By Alan Chartock
It was organized labor unions that gave working people in this country a chance to share in the American dream. Now these same unions are under attack, and it shows in the decreasing numbers of Americans who join unions.
Some of the problems, of course, have to do with the often incorrect perception on the part of many Americans that unions have been infiltrated by shady characters and are led by fat cats who smoke big cigars and ride around in fancy cars. This narrative continues to claim that the initiative that made this country great has been drained out of the American spirit because of unions. In a lot of places, when people are asked to join a union, they do not, fearing that their already low wages will be drained even further and they will have little to show for their investment.
Nevertheless, my bet is that unions will rise again. Many of the worst among them have been purged of the bad seeds or have at least learned their lessons. In fact, those elected leaders who have harnessed the public antipathy toward unions do so at their own risk. My bet is that the sleeping tiger may well wake up and bite them in the posterior.
Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, and his compatriot, Andrew Cuomo, who some of the state’s workers are calling “Governor 1 Percent,” have waged a somewhat successful campaign to cut down on the benefits that civil service unions enjoy. In fact, there are rumblings among organized state, county and city workers that portend big trouble for anyone who thinks it’s wise to scapegoat the people who carry the bedpans, repair the roads, teach the children, nurse the sick, risk their lives on our mean streets and in our prisons and care for the mentally ill and the addicted. My labor sources tell me “we will never forget Cuomo’s perfidy.”
In order to understand why the leaders of both the Republican Senate and the Democratic Assembly said no to much of Cuomo’s plan, you must understand the history of the relationship between both houses and the unions.
Many years ago, under the direction of labor leaders like Norman Adler, a deal was cut with both the Assembly Democrats and the Senate Republicans that they would be the beneficiaries of union money and campaign help. In fact, when it looked like the Democrats would take the Senate, organized civil service unions still supported the Senate Republicans. It should come as no surprise that the very aggressive governor who was going for far more was held to a minimum by the two leaders, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos.
Now, it remains to be seen whether the unions are angry enough to get even with the governor. Many—myself included—believe that Cuomo, the Machiavellian pragmatist, will find a way to win back the unions.
From the beginning, the number 2016 has been on everyone’s lips. The theory is that Cuomo will run for president that year, but something interesting happened last week. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who succeeded Hillary Clinton, announced that she would be the first to support Mrs. Clinton for president in 2016.
What is that old saying, “Revenge is a dish best served cold”? Cuomo has some repair work to do, and fast. But is it too late?
Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.
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