Union Labels

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When term limits turn the City Council upside down in 2001, opening 37 of the council’s 51 seats to newcomers, the city will need a new crop of elected officials. There will be no shortage of candidates, from party hacks to immigrant insurgents, who will claim that they are the most committed to New York City. But who better to serve New Yorkers, ask the unions that represent the city’s uniformed civil servants, than the cops, firefighters, corrections officers and sanitation workers who’ve made their careers out of responding to the city’s needs?

A coalition of 12 of the city’s uniformed worker unions is planning to run a slate of candidates with a union label. While election endorsements are a standard ritual of labor’s political influence, this is the first time in memory that unions also plan to run their own candidates–including active members of the civil service. Their obvious interest in winning influence notwithstanding, the coalition’s leaders swear that their needs and the city’s are not as far apart as voters might think.

“We have always been involved in politics,” says Uniformed Firefighters Association Vice President Mike Carter, “but what’s unique now is that because of term limits, you have a situation that’s never presented itself: you have 37 vacancies. So very wisely, the Uniformed Forces Coalition realizes this is going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to influence who wins the election.”

The Uniformed Forces Coalition, which includes the powerful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, is currently searching for candidates from its own active and retired ranks to run for city council in 2001. Anyone, member or not, is invited to submit a resume. The leaders of the effort say that in a race that will throw the entire city’s political leadership up for grabs–besides the council, the Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller and four Borough President seats will be open–the uniformed unions can’t just rely on party politicians to keep an eye out for their interests. This time around, they’re looking for candidates who understand labor’s point of view–from the inside.

The Uniformed Forces Coalition has every reason to jump at the chance to get on the council. Its members feel their interests haven’t been addressed in recent city contracts: Union leaders say that salary increases of 3 to 6 percent in recent years haven’t kept pace with the rise in city revenues that has come with the Wall Street boom. The unions are also coming into 2001 on the defensive–restrictions on lucrative overtime and city residency requirements for cops and firefighters and are just two dreaded proposals that have surfaced in the council in recent years.

So the unions want to get people they can count on in council seats. Says Correction Officers Benevolent Association president Norman Seabrook, “We can’t have individuals that current members can’t work with, that have a spaced-out agenda. I think that it’s important that we as laborers have an experience to bring to the table.”

“It’s certainly frightening, without a doubt,” agrees Carter, the legislative director for the firefighter union. “The only thing we can do is hope that we are going to fill these spots with people who understand our needs.”

And those people, believes Detectives Endowment Association president Thomas Scotto, should come from the union ranks themselves. “There are very few members of the City Council who have prior city service experience, and therefore it’s difficult at times when you go before the City Council to try to convince them of the need to modify the law as a city worker,” he says. “Former city workers would understand the appeal more than others.”

Sheldon Leffler, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, is the kind of councilperson the unions don’t want to see–he has differed often with them on contract terms. Leffler doesn’t believe the unions can wean themselves from self-interest and take a citywide view. The coalition will merely “select candidates who they feel pass muster on certain issues,” he predicts.

The unions insist they’re not just out for themselves, and they boast that their candidates will enjoy the combined manpower, financial strength and resources, such as phone banks, of all 12 unions. They report roughly 100,000 combined active members, and union leaders estimate, perhaps over-enthusiastically, the total strength of active, retired and family members at half a million people.

What they won’t always necessarily have is the backing of Democratic or Republican party pols: According to Carter and other leaders, the coalition is willing to support candidates who have no political party endorsement. With much to both gain and lose from the election, the unions are poised to become an ad hoc party of their own.

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Emerging out of the bargaining process it now hopes to steer, the new Uniformed Forces Coalition began to gel during the 1998 contract talks with the Giuliani administration, as union leaders met informally every couple of months to keep on top of how everyone was doing. As they listed the perennial array of issues they were concerned about, the idea of running candidates for office came up as a way to make sure those concerns were addressed. In October 1999, the coalition began running ads in the Chief, an independent civil service newspaper, inviting members of unions and the public to submit resumes and schedule interviews with union leaders. That process will continue throughout 2000, after which the 12 union leaders will meet to pick their candidates.

The coalition probably won’t nominate a full council slate. What it will do, union heads say, is strive for voter support from outside the ranks by pitching a broad, citywide platform highlighting issues with mass appeal, like education and crime.

But even as they claim to support an inclusive approach, union leaders stress that labor issues are the heart of the matter. “We’d like to see candidates that have respect for the city labor force–that we are working men and women that have families to support and that we are not always treated fairly,” says Peter Gorman, head of the Fire Officers Union. “Fairly” means siding with the unions on issues like pension benefits, pay, overtime, residency requirements, and the controversial Discipline Bill, which would give the police commissioner broad powers to punish cops for bad behavior.

An analysis of campaign donations by the 12 unions’ political action committees, or PACs, suggests the coalition will flexible in choosing its allies. Combining the donations of all 12 PACs in the 1997 mayoral race, 44 percent went to Giuliani, 39 percent to Councilmember (and vocal labor supporter) Sal Albanese, 12 percent to Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger and 5 percent to Rev. Al Sharpton.

But the differences from union to union are significant. The Correction Officers union was the only one to give to either Messinger or Sharpton. While, according to Campaign Finance Board records, the Fire Officers gave $7,700 to Rudy and only $150 to Albanese, the Sergeants gave to Sal ($5,900) but not to the mayor. Sometimes those differences lie in the unions’ membership, with officers unions promoting different priorities from unions of the rank and file. In other cases, it’s personal: Scotto, for example, has often feuded with Mayor Giuliani, and his union’s support of the mayor has been correspondingly lukewarm.

It’s not yet clear who will lead the coalition’s political decision-making: the PBA has the most members, 27,000, but the Correction Officers have been giving the most money, and its president, Seabrook, has been at the forefront of the coalition’s political efforts. Who will actually run is also murky. Mike Carter has received three resumes so far: one from an Assistant District Attorney and former fire fighter, another from a Queens fire company member who recently passed the bar, and a third from a young firefighter and recent college graduate who just moved to Manhattan.

The image those candidates present is one political consultants get paid well to mold their clients into: working-class, educated family people, decent and honest. Carter asks, “Who better than us? Firefighters will have two or three or four children, will coach the soccer and baseball team, will participate in the PTA. We’re good family people.” Besides, he says, “there’s enough lawyers in politics.”

A couple of other union members rumored likely to run for office, though, are not exactly rank and file: Scotto is reported to be considering a run for Staten Island borough president, while union sources say privately that Sergeants Benevolent Association president Joseph Toal is a “good bet” to run for City Council in Brooklyn. Scotto says a candidacy is not on his radar screen. Toal didn’t return calls.

Whoever runs, it remains to be seen whether they’ll fit in in diverse New York City. Political scholar John Mollenkopf of the City University of New York observes that the coalition will have to contend with the perception that “these are all unions of guys, heavily based in ethnic groups that were ascendant a century ago as opposed to groups that are dominant today…. It will be interesting to see how they articulate a working-class philosophy.” Even if the coalition does win at the polls, a few seats on the council won’t sway many budget votes. Decreasing state aid and rising debt service payments will push the city to hold wages and benefits down, and a recession could complicate the picture.

Still, these unions have loyal ranks who will turn out in force to vote. Being a cop or a firefighter is an instant character reference for many voters. And by seeking out political novices to run for office, observes Hunter College political science professor Kenneth Sherrill, the coalition is doing the work urban political parties used to do. “Somebody’s got to recruit candidates, to encourage people to contemplate careers in public life,” he says. That means that even if things don’t work out in 2001, the coalition may find long-term success by filling voids in the political system.

Perhaps most critically, the unions represent the crucial blue-collar votes that both major parties need in every election. That means the coalition can “win” without winning, by attracting enough votes to wring promises from more successful candidates.

“Once you become an entity to be contended with there’s a value to it,” says Scotto. “We have not really taken advantage of our leverage and our power in the last 10 years. It’s over. Labor is finally waking up.”