By JESSICA JUPITER
While Bill de Blasio is preparing himself to become the next New York City mayor, supporters are patiently waiting to see if the mayor-elect fulfills his promises. Among them is one of the city’s largest unions, 1199 Service Employees International Union, which played a huge role in his campaign during the primary election. The board’s unanimous decision to have the union back de Blasio during the primary was the first time in 20 years that 1199 SEIU made such a stance.
The union, which represents more than 200,000 health care workers, was drawn by de Blasio’s emphasis on the working class during debates. Union President George Gresham has said that Bill de Blasio was the “easy choice” for 1199 SEIU. Another factor that played a role in the outpouring of support from the union included the fact that most 1199 SEIU workers are African Americans, a group that gave 96 percent of its votes to de Blasio, according to exit polls.
Now, the mayor-elect, who classified himself as the “progressive alternative” in the election, is faced with ensuring the continued support of 1199 SEIU. Soon after de Blasio was elected, the union released an ad campaign highlighting some of de Blasio’s objectives like universal pre-K and increased access to health care. The campaign, which cost the union around $100,000, addresses inequalities “both in terms of the economy and health care access.”
The dollars spent for this campaign, however, can be considered chump change in comparison with the union’s monetary support for de Blasio during primary elections. During the primary, 1199 SEIU spent an estimated $204,000 on “independent” spending in de Blasio’s behalf.
The mayor-elect recently showed his gratitude by recruiting 1199 SEIU president Gresham to his transition team, which will help appoint commissioners and other high-level city officials. This gives Gresham and 1199 SEIU an opportunity to not only better lobby the city government, but to actually have a direct influence over policies regarding health care.
As the only large union to publicly endorse de Blasio during the primary, 1199 SEIU may expect the mayor-elect to be more sympathetic to its proposals than to other unions’ proposals.
“In this case, the union expects Mayor-elect de Blasio to support low-income workers in the public sector who labor at wages not too much higher than McDonald’s or Wal-Mart employees,” said Brooklyn College Political Science Professor Manny Ness, an expert on the political history of the U.S. labor movement. “The union has been pushed by members to endorse progressive Democrats who are more supportive of equity. In this case the union made a brilliant endorsement that will help rank-and-file workers and polish its image, which has faded.”.
With immediate challenges of labor contracts, budget deadlines, and a $2 billion deficit awaiting the mayor when he is sworn into office, however, it is unlikely that the health care union’s proposals are highly ranked on the list of de Blasio’s concerns. Gresham seems content with the union being secondary, however, saying, “I have to believe that the labor unions who have waited so long to get treated with dignity and respect are willing to wait a little longer to see that he gets organized.”
It shouldn’t be expected, however, that 1199 SEIU is going to sit idly by waiting until de Blasio reaches its needs on his overwhelming list of tasks. Members of the union have joined the New Day, New York Coalition, a left-leaning group looking to re-create the city’s relationship with big banks.
According to the recent study, “Leveraging New York’s Financial Power to Combat Inequality,” done by the coalition, the city spent more than $700 million a year on Wall Street through fees on its pension funds and bad deals. Pressing for better wages for tellers and other low-level bank employees, the coalition hopes to “draw attention to the ways Wall Street and big corporations continue to siphon resources away from average New Yorkers and point toward solutions that would help reduce inequality and build economic fairness.”
“They will be hoping [de Blasio] follows through on pledges on issues ranging from police stop-and-frisk to the living wage bill to an improved school system,” said Richard Steier, editor of The Chief-Leader, which reports on labor.
As a one-time labor organizer, de Blasio seems confident in addressing these concerns of the labor unions. Though he steers away from making any direct promises, the mayor-elect continues to stress the issues surrounding the unions.
One concern is the union’s city employees. “There is a small contingent of the union’s membership (about 4,000 workers out of more than 100,000) who are municipal employees – the rest are employed in private hospitals and health-care facilities, for the most part – who are without contracts going back several years and they will be hoping for fair treatment at the bargaining table,” Steier said.
After 20 years of outspokenly pro-business mayors, unions like 1199 SEIU are ready for stronger political power in the New York City government. The unions are ready for the momentum to shift their way.
Photo: Bill de Blasio supports workers at Long Island College Hospital. (Office of the Public Advocate).