As Cuomo Gets Heat On Con Ed Lockout, Schneiderman Makes Labor Play

 As Cuomo Gets Heat On Con Ed Lockout, Schneiderman Makes Labor PlayAndrew Cuomo was slammed in the pages of The New York Times  today for his unwillingness to help end the Con Ed lockout of nearly 8,000 workers,  with columnist Michael Powell quoting one locked out worker describing the governor as “a Democrat in Republican clothing.” And labor leaders like Peter Ward of the powerful Hotel Trades Council have echoed the call for Mr. Cuomo to get more involved.

But as Mr. Cuomo gets heat from the left, Eric Schniederman, his sucessor as attorney general, has been actively courting organized labor.

Yesterday, Mr. Schneiderman delivered an address at the annual New York State Pipe Trades convention in  Lake George, and in it he praised labor for their role in reducing inequality in this country and slammed those pols who say they support unions at election time but turn their backs afterwards.

“A lot of folks–and a lot of elected officials who get significant help from unions–seem to forget that the labor movement built the American middle class,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “Thanks to you, Americans saw decades of broadly shared prosperity that reached far beyond just union members; access to home ownership; affordable health care; secure retirements for millions and millions of Americans; the most important parts of our safety net, like unemployment insurance and social security. And protections for all workers–like minimum wage, overtime, and prevailing wage laws.”

Mr. Cuomo, you may recall, has not yet decided whether or not to support a minimum wage increase. And, allies of Mr. Schneiderman point to his recent push to bring criminal charges against those who violate labor laws, a stark contrast to any of predecessors in office, who only charged those who violated labor laws with civil charges.

To the pipe fitters, Mr. Schneiderman urged them to take to the streets to keep up the fight for labor.

“I believe that this year–2012–is the year the American people rise up and reject the attacks and workers and the dismantling of the social safety net. And I believe that this is the year when we reignite a movement for a more progressive politics and return to the truly American operating principle of shared prosperity, not simply personal gain.”

Mr. Schneiderman has been treating the AG’s office in many ways as an example for how liberal and progressive politics can succeed during a conservative era.  A year ago, I wrote about how his tenure was serving as a rebuke to some of the centrist tendencies to the administration in Washington.

In his defense, Mr. Cuomo has often called himself “a progressive who is broke,” and said that the recession and the state’s precarious budget situation has curbed some of his tendencies to increase spending or raise the minimum wage.

Excerpts of Mr. Schneiderman’s speech, obtained from his office, are below:

Good morning brothers and sisters. I’m New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

I can see by looking out at the crowd that you’ve gathered a distinguished group, including your president, Michael McNally, secretary treasurer, Robert Ambrosetti, international representative James Cahill, and your former president, Larry Bulman. Larry was a very big supporter of mine when I ran for attorney general in 2010. I will never forget the early and enthusiastic support I received from Larry, and from your membership across the state. I thank you for that, and it’s great to see so many familiar faces again here this morning.

What you did for me is a small part of the incredible contribution that all of the union members and leaders who are here this morning make every day. You are the ones on the front line every day fighting to get hard-working families their fair share of the pie–from fighting to get a project labor agreement for the reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge, to working to prevent employers from skirting prevailing wage laws by misclassifying workers.

Today, I’d like to talk about what we’ve accomplished together, and what’s at stake this year for working families in New York and across America.

A lot of folks–and a lot of elected officials who get significant help from unions–seem to forget that the labor movement built the American middle class. Thanks to you, Americans saw decades of broadly shared prosperity that reached far beyond just union members; access to home ownership; affordable health care; secure retirements for millions and millions of Americans; the most important parts of our safety net, like unemployment insurance and social security.

And protections for all workers–like minimum wage, overtime, and prevailing wage laws.

These wage and hour laws are the same laws that enable the labor bureau in my office to do the work it does everyday protecting New York’s workers. Our labor bureau has significantly expanded wage and hour cases. We’re going after companies that seek to get an unfair advantage over businesses that play by the rules by refusing to pay prevailing wages, minimum wages or honor project labor agreements—and we’re pursuing both civil and criminal cases.

In just one example, we recently secured a sentence of four months in jail, and $800,000 in restitution for workers, from a contractor who failed to pay prevailing wage. He falsely reported that he was complying with the law, when he was actually lining his own pockets with ill gotten gains.

None of these broader gains –or the laws that allow us to bring these types of cases–would have been possible without a strong labor movement.

Union organizing is an absolutely essential tool in the struggle against inequality. It gives working people a democratic voice in the economy so that millions of families aren’t left at the mercy of whatever corporate or government policy maximizes short term profit.

We are in unprecedented fights for corporate accountability to make sure that big corporations can’t get away with bringing down standards and exploiting workers, from the construction industry, to health care, to manufacturing, where you and your brothers and sisters across the labor movement have worked so long to raise them.

Strong unions give working people the power to demand their fair share of the pie. Without them, we go back to the days of the robber barons.

That belief system allowed for the relentless attack on workers in recent decades; and it’s the same belief system that encouraged disastrous deregulation in the mortgage market and the financial sector over the same time period. That, in turn, allowed for the recklessness and misconduct that caused the housing bubble and the crash / making some people enormously wealthy / while everyone else, including millions of union members,  were left to suffer the consequences.

Brothers and sisters, we cannot let them rewrite history. We have to tell the truth about who blew up the American economy and how they did it. If we don’t, they will do it again.

Ladies and gentleman, there is no natural force that favors inequality. There is no divinely established order that favors the astounding wealth and widespread inequality we face today.

I have read exodus. “thou shalt not bargain collectively” is not one of the ten commandments.

In Leviticus we are admonished to refrain from many types of conduct. We are told not to eat shrimp, but it doesn’t say we should refrain from regulating financial derivatives or ban secondary boycotts.

We have to expose the fallacy that rising inequality and declining power for working people are somehow natural. We have to stick together—public and private, organized and unorganized—to fight the inequality agenda every step of the way.

Together we can do great things. Together we can make sure all Americans have a fair shot. Together we can make sure everybody does their fair share. Together we can ensure that everyone plays by one set of rules.

I believe that this year–2012–is the year the American people rise up and reject the attacks and workers and the dismantling of the social safety net. And I believe that this is the year when we reignite a movement for a more progressive politics and return to the truly American operating principle of shared prosperity, not simply personal gain.

So thank you for inviting me to join you this week.

Thank you again for all that you do to advance the interests of working people. You make New York a more just, equitable and prosperous state for all of us. And I look forward to working even more closely together in the coming months and years.

Thank you.