Cuomo's union troubles underscore years of tensions, analysts say

Local public school teacher unions, anti-frackers and other Local public school teacher unions, anti-frackers and other activists protested outside a Democratic spring dinner at Villa Lombardi's in Holbrook on Tuesday, April 28, 2014, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was scheduled to speak. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

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ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's hard-line stances with teachers over performance evaluations and public employees on contracts and pensions have led some unions to decline to endorse him for re-election.

Labor unions have been a traditional strength of Democratic candidates for governor, though the relationship is evolving, experts said. And Cuomo is far from being without any union support -- individual private-sector unions, such as those in construction, are expected to endorse him. But the unions that have broken away underscore the trouble the governor is having with some core Democrat supporters and the political left, analysts said, although others note that some voters will view Cuomo's tough stances with unions as a positive.

Last week, the state AFL-CIO, which represents 2.5 million workers and retirees statewide, declined to make an endorsement in the gubernatorial election after one union official said it "became clear" Cuomo would have lost a floor vote among its delegates. That mirrored decisions by the New York State United Teachers and Civil Service Employees Association to sit out the race because of deep divisions about Cuomo.

The Public Employees Federation, which represents 56,000 scientific, technical and professional state employees, endorsed Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor challenging Cuomo in a Democratic primary Sept. 9.

A risky bet on bargains

In Cuomo's 2010 election campaign, the AFL-CIO and PEF endorsed him, while the CSEA and NYSUT did not. Since then, the governor's support for a new evaluation process, a property-tax cap and charter schools has upset teachers' unions. His push for business-tax cuts, pension reductions and health-facility closures displeased state workers' unions.

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The unhappiness results from Cuomo's political agenda and strategy, said Gerald Benjamin, an associate vice president at the State University of New York at New Paltz and longtime state political analyst. The governor, taking office in 2011, was "bound and determined" to rein in state deficits and taxes, especially property taxes, and enact timely budgets. To succeed, Cuomo had to drive "very hard bargains" with public-sector unions, angering them, he said.

"The bet that he made was that they would have nowhere to go" politically, Benjamin said, meaning labor wasn't likely to run to Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive. "The new wrinkle is that some of them have an alternative in the [Democratic] primary. He miscalculated the level of risk."

Benjamin said the impact won't be counted so much in campaign contributions -- Cuomo, with $35 million, already has plenty. But he said it could damage the get-out-the-vote effort for Cuomo, who Democrats say wants to crush Astorino to elevate his national standing.

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"What he potentially lost is his big victory," Benjamin said. "But that can be spun differently. He can say: I had priorities and I took risks and it paid off for New York."

Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio said the unions' stance could help Cuomo in some ways by painting him as not obligated to them. "A challenge from the 'Left' burnishes his narrative," Muzzio said in an email. "Pragmatic, effective/can do, socially progressive but fiscally prudent, not beholden to key element of the once-powerful Democratic Party power base."

In 2010, unions gave $2.1 million to Cuomo's campaign, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group. So far this cycle, they have donated $1.6 million.

Cuomo said CSEA and teachers blocked him from getting the AFL-CIO nod. He contended most labor unions will support him, though he hasn't rolled out endorsements yet.

"Besides the teachers and CSEA, I have the overwhelming support of the union movement in this state and I'm proud of it," the governor said last week at the opening of the State Fair in Syracuse. "Teachers and CSEA, we have a legitimate difference of opinion. We did for the last four years and my guess is we will for the next four years . . . I'm not going to say what they want me to say to get their endorsement."

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New opportunities

Teachout's campaign is trying to make the most of the turn of events.

"The governor declared war against teachers over classroom funding and high-stakes testing four years ago," said Teachout campaign manager Mike Boland. "His property tax cap is killing vital services like fire departments and road repair -- so the labor movement is not with him."

Astorino is trying to reach disaffected teachers -- and parents -- who are put off by Cuomo's support of the Common Core academic standards. The Republican launched a minor-party ballot line dubbed Stop Common Core.

Analysts noted that though the Cuomo-labor friction is about recent squabbles, it also signals a rift in the Democratic Party that was exposed in the "Occupy" protests in 2011 and Bill de Blasio's win in the New York mayoral contest last year.

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"More to the point, it's a reflection of the fractured state of the Democratic Party with activist unions, emboldened by Mayor de Blasio's victory and Albany efforts, being the tail wagging the rest of the Democratic dog," said Michael Tobman, a Brooklyn-based political consultant.

He said union politics have been evolving over the past two decades, noting that Republican Gov. George Pataki enjoyed support from labor groups such as SEIU/1199, the well-funded health care union, and Cuomo has fought public-sector unions.

"In the traditional relationship of a Democrat incumbent and organized labor, yes, it's surprising," Tobman said of the endorsement rebuke. "But given the tumult of New York State politics over the last 20 years, it's not surprising."

Labor divisions in spotlight

The decision of the AFL-CIO was the biggest surprise in part because it backed Cuomo four years ago. This is the first time the labor organization has taken a pass on a New York gubernatorial race in 12 years.

On Aug. 18 at the Sheraton Manhattan, the AFL-CIO endorsed down-ballot Democrats with ease. Building and trades union delegates wanted to support Cuomo, but CSEA, NYSUT, the American Federation of City, State and Municipal Employees and others opposed, said a union official who asked not to be identified. Faced with the split, AFL-CIO leaders decided "the best thing to keep a unified labor movement was to avoid a divisive fight on the floor," he added. Some of the building and trades unions still are expected to endorse Cuomo individually.

A week earlier, the state's powerful teachers' union said it would sit out the governor's race. In addition, teachers protested a number of Cuomo appearances in the spring, including the state Democratic convention in Huntington. In endorsing an array of others, NYSUT president Karen Magee said those candidates were "friends of public education and labor."

PEF went further by backing long-shot candidate Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu, for lieutenant governor. PEF president Susan M. Kent said in a statement that they are the leaders "the citizens of the state of New York deserve."

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