July 15, 2013

For the Record     

One of the more-intriguing comments during the July 10 Republican mayoral debate televised by NY1 occurred when moderator Errol Louis asked the candidates whether public workers should be unionized.

The GOP front-runner, Joe Lhota, responded, “I agree with Franklin Roosevelt, who thought they should never be unionized.” He was referring to Mr. Roosevelt’s opposition 80 years ago to Federal workers being allowed to join unions, a position seized upon by conservative commentators in recent years as Republican Governors, primarily in the Midwest, have sought to limit or eliminate the rights of public-employee unions in their states.

It should be noted that Mr. Louis rather than the candidate brought the subject up, and the lightning round’s format, which is supposed to require strictly “yes or no” answers, ensured that Mr. Lhota didn’t elaborate on his comment. (Of the other two Republican participants, John Catsimatidis, who’s had his share of union troubles in his supermarket empire, agreed that public workers shouldn’t be unionized, and George McDonald said they should.)

Asked the following day whether Mr. Lhota if elected would seek to roll back the union rights city workers currently have in areas such as representation, grievances, arbitration and collective bargaining, campaign spokeswoman Jessica Proud responded by e-mail, “No, he will not.”

That had the effect of rendering his remark academic. The question was, would this further influence city employees not happy with Mr. Lhota’s endorsement of Mayor Bloomberg’s position against granting retroactive raises? (The former Giuliani administration Deputy Mayor during the debate emphasized again that he believes there is money in the budget for raises and that workers “are all entitled to a fair wage going forward.”)

It certainly didn’t please PBA President Pat Lynch, the most-prominent city union leader who has yet to make an endorsement for Mayor and whose members are generally conservative enough to align with Mr. Lhota on many issues. He responded with a double bank shot that focused on Mr. Lhota’s former boss.

“Sounds like Giuliani revisited,” he said in a statement regarding Mr. Lhota’s stand against retroactivity. “Rudy Giuliani’s unfair and shortsighted negotiating tactics created an NYPD recruitment and retention crisis that we’re still feeling the effects of. This mayoral election should be about police staffing and safe streets. The last thing we need is another Mayor that wraps himself in the cloak of public safety and then financially shortchanges police officers and their families.”

That sharply contradicted the view of one political consultant who has advised Republicans who said he didn’t think Mr. Lhota’s position against retroactive raises would hurt him, because none of the Democratic candidates “committed to retroactive pay.” (Actually John Liu did, revising a position he took at the time he was endorsed by District Council 37 about giving workers some money but not everything they might feel entitled to; he subsequently told us that in cases like that of the United Federation of Teachers where the union was seeking to match an existing bargaining pattern, he would honor the pattern.)

When we asked the consultant whether he thought Mr. Lhota’s position against public employees being unionized might hurt him, he responded, “I think it hurts him with public employees.” But he also pointed out the difficulty of getting the kind of changes sought in states like Wisconsin and Michigan acted upon, from the governmental steps that would have to be taken to the political problems that would be encountered in convincing the Legislature and Governor Cuomo to go along.

“Do you know how long it would take?” he said.