Huffpost New York
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tom Allon Headshot

Will Labor Pains Give Birth to a New Mayor?

Posted: Updated:

One of the reasons New York has had Republican mayors for the last 20 years is because the City's public and private sector unions have fragmented in Democratic primaries.

Even though labor talked about unifying around one candidate in 2013, history is about to repeat itself.

The conventional wisdom was that Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, one of the founders of the Working Families Party, would be the consensus choice for Mayor.

But since Christine Quinn was so far ahead in the polls, labor leaders were wary of backing DeBlasio early. A few renegade unions peeled off and supported Quinn or John Liu -- Retail Workers to the Speaker and city employees to the Comptroller.

DeBlasio reeled in one big fish, 1199, the health care workers union, which has a large membership and a strong political operation.

To make matters even more disunified, the Uniformed Officers Unions lined up for Bill Thompson.

This gives the four major Democratic candidates not named Weiner significant union support.

Oy! Where does that leave The Working Families Party (WFP), an amalgalm of unions that needs a 60 percent quorom to give their line to a candidate?

Probably on the sidelines for the September 10th primary, because the party can't afford to back a loser.

Why should voters care about who these organizations support?

Now, more than ever, the city's fiscal health and tax policies are linked to how the next mayor handles labor negotiations.

For the past four years all the city's unions have been working without an official contract (Although the mayor has had many successes, reforming health care and pensions is not one of them nor are labor relations).

But some smart labor leaders like Greg Floyd at Teamsters Local 237 got his members a 3.6 percent annual cost of living increase, so some unions have no claim to "retroactive raises," because, essentially, they've already received them.

The next mayor faces an unfunded liability of approximately $10 billion, if one believes that the city's unions deserve retroactive raises. That's almost 15 percent of the annual $70 billion budget -- a huge gap that would necessitate deep service cuts or a whopping tax increase.

That's not a great choice for an incoming mayor who will have to increase the size of the police force (which has dropped 12 percent), spend more to make sure the "Common Core" curriculum doesn't fail, and would get push-back for proposing property tax hikes.

What does the current crop of contenders say they will do to face this budget crisis head on?
We have not seen a creative plan from any of the candidates. The GOP frontrunners -- John Catsimatidis and Joe Lhota -- take the expected conservative line that we cannot afford retroactive raises. That's more specific than their potential November opponents.

Anthony Weiner has made the most intriguing half-attempt to confront this issue by saying that retroactive raises have to be weighed against requiring city employees to pay a portion of their health care.

Bill Thompson, Christine Quinn and Bill DeBlasio -- all say they don't want to negotiate future union deals in public (Translation: they don't want to jeopardize those endorsements or they don't have a clue how to pay for these retroactive raises).

John Liu, who is running so far to the left he should see if the Socialist Party Line is still available, believes we must pay those $10 billion in retroactive raises but offers no concrete plan to pay for them.

It looks like another circular firing squad on the Democratic side with four union-backed candidates alternately pandering and then trying to dodge back to the middle to assure New York's business and real estate interests that they will be their champion, too.

And then there's the outsider: fast-talking and glib Anthony Weiner, who has the luxury of speaking his mind and not being constrained by his desire to get union support -- because he won't. The same goes for Republicans Lhota and Catsimatidis.

Those three candidates will hopefully put forward smart plans in the coming months that will balance the interests of city workers and taxpayers.

As for the Democratic primary scrum -- labor's fragmented support may once again deliver a mayor to City Hall who has not been endorsed by many of the major unions.

Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg were not labor's first choice.

Will 2013 continue that 20-year streak of labor unions backing losers?

Tom Allon, a former member of the United Federation Teachers, is the president of City and State, NY and a former Liberal Party-backed candidate for Mayor. Questions or comments? Email: tallon@cityandstateny.com