November 12, 1999
By DEIDRE McFADYEN
City unions played an instrumental role in a grass-roots coalition that led the successful drive to defeat Mayor Giuliani's proposed City Charter revision in the Nov. 2 elections.
Leaders from a dozen city unions--representing both civilian and uniformed workers--assembled on the steps of City Hall with an array of Democratic elected officials the following day to celebrate their victory.
'A Quiet Effort'
Calling it "a very coordinated, quiet effort," United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who heads the Municipal Labor Committee, traced the roots of the present coalition against Charter revision to the broad alliance of unions and elected officials first brought together at the massive May 12 labor rally.
"Virtually all of the unions cooperated in this effort," she said. "This was akin to what happened at the Fair Share rally, when you started to see people who normally don't talk to each other not only talk but work hand in hand."
The municipal unions were particularly concerned about the impact on future labor contracts of proposed Charter revisions that would restrict the city's spending and its ability to raise taxes.
'Would Strangle Us'
"This was going to strangle us in negotiations," said Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch. "There's no way we can have any collective bargaining with city spending restricted to the rate of inflation."
Unions figured to play a pivotal role in the election because in an off-year race with little on the ballot to draw voters to the polls, victory is often determined by which side can turn out its base.
The Municipal Labor Committee settled on a low-profile, "member-to-member" campaign, said Ms. Weingarten, because "we didn't want the Mayor to make the unions the issue."
The city unions recognized, she said, that the Mayor would outspend and outflank" any media campaign they might have mounted. "If someone can contort your message," she said, referring to Mr. Giuliani, and you can't raise the money to challenge that, you need a different strategy."
UFT: 100,000 Calls
The UFT sent out letters to all of its members and had 1,000 volunteers make
100,000 phone calls over the course of a one-month phone-bank operation; but chose not to put its members on the streets on Election Day.
District Council 37, which endorsed Mayor Giuliani in his 1997 re-election run, organized a phone-bank operation that contacted 90,000 members over a six-week period and fielded a battalion of 350 volunteers on Election Day to hand out leaflets at subway stops throughout the city.
Careful not to publicize its efforts, the Uniformed Firefighters' Association, which also backed Mr. Giuliani in 1997, sent letters against the Charter changes to members and spread the word through its weekly communications to firehouses and its delegates. UFA President Kevin Gallagher did not appear at the post-Election Day press conference.
'Disaster for Labor'
Peter L. Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers' Association, told members on his union's phone hotline that the proposed Charter revision was "a disaster for labor and it must be defeated."
Another unobtrusive player in the coalition was the PBA, which sent letters to all active and retired members, called 10,000 members during a two-week phone-bank operation, and pressed delegates to make the case to Police Officers in the precincts about the importance of voting "no."
In all, according to Ed Ott at the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council (CLC), about 600,000 union members in the city received a piece of mail on the ballot question. Some 2,500 union activists--about 1,000 of them from public employee unions--volunteered their time on Election Day.
Although the Giuliani forces vastly outspent Charter revision opponents, the measure was rejected by a vote of 76 percent opposed to 24 percent in favor with 11 percent of the city's registered voters casting ballots.
Union leaders asserted that the victory was further proof of the resurgence of the city's labor movement.
"There is a rebirth in unionism in this great city," said Mr. Lynch. "You cannot change the constitution in the dark of night. We want a say in how the city is run."
DC 37 Administrator Lee Sunders added, "We knew we had a major challenge in front of us. Some folks have a lot of money. But we have a lot of people."
Mayor Giuliani argued that the 14-point Charter revision would make permanent the gains that the city has made in the last five years under his leadership. He warned that the city could easily revert to a place of rampant crime and galloping spending after he leaves office if the revision failed to pass.
Bundled Good and Bad
The two most significant proposed changes would have required a two-thirds vote of the City Council to approve certain tax increases and would have imposed a cap on city spending tied to the rate of inflation. They were packaged together with popular items, such as safety locks on guns and gun-free school zones, that the "no" forces characterized as sugar-coating.
Ms. Weingarten said that she was concerned about the fiscal implications not only for contract negotiations but also for a whole range of city initiatives from school construction funds to lowering class sizes and maintaining the NYPD's "Safe Streets, Safe City" program. "You can't tie the hands of future Councils and future Mayors like that," she said.
Ms. Weingarten contended that the Mayor was wrong to lump together 14 separate proposals in one. "Dressing it up as a vote for gun-free school zones was very offensive to my members," she added.
PEA officials likewise said that they found galling the use of the gun safety-lock proposal, which is popular among their members, to entice voters to sign on to the whole bundle of measures.
Mr. Ott, who served as Election Day field commander for the CLC, estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 members from the private-sector unions turned out to help defeat the ballot proposal.
The various building-trades unions, he said, were motivated by concerns about the potential fallout of the Charter revisions on the city's capital budget.
UNITE and the Service Employees International Union, both of which fielded large contingents, did so as "an act of solidarity" with their public-sector counterparts, said Mr. Ott.
The community group ACORN and the labor-backed Working Families Party also lent crucial support, he said.
Mr. Ott made special note of DC 37's contribution on Election Day. "You can see the change, frankly," he said of the union under Mr. Saunders's leadership. "They had a lot of people and they had them out early. It really had an impact."
According to the game plan agreed to in advance, the local Democratic clubs covered the polling sites while labor concentrated on distributing campaign material under doorways and at subway stops, Mr. Ott said.
Darwin richmond, an Option at the SUNY College of Optometry, was one of the labor movement's foot soldiers on the streets that day exhorting city residents to vote "no" on the revision.
'Must Rein in Mayor'
"I don't want Giuliani to have any more power than he currently has. He takes things to an extreme and is too controlling," said Mr. Richmond, a member of the Public Employees' Federation, explaining why he braved the blustery weather to distribute leaflets at the Chamber St. subway stop in lower Manhattan that evening.
PEF divisions based in the city fielded 25 volunteers that day, even though the state federation did not take an official stand on the charter referendum.
Holding together the municipal unions, with their varying agendas and political ties, for future political campaigns will be no easy task.
Mr. Saunders who has steered DC 37 to the left over the last year, called the coalition "part of a continuing effort to move progressive politics in this city."
Many of the uniformed services unions however, usually support Republican candidates.
With the exception of DC 37, all of the city unions have been careful to avoid inflammatory rhetoric against the Mayor, whom they will have to face across the bargaining table next year.
Vague About Future
Asked if this coalition of unions and elected Democrats will stick together for the Senate race next year when Mayor Giuliani will likely face Hillary Clinton, both City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone and Ms. Weingarten demurred, saying that it was "much too soon" to discuss that.
As to whether his participation in the coalition against Charter change signaled his union's willingness to be an active player in the Municipal Labor Committee in the future, Mr. Lynch said that he would not hesitate to do so when he identified common concerns. "On issues like this, we have to stand together," he said. "You'll hear our voice as we stand shoulder to shoulder."
Mr. Saunders was more direct about the need for collaboration in contract talks next year. "Our number-one commitment is to get the best contract we can for our members," he said. "I believe it's extremely important that we coordinate our activities and work closely together."