ALBANY — In New York, the second-most unionized state in the nation, labor often has been the biggest difference maker in Democratic primaries.
Unions are mostly lining up behind Gov. Kathy Hochul this year, a combination, analysts said, of her pro-union outreach and the power of incumbency.
She has more than 30 endorsements, but analysts ask: Will it be a key in the June 28 primary governor?
That unions are flocking behind a sitting governor is no surprise, but the real test is how much enthusiasm — and turnout — the endorsements will generate for an officeholder who’s been chief executive for just nine months, experts said.
“Hochul certainly has cornered the market on labor endorsements. The question is, how much effort do they put in,” said Bruce Gyory, a consultant and former adviser to two Democratic governors -- Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson.
It’s a factor that can’t be measured until the stretch run up to the June 28 primary, he said, when Hochul squares off against Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) and New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
The opponents, especially Suozzi, contend Hochul’s endorsements are more about how special interests cozy up to power in Albany rather than any genuine enthusiasm for someone who has been in office only after the resignation of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
That’s a view some analysts take, too.
“They are covering their bets,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant.
About 22% of New York’s workforce is unionized, according to various sources, making it second only to Hawaii. And there’s no doubt labor plays a big role in Democratic contests.
Just in recent history, major union muscle aligned behind Cuomo to help peel off any early enthusiasm for a progressive challenger, Cynthia Nixon, in the 2018 governor’s race as the incumbent cruised to victory.
That same year, labor backing enabled Letitia James to eclipse three rivals for attorney general. And in 2010, key endorsements from big labor players in Albany were seen a chief factor for Eric Schneiderman squeezing out a narrow win in a five-way field for attorney general.
This year, Hochul so far has announced endorsements from the major teachers’ unions, several building and construction trades, retail workers and the AFL-CIO, the giant umbrella organization for many unions.
She's even received endorsements from some you might not have heard of, such as the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
“Throughout her career, Governor Hochul has always stood up for working families and fought for the values of organized labor,” said Norman Shreve, a district business representative for the union, said in a statement.
A labor source said Hochul “has been rock solid on prevailing wage” issues, which generally helps union members by setting the pay rate on publicly funded projects.
“She’s done a lot to cultivate some unions, especially the building trades. She’s siding with them on all the issues,” said Neal Kwatra, a Democratic consultant and former chief of staff for Schneiderman. Among the issues, he cited tourism efforts supported by hotel unions.
“Most understand, she’s in the top seat,” he said of labor groups.
Gyory echoed that idea. “I don’t think (unions) hate Tom Suozzi or Jumaane Williams. I think that it’s they appreciate Hochul’s outreach and it’s the institutional power of the governor’s office,” Gyory said.
A scholar of New York political history, Gyory added: “No insurgent has won a Democratic primary for Governor without labor suppprt." This is in part because officeholders have tons of leverage to help with legislation or budget favors.
Sheinkopf said early endorsements also can be seen as an “attempt by unions to show they have power,” especially in a primary.
“The bulk of union activity is in New York City and the bulk of the Democratic primary is in New York City,” Sheinkopf said. “If in fact they turn out bodies and put people in the streets, they can be a factor.”
Especially in what’s expected to be a low turnout June primary, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of suburban studies at Hofstra University. But, even though they are important in New York, they aren’t quite the force they used to be, he said.
“Unions are most powerful in low-turnout elections because they have the numbers and discipline to bring a lot of people to phone banks and neighborhoods for retail campaigning that is, well, labor intensive,” Levy said. “The rise of social media has helped dilute their power, though, as candidates without large numbers of union or other foot soldiers — or a lot of money for that matter — now can reach a lot of voters virtually. So has the reality that the union movement is not monolithic.”
He added: “Hochul has done a good job of locking up the bigger unions with the most clout and she has to hope that they will be a firewall if her opponents keep burning away at her lead.”
So far, there’s been little activity beyond the endorsements. The test might be whether any unions put their money behind “independent expenditure” committees — campaign entities that, while not legally affiliated with a candidate, basically can spend unlimited funds.
Kwatra said he believes Hochul’s commanding lead in polls over Suozzi and Williams is a factor and that many unions may wait to become more active in the general election this fall.
He said: “That’s when she’s going to really need the unions.”