Five major labor unions have banded together to put money and muscle behind City Council incumbents facing challenges for the June 27 primary — but one progressive Council member won’t be getting the coalition’s help: Julie Won, who’s running for reelection in western Queens.
After winning her seat two years ago from a field of 15 candidates, Won is being challenged by one of her 2021 rivals, Hailie Kim, who identifies as a socialist and is running to Won’s left. Because District 26 reliably votes Democratic, the primary next month is as decisive as the general election for all 51 City Council seats on Nov. 7.
The Labor Strong coalition is made up of five major unions: 32BJ SEIU, District Council 37, Hotel Trades Council, New York State Nurses Association and Communications Workers of America. As the Daily News reported last month, the five committed to spend $1 million to reelect Democratic City Council members.
An endorsement from the coalition as a whole can only come from unanimous agreement between the five member unions. So a rift between Won and 32BJ, which represents building workers, means Labor Strong is sitting out the race in Council District 26 — which covers Sunnyside, Long Island City and parts of Astoria, and is an area hotly sought after by real estate developers looking to ride a local boom.
At issue is Won’s conduct in the fight last year over Innovation QNS, a $2 billion development project near Northern Boulevard expected to yield 3,200 apartments on what was once a largely commercial and industrial strip. Won opposed the project, only to relent as it came to a Council vote and developers Silverstein Properties, BedRock Real Estate Partners and Kaufman Astoria Studios agreed to increase the share of affordable units.
In the midst of the bitter Innovation QNS fight, 32BJ was upset when Won sent an email to Council colleagues and staff that sought to rally more members to join her in opposition.
“Approving this rezoning with minimal affordability would result in displacement, rising rents, and amplify infrastructure challenges,” read the email, as reported by Politico in October. “It would also send a message to our communities that the Council will work around them and their representatives for the profit of large real estate interests.”
The union immediately lashed back at Won on Twitter, saying “her constituents deserve better.”
1/2— 32BJ SEIU /// #UnionStrong 💪💪🏻💪🏽💪🏿 (@32BJSEIU) October 14, 2022
A mini-thread, courtesy of @kyle32bj, regarding CM Won's letter:
"Here are the facts. The @innovationqns project would create 1,100 affordable housing units, including 500 deeply affordable units. At the same time, it will provide family-sustaining jobs for working NYers." https://t.co/RFC4KuCKPe
One bullet point in the email, unreported at the time, especially rankled the union. Stating “Not a union project” in boldface, Won told her Council colleagues: “32BJ and two construction unions have signed [agreements] with the developer, but will not be paid their A-rate,” meaning their standard project wages.
But that statement is “just untrue,” said Candis Tolliver Tall, political director for 32BJ, which represents about 49,000 property service workers like door attendants, porters and superintendents throughout the city, including about 8,000 in Queens.
“The suggestion that there was some sort of B-rate for our members in her district that we agreed to because we just wanted the deal to go through was just dishonest, and it was actually insulting,” Tall told THE CITY, noting that union members in different parts of the city get “paid the same thing.”
Added Tall: “The reason why our members are choosing not to endorse her is because of what she did. Julie Won was actually quite dishonest with her colleagues about 32BJ and the agreement we had on the Innovation QNS project.”
Eugene Noh, a spokesperson for the Won campaign, told THE CITY that the Council member had issued a correction to address the mistake almost “immediately after” the initial email — and added that the campaign has not applied to receive 32BJ’s endorsement this year.
“There’s nothing to withhold,” Noh said of the union’s decision not to endorse the incumbent. “We are proud to have the endorsement and support of many labor unions, many of which stood with us during the Innovation QNS negotiations with our community.”
Noh added: “City Council member Julie Won is incredibly proud that she did not stop negotiating for more affordability out of Innovation QNS until the last possible day … Her responsibility is to get as much affordable housing for her constituents as possible — and that’s exactly what she did.”
Member unions within the Labor Strong coalition are nonetheless free to issue separate, independent endorsements when the group as a whole disagrees on particular candidates, Tall added.
Two unions in the coalition — the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) and DC37, which represents municipal employees — recently endorsed Won. NYSNA and DC37 did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.
Noh also added that the campaign is currently “in the process of speaking with” the two other Labor Strong unions — Hotel Trades Council and Communications Workers of America.
Labor Strong is backing Council Democratic incumbents Justin Brannan in Brooklyn, Marjorie Velazquez, Kevin Riley and Pierina Sanchez in The Bronx, and Lynn Schulman and Linda Lee in Queens.
Calls for Affordable Housing
Meanwhile, challenger Hailie Kim has also gone after Won on Innovation QNS.
Kim finished eighth with 5.1% of the first-round votes during the 2021 ranked primaries, compared to Won’s 18.5%. She has worked as a housing organizer at MinKwon Center for Community Action.
“We live in an insanely expensive district,” said Kim, who like Won lives in Sunnyside. She’d like to make sure affordable housing is not just dependent on private developers when “it should be a problem that’s handled in a public manner,” she said.
“There’s a housing crisis, and that needs to be dealt with a level of urgency that a development that will take 10 to 20 years to complete does not address,” Kim said.
Announcing her candidacy in December, Kim slammed Won, charging that the Council member “moved the goal posts” by demanding that 50% — and, later, 55% — of apartments at Innovation QNS be affordable, then settling for 45%.
Kim relented somewhat in a recent interview with THE CITY. “I mean, the number of affordable housing units that were landed upon was fine. But the negotiation process was handled poorly. She didn’t show herself to be an honest negotiator,” said Kim.
Noh, however, said that the challenger had been “totally absent” in the negotiation process and the push for more affordability.
“How would she know?” Noh said. “The Council member has been forthright and very direct that she needed Innovation QNS to double the amount of affordable housing and bring it up to 1400 units of affordable housing. That’s been her position since day one, and her community and other allies in the fight can attest to that.”
Both Kim and Won have been pushing for alternative paths toward affordable housing.
The Western Queens Community Land Trust hosted a town hall in March to advocate for policies that could turn land over to nonprofit groups that could then lease to community members or business owners at “permanently affordable rates.”
Land Trust co-chair Memo Salazar said that while the group cannot endorse a particular candidate, members hope the winning Council member will serve as a “nexus,” helping convene the community.
Let Locals Lead
“There are so many local groups who want to — instead of waiting for a developer to come in and put a plan and then we have to fight the plan, and it’s always like you’re fighting against the tide — to start proposing community-led proposals for areas that there’s public land that we can work on,” Salazar told THE CITY.
Speaking for himself, Salazar called Won “a pragmatist, but a pragmatist with very strong ideals in the community that she tries to uphold.”
A bill that would require city government to prioritize nonprofit developers and community land trusts when “it disposes of land for affordable housing” is currently before the City Council, where 33 of 51 members — including Won — are co-sponsors.
A Council resolution that Won is also co-sponsoring calls on the state legislature to pass a bill requiring building owners to first “make a fairly appraised offer of sale” to tenants in the building, before turning to other prospective purchasers.
Evie Hantzopoulos, an Astoria resident and activist with Astoria Not For Sale, commended Won’s affordable housing push during the Innovation QNS negotiations and said she hoped that the seat will continue to be filled by a representative who “isn’t afraid to push back” against developers demands.
“Often what happens with these big developments is that there is no pushback, even from the unions,” Hantzopoulos said. “Because I know they look at it as jobs — they’re looking at one thing. I think Julie was looking at it from a much broader perspective than any one person’s or one group’s interests.”