The delegates of the United Federation of Teachers gather Wednesday to endorse a mayoral candidate, and their leader vows to accomplish a feat that has eluded the union for 24 years: picking the winner.
"You don't endorse to lose," said union chief Michael Mulgrew, who made strengthening the union's political apparatus a top priority after he was elected president in 2009. "We're just in a whole different place."
The stakes are high for Mulgrew and his 140,000 working members -- and for all municipal unions in New York City: Their contracts are expired, and the next mayor must decide whether to give the unions retroactive raises amid fears doing so could plunge the city into a budget sinkhole estimated by the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission as $7.2 billion. Unions dispute the figure as exaggerated.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has resisted the unions' demand for retroactive raises, saying the city can't afford them.
Mulgrew's prediction that UFT support for its mayoral choice will "make this person the winner" remains to be tested. But the Democratic candidates have aggressively courted Mulgrew and the teachers' endorsement for the money the UFT will spend on the race, the muscle of its ramped-up political operation and the influence it could have on votes cast by teachers and their families.
After a UFT-sponsored candidates' forum last month, in which the Democrats and Independence candidate Adolfo Carrión Jr. lavished praise on the UFT and sometimes Mulgrew in particular, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson ridiculed the event on Twitter as "PanderPalooza."
"If you believe the demands of the UFT and the needs of children perfectly align" he tweeted sarcastically, "you will love the candidates running for NYC Mayor."
Whoever succeeds Bloomberg must decide how tough a stance to take on retroactive raises.
Candidates stake positions
One mayoral candidate, Comptroller John Liu, says the workers deserve some back pay; the other Democrats won't answer whether they would award the raises, and if so, how they would pay for them. On the Republican side, Joe Lhota has ruled out retroactive raises; John Catsimatidis would consider paying them over time, his spokesman said.
The contest for the UFT endorsement hasn't been just about the big-ticket issues. It's also about years nurturing relationships with Mulgrew and his members.
Liu, while with the City Council, tried to troubleshoot the parking woes of Brooklyn teachers who had lost their spots. Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined Mulgrew to shovel muck from the homes of Sandy-ravaged teachers.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, as a councilman, worked with Mulgrew fighting Bloomberg on a range of policies the union opposes. Bill Thompson and Mulgrew worked together on pension funds when Thompson was city comptroller and Mulgrew a lower-level union officer.
Mulgrew says he doesn't "know Anthony Weiner that well," but the former congressman made a pitch last Monday to the UFT, a union spokeswoman said. More than 1,200 union delegates will meet in lower Manhattan Wednesday to choose.
Like most big-union endorsements, the UFT's translates to money, boots on the ground and in phone banks to get out the votes of likely supporters, and support services such as polling that the candidate's campaign won't have to fund.
"The unions have developed very aggressive political operations that give them tremendous influences that are almost way beyond the size of their memberships," said political consultant Scott Levenson, a campaign aide for UFT-backed David Dinkins in 1989.
Union influence has limits with the electorate at large. Other voter concerns -- such as crime and the economy -- were factors in the elections of Republican Rudy Giuliani and Republican-turned-independent Bloomberg, said Immanuel Ness, a Brooklyn College political science professor.
Can be key in primary
In a primary with a small turnout, union endorsements can still help transform a hopeful into a victor, several consultants said. This year, though, labor is weakening its collective muscle by splintering its support.
Thompson got the United Uniformed Workers of New York, a 20-union coalition of 125,000 law enforcement, fire, garbage and jail officers.
Liu is favored by DC 37, the 170,000-member municipal labor coalition of 53 locals.
Quinn is endorsed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, with about 45,000 members, and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.
De Blasio is backed by Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, representing 220,000 health care workers.
"They do tend to cancel each other out because they're not acting in a coordinated way," said Joshua B. Freeman, a labor historian at Queens College.
Among the major Democratic contenders, only Weiner so far lacks any union endorsements.
The mayor is the boss of 297,000 people who work for the city, 95 percent of whom are unionized. Private-sector unions also have an interest in who inhabits Gracie Mansion: development and tax policies can spur job growth.
The UFT has a range of bitter disagreements with Bloomberg, including charter schools shoehorned into public school buildings (the union criticizes them), standardized testing (the union wants far less testing and doesn't like factoring them into job reviews) and firing "bad" teachers (the city wants it to be easier).
Whether union endorsements are traded for tacit quid pro quos on issues such as these is anyone's guess, said Baruch College politics professor Doug Muzzio.
For much of the 20th century, labor support was key to winning elections for mayors like Fiorello La Guardia and Robert F. Wagner Jr., said Freeman, the labor historian.
Yet over the past four decades many mayors won without labor backing. Ed Koch won the 1977 Democratic primary with little or no labor support.
Bloomberg spent so much
Giuliani got the cold shoulder in 1993 from all but a handful of unions, though he picked up some support in his 1997 re-election. Billionaire Bloomberg spent so much of his own money that it overwhelmed and discouraged labor opposition.
New York has become less of a union town since private-sector union jobs declined in the late 20th century, said Ness, the Brooklyn College professor. "Unions have become less relevant," he said, and "are no longer considered as powerful enough to effect change."
The last time the UFT endorsed a winner was David Dinkins in 1989. It stayed neutral until the 2001 mayoral election and went on to endorse three losing candidates in a row: Alan Hevesi in the primary, Fernando Ferrer in the runoff and Mark Green in the general.
"If you want to know how important union endorsements are, just ask former Mayor Hevesi or former Mayor Green," said E.J. McMahon, of the conservative-leaning Empire Center for New York State Policy. "The last time it was wide open, they endorsed losers all along the line."
The UFT didn't back challengers to Bloomberg in 2005 or 2009 -- wary, reports at the time said, of siding with likely losers even as it fought the mayor on education policy.
Mulgrew said the union is back in the game with a more sophisticated political operation.
The union has done polling to measure the contenders' electoral strengths, he said.
"It's no longer just sitting back and talking to candidates and picking who you think is going to be the winner," he said.Mulgrew also said he plans no fallback endorsement if the candidate picked Wednesday loses the primary.
"You don't go into this hedging your bets," Mulgrew said. "You've got to stand up for what you think is right and go with it."