Daniel L. Feldman

Inside Politics Versus Outside Politics

In New York State Government, New York State Politics on August 17, 2012 at 9:59 am

The final days of my first session in Albany late in June coincided with the last days before expiration of the main contracts with public employee unions in New York. Since those unions had agreed to give-backs and even had placed their pension funds at risk in order to help New York City through its fiscal crisis, they had for several months pressed the Legislature to enact legislation improving their benefits under the next contract. The various public employee unions – sanitation workers, the public employee locals of the teamsters, firefighters, and others – chose as their point person for the battle Norman Adler, then the legislative director of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the largest union of New York City public employees. Adler, an extraordinarily intelligent and persuasive advocate, had also been one of my favorite professors in college, and arranged for his union to send letters of support for me to its many members in my district, and to send some members to work in my campaign, when I first ran for the Assembly – the only major union to get involved at all.

Norman lobbied me, as he must have lobbied virtually every other legislator, making strong arguments on the basis of equity and fairness. The Democrats in the Assembly had caucused the issue several times, with Speaker Fink explaining that Governor Carey said he would veto any bill we passed that did more than simply extend existing benefits. If the Governor vetoed the bill, with the old contracts having expired, until a new contract could be authorized the public employees would have no insurance coverage or other benefits. But Adler had argued that Carey would not dare veto the bill. Adler believed that Carey planned to bluff us into passivity.

I approached Fink privately, and explained my dilemma. I told him how much I owed to Norman, and that it would be very hard to say no to him. Fink replied, “That’s fine. When you need money for staff, ask Norman.” Of course only the Speaker controlled staff allocations  — and virtually everything else I would need to be an effective legislator.

Senior Assembly members like Frank Barbaro, chair of the Labor Committee, and José Serrano, chair of the Consumer Affairs Committee, with well-established pro-labor credentials, supported Fink’s position. If I voted only to extend the old benefits, though, perhaps Adler and the unions he represented would see me as an ingrate, and perhaps they would be right. Was Carey bluffing? I didn’t know.

Fink called a final Democratic conference on the matter the day we would have to take a vote. I intended to make my case to the Democratic conference as a whole: how could I, as a junior legislator, elected with strong support from Adler’s union, vote for the extender? I waited as other Democrats, in turn, spoke on various aspects of the controversy. Just as I got up to speak, Fink – who had apparently just received a message – asked me if I would suffer an interruption. Of course I acceded. With my colleagues, I waited as he left the room. About ten minutes later, he returned, and announced to the Conference – “Adler says it’s okay to vote for the bill.” I felt no further compulsion to speak.

Later, I learned that he left the conference to meet with Adler. Friends though they were, Fink had laced into Adler with the considerable ferocity of which he was capable, essentially indicating that Adler had better withdraw what was in effect a challenge to Adler’s leadership of the Democratic Conference. Adler, powerful and articulate though he was, knew better than to risk seriously alienating Fink.

When the bill came to the floor, a few members, knowing that the extender would pass, voted “no” anyway, apparently on the thought that some of the labor unions would be grateful for their refusal to go along. Legislators have a word for making oneself look good at the expense of colleagues like that: it’s called “grandstanding” (“playing to the grandstands”). The extender did of course pass, Carey signed it into law, and we all went home to our districts.

I enjoyed the sense of relief, because I had not had to choose between Fink and Adler, for weeks after the vote.  Sitting in my district office one summer afternoon going through my mail, I perused a newsletter from a small local of one of the public employee unions affected by our vote. I was annoyed to read its effusive praise for the “grandstanders.” Then, to my great distress, I saw my name in a list of legislators labeled “traitors” for having voted for the extender. My distress turned to fury when I saw that the names of well-known friends of organized labor, such as Barbaro and Serrano, who had like me also voted for the extender, were omitted, when their inclusion might have signaled that the leadership of organized labor had acquiesced in our decision. Then I turned the page. A shorter, separate list included their names: it was labeled “lickspittles.” I felt better.

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