Unions Courted, All Back Cuomo–Well, Almost All

Is Andrew Cuomo a friend of labor unions, who figure to make up an important voting bloc in this year’s gubernatorial election? His campaign, not surprisingly, would answer that question with an unequivocal yes. Mr. Cuomo’s Web site includes the claim that he has been a strong union supporter, “helping teachers and other union members afford homes, strengthening wage laws and expanding apprenticeship programs.”

The most significant union endorsement in the campaign thus far has gone to Mr. Cuomo, who has the support of District 1 of the Communications Workers of America. “We view Andrew Cuomo as the candidate with the energy and determination to beat George Pataki,” said Bob Master, District 1′s political and legislative director, in an interview from Washington. “His intensity was reflected in how hard he worked to get our endorsement. We think he’s a great candidate.”

And yet, when he was federal housing secretary-the only time he’s had to deal with a significant number of unionized subordinates-Mr. Cuomo’s relations with some unions were poor. Officials of the American Federation of Government Employees, the federal employees’ union, repeatedly and publicly complained about what they called his “anti-union attitudes.” And now some are working behind the scenes to try to deprive Mr. Cuomo of the union support that is vital for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

In fact, the effort to visit some measure of revenge on Mr. Cuomo goes back almost a year, when two members of an AFGE local in Massachusetts, Carolyn Federoff and Nancy Hill, wrote to their national vice president, Derrick Thomas, urging him not to “reward Mr. Cuomo by considering him for endorsement to any office whatsoever.” The Massachusetts local’s complaints were several: that Mr. Cuomo had inappropriately privatized part of a program to reimburse landlords who supply apartments to poor people; that he had disregarded an agreement recognizing certain employees as union members; and that he didn’t honor an agreement to allow workers to telecommute.

So incensed was Ms. Federoff that she brought a resolution to the Massachusetts A.F.L.-C.I.O. in 1999 which urged that all union affiliates should consider “this anti-union activity … when making any endorsement of Secretary Cuomo.” The resolution passed. And Ms. Federoff was not alone. In February 2000, Irene Facha, a regional vice president of AFGE, testified in front of a Congressional committee about her union’s “frustration” with Mr. Cuomo and its “profound sense of betrayal.”

Josh Isay, Mr. Cuomo’s campaign manager, dismissed the complaints, noting that H.U.D. had been significantly downsized under Mr. Cuomo’s leadership. “Andrew Cuomo is a longtime friend of the union movement and has dedicated his career to helping working families, and will continue to do so as Governor.” And, of course, there are always significant tensions between employees and their bosses. A national union official conceded that “there are probably hundreds of letters” like the one Ms. Federoff and Ms. Hill sent last year. Jon Cowan, who was Mr. Cuomo’s chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said his onetime boss was under pressure from Congress to reduce the agency’s work force. Saying there is no relationship between unions and management free of “bumps,” Mr. Cowan added, “I would challenge anyone to come up with a major, sweeping reinvention … the way we did at H.U.D.”

Nevertheless, the letter and the emotions it revealed made an impression on Dennis Hughes, president of the New York chapter of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. “Wow, that’s really strong,” he said, when told about the letter. Mr. Hughes took the opportunity to offer a dig of his own, saying it was hard to judge Mr. Cuomo’s performance on union issues, since “Andrew doesn’t have a record in New York because he’s never held elective office.”

Though Mr. Hughes noted that the state A.F.L.-C.I.O. has yet to make an endorsement, he has had warm things to say about incumbent Governor George Pataki, who’s supported union efforts to increase membership. Mr. Pataki got a standing ovation when he spoke by satellite to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. national convention in Las Vegas in December.

The federal employees’ union grudge goes back to Mr. Cuomo’s controversial hiring of what were called “community builders.” When she testified in front of a Congressional committee two years ago, Ms. Facha offered a ferocious critique of Mr. Cuomo’s leadership at H.U.D. She complained that he turned the community-builders program from an advocacy group to a highly paid operation separate and apart from H.U.D.’s unionized work force. The community builders became a pet project of Mr. Cuomo’s, and those hired for the program enjoyed more flexible work hours, newer equipment and larger offices than career H.U.D. employees. They were trained at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and took seminars in such topics as “exercising power” and “working with the media.”

Union Bought Off?

In an interview by phone from a union legislative conference in Washington, Ms. Facha acknowledged that the union’s national leadership had supported Mr. Cuomo in some of his initiatives. She accused them of being “bought off.” And she readily conceded that she opposed Mr. Cuomo’s downsizing of the agency’s unionized work force. “Yeah, we were upset about it,” she said, pointing out that while union jobs were being eliminated, the community builders were growing to become 10 percent of H.U.D.’s work force. “It ate up money for us to visit projects, because they had unlimited travel budgets,” she said, referring to the community builders. “They went to Harvard for six weeks. If you’re going to spend that kind of money, shouldn’t it be toward actual production of a product?”

Whatever the merits of Ms. Facha’s and Ms. Federoff’s criticisms, they sound a lot like some New York Democrats on the subject of Andrew Cuomo. While many admire his hard work and drive, it isn’t uncommon for respected political leaders to complain privately about Mr. Cuomo’s aggressive style and take-no-prisoners attitude when he served as his father’s precocious political adviser in the 1980′s.

Those memories are at the heart of Mr. Cuomo’s problems with some fellow party members and some important union leaders. Several weeks ago, Gerard McIntee, the national president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, asserted that Mario Cuomo often sided against the union movement as Governor. Then, in a single line, he let it be known that the perceived sins of the father could be held against the son. “There are leftover feelings from when [Andrew Cuomo] was doing a lot of the business for his father,” Mr. McIntee said. “Andrew was to some degree the person who carried out his plans and his orders.”

Mr. McIntee’s union already has signaled its intent to back Mr. Cuomo’s rival in the Democratic primary, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall. Mr. Isay has noted that the endorsement is a no-brainer, because Mr. McCall “controls the pensions of state workers in New York State.”

But Stephen Madarasz, director of communications for the Civil Service Employees Association, the largest New York affiliate of AFSCME, said tensions between the unions and the Cuomos go much deeper. “Mario Cuomo himself credited CSEA with his primary victory back in 1982,” he said. “We provided him with the foot soldiers, especially upstate. This was a benchmark for CSEA-the first time we had played such a prominent role in a campaign. And then, immediately on his taking office, our relationship with him began to deteriorate.” Indeed, some CSEA officials say the union “got things from Governor Pataki it could never get from Mario Cuomo.” Mr. Madarasz noted that Mario Cuomo laid off 15,000 state workers, and in the early 1990′s, unionized workers went 18 months without a contract. “A lot of our members really felt betrayed in the sense that they elected him and then he turned his back,” he said. The souring of their relationship led AFSCME, in late 1991, to endorse the then little-known Bill Clinton for President at a time when Mario Cuomo seemed on the brink of declaring his own candidacy. It was a remarkable display of the union’s dissatisfaction. During that time, union officials say, Andrew Cuomo was warning union leaders that they would be wise to line up for his father’s Presidential bid-which, of course, never materialized.

Indeed, this role as political enforcer was fictionalized in Primary Colors , when Andrew Cuomo’s alter ego, Jimmy Ozio, travels to Arkansas for a barbecue with Governor Stanton’s top aides. In the scene, the aides smile through their teeth as Mr. Ozio lights a Parliament cigarette (Andrew Cuomo’s former brand). Jimmy Ozio has outmaneuvered them, securing a speaking role for his father, Orlando Ozio, before the teachers’ union dinner, while Governor Stanton only gets a “drop-by” at the cocktail party.

Andrew Cuomo, too, has a reputation of outmaneuvering rivals-indeed, many say that’s how he got the C.W.A. endorsement. After making an initial poor impression by bad-mouthing Mr. McCall, he met several times with C.W.A. officials. “He worked it,” said one. “Carl was nowhere.” And it is that hard work-with unions as with other key political players around the state-that may help Mr. Cuomo live down any complaints about his past.