Paterson’s Tricky Dance With Unions

ALBANY—After a gripe session at the end of last month in Kingston, David Paterson has been working to shore up ties with labor groups. But it's a tough sell at a tough time.

"I don't have any trouble getting through, I have trouble convincing them," said Alan Lubin, executive vice president for the New York State United Teachers. "They do hear from us, they do hear us. It's just we're not satisfied they're not paying attention to all of the issues."

A representative from NYSUT joined the heads of several other unions–32BJ, 1199, RWDSU, the UFT and the Building Trades Council–in Kingston to talk with the leaders of several major Democratic organizations about concerns that many of the progressive elements they're pushing for have been left by the wayside, and that they will not provide political support if that's not the case.

The discussion touched on the low poll numbers of Democratic officials–Paterson among them–and concerns about their electability. There was two-tiered thinking, according to people who were there: push the agenda, and figure out what to do (including a possible change in the batting order) to make sure Democrats stay in power.

Most of the attention has focused on the second question, and on Andrew Cuomo as a possible answer. But from the perspective of Paterson and other Democrats, the first question contains the path to revival.

One organized labor source described it as a "wake-up call" for the second floor. Since the meeting, top aides to the governor have been in touch with heads or representatives from many of the labor unions involved. Paterson spoke briefly with George Gresham, the head of 1199, at a meeting of the Democratic Governors Association last weekend in Saratoga Springs. According to Leah Gonzalez, an 1199 spokeswoman, the discussion was "cordial" and not out of the ordinary.

There has been a concerted focus on outreach, people on both ends of things say.

"I don't think there's as big a rift as people are trying to make it," Bill Lynch, a political consultant based in Harlem who has advised the governor. He said that Gresham is no foe of the governor, and that the other labor officials in Kingston aren't looking to "stomp" him.

But things are likely to come to a head soon. The state is facing a $2.1 billion deficit, Paterson's staffers say, which will be addressed in September. Paterson will be proposing more cuts, which unions will likely oppose. While Paterson and other Democrats may be sympathetic to the unions' wishes, they say that being a fiscal hawk is the only way to go.

"What Governor Paterson has done and will continue to do is, when appropriate, say no to certain things," Tracy Sefl, a spokesman for Paterson 2010, said. "And that's not always a popular thing. Is the going to back down from that? No. Is he willing to accept the fact that it is not always popular to be the one who says no? Yes."