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Can Andrew Yang Become Mayor of New York Without Union Support?

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang advocates for reopening city schools during a press conference in front of Department of Education headquarters, May 11, 2021.
Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

At the end of a news conference in Brooklyn last week, THE CITY asked mayoral candidate Andrew Yang what he thought about using pattern bargaining to deal with municipal unions.

“I’ll get back to you on that,” he responded before walking away to take selfies with passersby at Parkside Plaza, outside Prospect Park.

The century-long practice of giving each public-sector union essentially the same raises and benefit boosts is at the heart of how the city has negotiated with labor organizations representing some 300,000 workers.

With the June 22 Democratic primary less than a month away, several of the major hopefuls have notched endorsements from various municipal unions.

But Yang, who has turned up at or near the top of most public polls, hasn’t scored one.

It would be unusual, if not unprecedented, for a candidate to make it to City Hall without that sort of support.

TWU union members support Eric Adams during a campaign event outside the West 4th Street subway station, May 18, 2021.
TWU union members support Eric Adams during a campaign event outside the West 4th Street subway station, May 18, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Even former Mayor Mike Bloomberg had the backing of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association and the Correction Captains Association.

“One of the disadvantages that he has is his lack of experience in dealing with very difficult things in city government,” Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the city’s largest public sector union, said of Yang.

“He’s smart but experience counts a lot in that area,” added Garrido, whose union has endorsed Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

The Yang Wildcard

The lack of union support hasn’t been a deal breaker for prospective voters, according to limited polling, which has Adams and Yang trading the top two slots, even as many New Yorkers remain undecided and the advent of ranked choice voting adds uncertainty.

Last week, Yang’s team announced that it had raised more than $10 million including the maximum funds available to candidates through the $8-to-$1 public matching program. Yang also has the largest number of contributors (11,000 in New York City and more than 21,000 in total) and support from the Comeback PAC, managed by political operative Lis Smith, who previously advised Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.

Joshua Freeman, a professor of labor history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, noted that in some respects the current election cycle is “very much a rerun” of Bloomberg’s first mayoral victory in 2001.

While the billionaire self-financed his campaign, the four Democratic primary candidates got major union support and the labor groups “spent time and money opposing each other.”

Overall, municipal unions tend to support candidates who share their broad ideological approach of how they want the city to work, Freeman noted, and in many cases, they are also looking for someone sympathetic to their needs.

“Yang just doesn’t fit into those categories for any of these major unions,” he said.

By contrast, city Comptroller Scott Stringer is backed by the United Federation of Teachers, one of the city’s largest unions. Maya Wiley, who served as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s legal counsel, notched the endorsement of the 1199 Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Adams has the support of Service Employees International Union 32BJ (SEIU) and Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100. And former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia is endorsed by the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association.

Yang isn’t the only candidate without union support, and the get-out-the-vote effort and other benefits that can come with it.

Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, hasn’t notched any municipal labor endorsements, nor has ex-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. Both are at the lower end of recent polls.

‘Relied on Gimmicks’

Yang’s lack of union backing is “not because he hasn’t been around,” said Barbara Bowen, president of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, which is backing Stringer as its number one candidate and Dianne Morales as the number two pick.

“Unions are willing to endorse people who are new and strong and progressive candidates,” she said. “And people who don’t at first blush seem like they have a sure path to victory.”

But Bowen, who is retiring as union president on May 25, slammed Yang’s platform, saying his plans “relied on gimmicks.”

Yang has said he wants to “provide $1,000 to each family of a student whose family income puts them at the poverty threshold,” has someone in special education or is designated an English Language Learner.

Bowen said it was “outrageous” to think $1,000 could “equal or level the playing field between the rich and the poor in New York City.”

Instead, she urged the next mayor to invest the money equally for all students in the public school system and in the City University of New York.

Mayoral hopeful Andrew Yang received an endorsement from Jonathan and Andrew Schnipper, owners of the Schnipper’s restaurant chain, outside of their 41st Street location.
Mayoral hopeful Andrew Yang received an endorsement from Jonathan and Andrew Schnipper, owners of the Schnipper’s restaurant chain, outside of their 41st Street location on Friday, May. 7, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Bowen and Garrido believe Yang’s proposals rely heavily on the private sector — minimizing the contributions their members make.

“He favors privatizations to public issues,” Bowen said, citing his plan to put a privately run casino on Governors Island to kickstart the city’s economy and boost tourism.

The idea is opposed by some key elected officials and park advocates. Casinos are currently prohibited on the island.

“There’s some concern among labor that he’s going to be a pro-business mayor and that can be a concern for workers,” Garrido said, noting it’s hard to gauge where Yang stands because he’s never held elected office.

Yang is also open to creating more charter schools — opposed by the teachers’ union — and has financially supported one in Manhattan, THE CITY reported in March.

In 2008, his then-test-prep company donated a total of at least $110,500 to The Equity Project, which was founded on the idea that high-performing teachers should get paid more than administrators.

‘A Different Vision’

On the campaign trail in recent days, Yang has come under attack for not initially knowing about major issues involving the city workforce, like the repeal of 50-a. That state law had been cited by the de Blasio administration as its reason for blocking disciplinary records of law enforcement and other uniformed public-sector workers.

Despite the lack of labor support, the municipal unions don’t see a potential Yang victory as an “existential moment,” Freeman said.

“Yang is not an openly anti-labor guy,” he said. “He comes from a different vision. I don’t think he’s very simpatico or knowledgeable.”

“Frankly, I think most of these unions could live with any of these leading candidates,” he added. “I’m sure Yang is the least choice for most of them. But I don’t think this rises to the level of an existential moment.”

Yang is backed by the Freelancers Union, which also backed Wiley in a co-endorsement.

As for pattern bargaining, the city’s labor commissioner has long relied on the practice in part so it doesn’t need to bargain from scratch with each of the many public-sector unions.

Most unions have accepted the approach as a way of life but some, like the Police Benevolent Association, have long argued that its members should be treated differently.

‘Won’t Let Politics Interfere’

In answering a question for THE CITY’s Meet Your Mayor quiz, Yang agreed with most of his rivals that in negotiations with municipal unions, “mayors should strive to find a balance between taxpayers and workers, even when that leaves everyone unhappy.”

When THE CITY followed up with the Yang campaign to take the candidate up on his offer “to get back you” on discussing pattern bargaining, a spokesman initially indicated he’d try to arrange an interview.

Instead, the spokesperson sent a three-sentence statement Friday afternoon.

“Andrew Yang won’t let politics interfere with decisions on labor and the budget,” the statement said. “Being in charge of a large workforce is a special responsibility that he will take very seriously.

“We have to look at each open contract on a case-by-case [basis] and work with our labor commissioner to settle each open contract.”

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