Failed LaSalle nomination leaves Hochul’s relationship with labor in a state of confusion

Union leaders, including some who were left feeling jilted by the governor’s executive budget, are still willing to give her more time to win their favor.

The governor did not include labor provisions in two major budget proposals.

The governor did not include labor provisions in two major budget proposals. Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Whenever New York Democratic officials hold big conferences, labor always gets special shoutouts. This year’s Caucus Weekend in Albany, the annual legislative conference hosted by the New York State Association of Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislators in February, was no different.

During the well-attended Labor Lunch, a long list of speakers took the stage to praise the work of unions and reaffirm their support for workers. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was among the first, followed later by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, state Attorney General Letitia James and Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado. The rallying cry “Is labor in the house?” got repeated several times throughout the lunch, but attendees never responded with any less enthusiasm as the state’s top officials addressed some of the most politically powerful groups in the state.

Notably absent, though, was Gov. Kathy Hochul. Unlike state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who was sick, Hochul made appearances at a number of events during Caucus Weekend. Asked about her absence, a spokesperson for the governor said she “appreciated a productive Caucus Weekend discussing shared priorities.” But the lunch came on the heels of a historic blow to Hochul’s governorship: the rejection of her nominee to lead the state’s highest court, Hector LaSalle. LaSalle, who would have been the state’s first Latino chief judge, was rejected by the state Senate on the grounds that he was too conservative, especially in his jurisprudence involving organized labor. It was the first time the upper chamber had ever rejected a Court of Appeals nominee from the governor.

No one who took the stage at the Labor Lunch openly spoke ill of the governor – in fact, she was barely mentioned at all. But it seemed indicative of the tenuous relationship between Hochul and unions right now. Following her nomination of LaSalle, she included several ambitious, tenure-making proposals in her executive budget that left some parts of the labor movement feeling jilted. Now, labor leaders say they have ultimately been left more confused than anything else. But while neither side has declared war, with labor leaders offering her time to better define their relationship, Hochul’s grace period after taking office can only last so long. 

Room for repair

Hochul’s decision to nominate LaSalle to lead the state’s court system in December hit some leaders especially hard given the governor’s tight margin of victory in November and the role that labor played in helping her over the finish line when polls showed her Republican opponent then-Rep. Lee Zeldin closing the gap between them. In the weekend before the election, the health care workers union 1199SEIU made 70,000 phone calls in support of Hochul and distributed 50,000 campaign leaflets, according to Newsday. The paper also reported that the state teachers union sent nearly 60,000 handwritten postcards to members and spent $1 million through an independent expenditure committee to further aid Hochul.

“We got her elected!” James Mahoney, general vice president at the Ironworkers Union, said at a January rally opposing LaSalle. “We are behind the Democratic Party, but you have to show us you are with us too.”

Several other prominent and politically powerful unions, including 32BJ, the Communications Workers of America and the New York State AFL-CIO, stood against Hochul and the LaSalle nomination, citing a particular case he ruled on allowing a defamation lawsuit to proceed against individual CWA union organizers. But the governor never backed down, standing by her nominee until the very end when the full state Senate finally rejected him earlier this month.

The decision has left members of the labor movement and political observers scratching their heads, even though they afford Hochul time to improve the relationship. “I think they all feel it’s a rocky relationship, and they don’t really know how to trust her yet,” Camille Rivera, a Democratic consultant with a history of working with unions, told City & State. She said that any harm that Hochul has done to that relationship is not irreparable and that the governor has so far proven that she is far more willing to come to the table in good faith, but that unions won’t give her forever. “There’s a small window, like 18 months, of her ability to really reset.”

Labor leaders and Democrats have traditionally had a symbiotic relationship – and this is especially true for statewide positions like governor. Unions represent hundreds of thousands of working-class New Yorkers, an incredibly powerful voting bloc, and the biggest ones have the money and apparatus to offer significant support to those they endorse. In the waning days of her 2022 race for governor, labor turned out in a big way to make sure its members hit the ballot boxes when it became apparent that Hochul needed a boost. Hochul, in turn, has the power to help union leaders and their members achieve a variety of policy goals, particularly as part of the budget where the governor has the most influence. A healthy working relationship benefits both parties.

Even those that had been vocal and public about their opposition to LaSalle say that the working relationship with Hochul, while not perfect, has the opportunity to improve. “We made it clear what our issues were with the LaSalle nomination, and I think we can move on from there at this point,” said one labor source from a major union who requested anonymity to speak candidly about relationships with the governor. The source said that leaders and Hochul are all “adults,” and that they’re continuing to work with her on a variety of budget priorities while expressing hope that she and her team have “digested” the lessons learned from the LaSalle saga. “We’re hopeful that that’s something they remember moving forward and to remember to engage with us and take our concerns very seriously,” the source said.

Both the source and Rivera at least partially attributed the early missteps to a potential misunderstanding about the give and take that exists between a Democratic governor and the labor movement, particularly when it comes to its sway in electoral politics and connections with working-class people across the state. “I think it’s important for her to understand those dynamics, and hopefully she can reset that relationship,” Rivera said.

Budget blunders

Budget negotiations certainly give Hochul the chance to make new inroads with unions, but her executive proposal has left some labor leaders lacking. In particular, her plans for building 800,000 units of new housing and to ramp up green energy production did not include labor standards that would ensure good wages and union jobs to those working on the projects. “We are deeply alarmed by Governor Hochul’s decision to exclude labor requirements in her new housing agenda,” a statement from the New York City District Council of Carpenters read after the governor’s budget presentation. “This isn’t just bad policy; it also undermines New York’s economy. On the green energy side, a handful of unions recently released a letter calling on the Legislature to include labor standards in their one-house budget proposal after Hochul received criticism from some on the left for leaving them out. Teachers unions were similarly perplexed by Hochul’s proposal to lift the cap on charter schools in New York City, something they strongly oppose.

A fight with legislators over labor standards for these major projects could also prove significant during negotiations. “We can’t do anything – and won’t do anything – in this state unless our brothers and sisters in labor are with us,” Heastie said at the Caucus Weekend Labor Lunch. 

Even with fresh criticisms stemming from some of her budget proposals, Hochul still has not totally lost support from unions that helped get her into office. “We have an open, honest relationship, so when we disagree, we speak,” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta told City & State. After a decade of Andrew Cuomo, with whom Pallotta quarreled, he called Hochul “a breath of fresh air” despite the staunch disagreements on the future of charter schools, especially with full funding of Foundation Aid. “I do think that of course there will be differences, but it’s a relationship based on trust.”

Hochul also still has friends in the construction trades, an incredibly powerful wing of the labor movement who will likely be involved heavily in the efforts across the state to build more housing. At the groundbreaking of a new Terminal 6 at John F. Kennedy International Airport this month, the governor gave a special shout out to Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, whose union will have members working on the project. “I was just praising organized labor yesterday at JFK,” Hochul told City & State when asked at an unrelated event on Friday about her relationship with labor. “I’m going to continue partnering and making sure that we work on important projects that make New York the best state it can be.” 

LaBarbera offered strong support last year for Hochul’s proposed replacement for a developer tax break meant to incentivize the construction of affordable housing for the strengthened labor standards she included and did not criticize the governor for her pick of chief judge. Although the governor did not reintroduce the tax break proposal this year after it failed, hers and LaBarbera’s relationship hasn’t seemed to sour. “Organized labor is the linchpin to getting this done,” Hochul praised, speaking directly at LaBarbera at the groundbreaking event. In the audience, LaBarbera nodded in agreement as he applauded.