ALBANY – After a series of stumbles in his first term, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has become organized labor’s best friend in Albany.
The Democratic governor has pushed through spending to benefit unions and their members, changed laws, issued executive orders and embraced arguably the most pro-labor plank of any governor in the United States.
This fall, it’s been payback time for the unions, including major ones that did not endorse Cuomo in his last run for governor.
In his primary victory last month, Cuomo saw the might that New York unions can bring to a statewide campaign.
The governor benefited from a larger-than-expected turnout in his race against Democratic activist Cynthia Nixon. Observers expect a “blue wave” in the Nov. 6 general election, too.
However, it’s clear that in the state with the largest percentage of unionized workforce, Cuomo also is benefiting from his improving union ties and the resulting “labor wave” of votes.
“I may be biased, but I think we were an integral part of (Cuomo’s) victory,’’ said Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO, which has 2.5 million members in New York – one in seven of all unionized workers in the nation.
Steady flow of union help
Unions, coordinating with the governor’s campaign team and the Democratic Party, are hustling for Cuomo like never before in his political career.
Unions representing everyone from carpenters, longshoremen, cement masons, nurse’s aides, snow truck drivers, machinists, civil servants in state and local governments to cops and firefighters gave nearly $1.1 million directly to Cuomo’s re-election campaign this year.
But that is just a blip of the benefits he received.
That number does not include what unions spent on Cuomo’s behalf:
• 2.8 million “voter contacts” the AFL-CIO made promoting him via targeted digital ads, robocalls, mailings, palm cards and emails to union members in every part of the state.
• $84,000 that a Super PAC called “New Yorkers Together,’’ which is controlled by the Communications Workers of America, spent on one day in August on digital ads boosting Cuomo.
• $150,000 the CWA PAC spent on Twitter and Facebook that directed voters to their polling location and sent them voting reminder notices.
• The use of a call center run by the Civil Service Employees Association to get voters out to the polls to vote for Cuomo.
• Thousands spent by unions representing hotel and casino workers and a transportation workers union on radio ads, text messaging campaigns and other means of reaching voters. The Hotel Trades Council estimated 10 million “impressions” on various social media platforms were achieved on Cuomo’s behalf in the final three weeks of the primary in an effort that targeted likely Democratic voters, women, minorities and labor households.
• The flow of $818,000 in a 16-day period leading up to the September primary from some of the state’s biggest unions to the state Democratic Party, which spent most of the money it received to help Cuomo win.
All of those efforts were made on behalf of Cuomo, despite polls showing he had a commanding lead over Nixon.
A union comes around
In early summer, Danny Donohue, one of the longest-reigning labor leaders in the state, was in Manhattan at an AFL-CIO meeting shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court handed unions a major defeat involving dues collection efforts for public employees. Cuomo offered sharp criticism of the decision and steps he said could blunt some of the decision’s impact.
Donohue, president of the 300,000-member CSEA, which represents state and local government workers, recalled thinking to himself at that moment that his union would endorse Cuomo. It was a sea change from 2014, when Donohue at a labor rally in Albany called Cuomo a “monkey” and a “moron” for cutbacks in state agencies.
After he was first elected in 2010, Cuomo appeared to go out of his way to verbally attack public employee unions over a series of fiscal and policy matters.
But, more recently, Donohue said Cuomo “stopped being the governor and started looking at it from the service component.’’
That, he said, led to Cuomo boosting staffing levels at agencies that provide services for people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, as well as at the transportation department.
“For the last two years, he’s been listening," Donohue said of Cuomo.
For that, Cuomo not only got CSEA’s endorsement, but its considerable political apparatus that included a member-to-member outreach program of phone calls, emails, literature drops on doorsteps, and driving voters to polls on primary day. Cuomo won the primary with 64 percent of the vote.
The sole big public employee union not to return to his side: the New York State United Teachers, which has not endorsed him this year but had offered warm words of praise for better relations he has forged with the group’s leaders.
“Yes, some of the unions turned the page with Andrew. It’s not that complicated. It has to do with performance," said Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, an umbrella organization of 140 public and private sector unions with 140,000 members.
Cuomo’s march with unions
Cuomo has had close ties with unions representing private sector workers for many years.
But in 2014, the AFL-CIO did not help Cuomo in his first re-election run because a number of public sector unions – CSEA, NYSUT, the Public Employees Federation and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – were openly battling with Cuomo.
As political insiders argue over just how far Cuomo has shifted to the political left in his second term, there is no argument that Cuomo has cozied up with unions more than ever.
He pushed through renewal of a lucrative tax break program for New York City housing developers that contained a mandate on union wage levels. He angered Canadian officials with a “Buy American” program for certain construction materials that won labor’s support. He drove through a minimum wage increase to $15, a level he once characterized as unworkable, and got a paid family leave initiative approved. He's looking at ending separate, and lower, minimum wage levels for waiters and others who rely on tips.
Cuomo made union-friendly changes to Industrial Development Agency programs, pushed wage protection actions, OK'd the right for union dues to be deducted from state income taxes, got a labor peace deal for manufacturers of medical marijuana and helped encourage a casino to use union workers. And he took steps in an all-out attack on the Supreme Court’s “Janus” decision in June, including new requirements that unions be given personal information about new employees that unions can use for membership purposes.
Cuomo has also gone on the front line, like no governor in recent memory, to openly back union-organizing efforts at JetBlue, a hospital and hotel in Albany and at a manufacturing facility in Allegany County and was highly visible in supporting union workers at Verizon in their strike against the company in 2016.
Vital to some unions: Cuomo likes to build things, whether expensive, multiyear bridge projects or new airport terminals. And he insists on union construction jobs for the projects. That means money in the pocket of union members and more dues for unions.
Finally, there is Cuomo’s rhetoric. Noticed by union leaders is that Cuomo goes out of his way to use the word “union” in speeches.
“New York is and always has been a union state," Cuomo said in July.
Last November, in announcing a $150 million construction project downstate that contained a pro-labor workforce component, Cuomo boasted that the job would be done with unionized workers. “When you build union, you build better,’’ Cuomo said.
It got Cuomo votes in his primary against Nixon. How many is uncertain, but Cilento estimated more than half of AFL-CIO affiliated union members are enrolled Democrats. And union members not only vote more regularly than the general population, they are also willing to engage in the political process and take on tasks like blanketing a neighborhood with pro-Cuomo leaflets or make evening and weekend calls to fellow union members on Cuomo’s behalf.
A 2013 study by Jasmine Kerrissey of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Evan Schofer of the University of California at Irvine found that 72 percent of union meetings had political issues on their agendas. That compares with 32 percent of religious organizations and 53 percent of neighborhood groups. The professors noted past studies that found states with high concentrations of union workers have higher voting rates.
Further, union members have 43 percent higher odds of volunteering on a political campaign than a nonunion worker, and, in presidential elections studied, had 18 percent greater odds that they would vote compared with a nonunion worker and are twice as likely to donate to a candidate.
In a state like New York, such findings provide key explanations for why Cuomo would target unions to become his allies. Just under 24 percent of the state’s workforce is unionized, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is the highest in the nation and far higher than most other big states; Pennsylvania, for instance, has a unionized workforce of 12 percent. Nationwide, union ranks have dropped steadily over the years, with 10.7 percent of the workforce unionized.
Good for business?
If unions are happy about the state’s direction, some business groups said there have been troubling things Cuomo has pushed on labor’s behalf that show, in their mind, the power of organized labor in New York.
“I think there’s no doubt that anybody who observes and follows New York electoral politics understands that organized labor is the most influential special interest in New York whether through lobbying or campaign spending. My members, I think, are concerned that because in many cases nobody has the resources to engage at that level and that their voices aren’t being heard," said Greg Biryla, executive director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.
“Organized labor is the political 1 percent of New York State,’’ he added.
Biryla said Cuomo has shifted from “a more fiscally economic centrist” to one “catering to the interests and demands of organized labor" in his second term. In practice, it has led to more costs and more regulations for business and stalled efforts to undo some mandates on private companies.
Heather Bricetti, president of the Business Council of New York State, said there are business concerns about labor-related mandates that favor unions, such as expansion of prevailing wage rates to nonpublic projects or changes Cuomo advanced limiting changes to employees’ work schedules.
Asked about the union successes in Cuomo’s term, Bricetti said, “I don’t consider us on the opposite side in all instances. I don’t see it as a zero sum game. Their success doesn’t mean we lose. There are a lot of opportunities for us both to succeed."
Abbey Collins, a Cuomo campaign spokeswoman, said the governor thanks unions for their political support. "The labor movement knows they can count on Governor Cuomo to have their backs just as they have stood by the governor — and this strong partnership will have a central role during the general election as we fight to move our middle class forward,'' she said.