other committees that involve police unions. While the work of both police officers and firefighters is dangerous by definition, the latter is much less so in a political sense. This is one reason why the firefighter unions can host a reception at Somos where elected officials, lobbyists and union officials can mingle over drinks, while other interest groups like law enforcement canvass Somos with a lower profile.
A key issue for both firefighter unions in ongoing negotiations with the New York City Office of Labor Relations is higher pay and pensions, as well as more funding for safety-related issues like equipment that would clean toxins from personal protective equipment after fires that in modern times feature new health hazards because of the incineration of hydrocarbons and other manufactured chemicals.
There was not a lot of time to convey such points during the limited opportunities at the reception, but that does not mean that the seeds of something bigger were not sown at the event. As the appearances of de Blasio, Stewart-Cousins and DiNapoli showed, the firefighter lobby is not easily ignored by elected officials who have many more constituencies to attend to during their time at Somos.
A wide range of interests appear at the five-day conference, from charter schools to district attorneys to group that organizes trips to Israel for unions and elected officials alike. All of them are looking out for themselves, but few among them do so as openly as the firefighters, who are aiming to shore up their political friendships in the midst of contract negotiations. “We lost pension benefits years ago but we’re trying to get them back,” Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, said in an interview. “We’re always striving to do better for our members.”