These are the rites of Labor Day: Unions throw a big parade and give speeches about fighting for working families. The locals hold noisy lunchtime protests. And, every other year, the New York State AFL-CIO endorses a slew of right-wing Republican incumbents.
Even though its at odds with the AFL-CIO’s national strategy, it’s a longstanding tradition that’s probably not about to change. The state’s big unions, especially AFSCME, have had a silent pact with Albany’s Republicans for years, mostly as a matter of pure political expediency. After all, it only takes one party to kill a bill.
But inside this year’s AFL-CIO convention at the Sheraton in Midtown, dissent was–quite literally–a laughing matter.
As hundreds of delegates dutifully chorused their ayes to officially sanctioned candidates–state Senate Republican incumbents Frank Padavan, Serphin Maltese and Roy Goodman among them–two lone delegates cried nay. By the end of the day, 61 incumbents got the union imprimatur, and the room was erupting into howls of laughter every time the two shouted “no.”
The two conscientious objectors were Ray Markey and Christine Karatnytsky of the tiny librarian’s union. “I guess it was amusing because the vote was so overwhelmingly against us,” sighed Karatnytsky. “There were between 600 and 700 people in the room, and here we were, just two people saying no. I guess it was pretty comical.”
They weren’t the only dissenters at the convention–on the first day, some upstate delegates questioned the ritual obeisance, citing several legislative defeats for labor, including the watering down of an AFL-CIO-championed farmworkers rights bill.
But the next day, party faithful rallied to the defense of Senate Republicans. Randi Weingarten, president of the teachers’ union, took the floor to urge a vote for Padavan. And State President Denis Hughes reminded the unions to count their blessings: this year’s cost-of-living adjustment to pensions for state, county and municipal employees, for example.
After that, the objections died down, at least on the convention floor. But a few AFL-CIO member unions–most notably, the United Auto Workers–broke ranks and threw their weight behind the challengers. “We don’t feel like those incumbents have done anything for us,” said Julie Kushner, an organizer with the UAW.
The AFL-CIO maintained that the incumbents deserved their endorsements–even Serphin Maltese, who was instrumental in breaking a teacher’s strike in 1981. “The goal here is not to turn our back on incumbents who have a record of supporting labor,” said Paul Cole, secretary-Treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. “We make our decision only in terms of what is important solely from a trade union perspective.”
To some, that’s exactly the problem. “It’s real cognitive dissonance,” said Karatnytsky. “It was just so absurd that, after a while, we were laughing too.”