Central Labor Council Flexes Muscles in New Political Landscape

Vincent Alvarez. (Photo: CLC)

Vincent Alvarez. (Photo: CLC)

The city’s future corridors of power suddenly look very inviting to Vincent Alvarez.

The president of the Central Labor Council–an umbrella group for the city’s million-plus union members–is getting ready to grapple with a government that is expected to be far friendlier to organized labor than the recent years of frayed relations with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And he hopes his work bolstering some of this year’s winning candidates will help to open the door.

“We’re going to have a new mayor, a new public advocate, a new comptroller, a new speaker of the City Council, many new City Council members. You know what? I think the working people of this city, they need some hope right now because they’re under extreme pressure and have been for a long time,” Mr. Alvarez told Politicker in a recent interview.

Mr. Alvarez, 45, had unsuccessfully tried to unite the city’s most powerful labor unions around a single candidate during the Democratic mayoral primary in a bid to wield maximum power. Instead, the city’s most influential labor groups splintered off, backing a slew of candidates before rallying around victor Bill de Blasio in the general election. Nonetheless, Mr. Alvarez touted the union’s role in electing City Council candidates, arguing those new left-leaning members would help steer the Council into labor-friendly waters.

“We analyzed the different races and we focused in on a few that we thought could have a big impact,” said Mr. Alvarez, who hails from Local 3 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “We were very pleased with some of the races. Look, we were up against some very well-financed opponents at times … But we came together, we ran an effective member-to-member program … to make sure the candidates [we backed] got elected.”

Among their winning candidates was Carlos Menchaca, a former aide to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who unseated longtime incumbent Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez in a Sunset Park-based Brooklyn district. Ms. Gonzalez had benefited from over a hundred thousand dollars in independent expenditures from a rival political action committee formed by the Real Estate Board of New York. In a southeast Queens race, Daneek Miller, a labor leader backed by the CLC, defeated a crowded field that included another REBNY-backed opponent.

They endorsed in more than 40 races overall. The largest blemish on the council’s record was Austin Shafran, a candidate in northeastern Queens, whose race had pitted most of organized labor against massive expenditures by REBNY, as well as the organizational power of the Queens County Democratic Party. Mr. Shafran narrowly lost to Paul Vallone, the brother of current councilman Peter Vallone Jr.


Rising through the ranks as an electrical worker repairing street lights, Mr. Alvarez is no stranger to labor’s bruising battles. Local 3 may be small when compared to sprawling organizations like the United Federation of Teachers, but the spunky Local 3 holds a special place in labor history.

One of the CLC’s most notable past presidents, Harry Van Arsdale Jr., was also an electrical worker and had presided over the council during labor’s 20th Century heyday. At the time, Mr. Van Arsdale formed close alliances with power brokers, including Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Robert Moses, the “master builder” of New York City.

“That union has prided itself over the years of making sure its members are not only active in the work place but active in the electoral process but active also in this council,” Mr. Alvarez said.

But in the years since, the council’s power had waned, suffering its most serious setback four years years ago when its former leader, Brian McLaughlin, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for racketeering. When Mr. Alvarez was elected by 318 delegates from the council’s many unions in 2011, many hoped he would be able to revive what observers had described as an increasingly moribund alliance.


As he looks to the future, Mr. Alvarez is hoping to translate his wins into policy gains. In particular, the city’s public sector unions are pushing for retroactive pay raises for workers who have been working without contracts for years. Critics argue that offering full retroactive raises would financially cripple the city, but Mr. Alvarez, a feisty negotiator who speaks with a Staten Island-inflected lilt, doesn’t quite see it that way.

“They worked hard, they’ve done everything they could. The mayor has acted irresponsibly by not putting aside any money for retroactive raises and retroactive raises should be part of the discussion,” he argued. “If you just look at the past five years, whether it be blackouts in the city, fighting crime, whether they be educating students or taking care of people during Hurricane Sandy, our public servants have once again answered the call, day in and day out and they deserve to be treated fairly at the bargaining table.”

And with Mr. de Blasio, a long-time labor ally, seemingly bound for Gracie Mansion, Mr. Alvarez is hoping the CLC’s brightest days are ahead.

“I am pleased that Bill de Blasio is our candidate, period,” he said. “Right now, we have a candidate who brings a tremendous amount of hope to the working people of this city.”