Cuomo_Samuelsen

A POLITICAL ALLIANCE DERAILED: When Governor Cuomo during his 2014 run for re-election looked for union support, then-Transport Workers Union Local 100 President John Samuelsen became one of his staunchest political allies for five years. After Mr. Cuomo captured his third term in 2018, he and a close aide wrongly attacked transit workers for alleged overtime abuses, rupturing the relationship, and Mr. Samuelsen, now the International President of the TWU, said July 13, 'With friends like this, who needs enemies?'

Unlike Claude Rains in "Casablanca," John Samuelsen won't pretend that he's "shocked; shocked!" that Governor Cuomo is a bully who cozies up to union leaders when it suits him politically rather than because at heart he's the most powerful working stiff in the state.

"He doesn't have friends in the trade-union movement," the International President of the Transport Workers Union said in a July 13 phone interview. "He's got people who have interests in front of the Governor. There are union leaders who have legitimate concerns about crossing Cuomo for the same reason some of them were with de Blasio in 2017 even though they despised him. New York City public-sector unions had to deal with de Blasio, the same way the public-sector state unions have to deal with Cuomo."

Two days earlier, the New York Post quoted Mr. Samuelsen, who because of a five-year period in the middle of the last decade in which he was a close ally of the Governor was conspicuous in his absence at a June 29 fundraiser for Mr. Cuomo attended by more than a few prominent city and state labor leaders, saying, "I'm over him."

It's a divorce that's been more than two years in the making, and both the first crack in their relationship and the more-recent denunciation by the veteran union leader have Larry Schwartz as what used to be known as "the co-respondent."

Governor's 'Worse Cop'

When Mr. Schwartz was named Secretary to the Governor early in Mr. Cuomo's tenure after his first appointee moved on, Newsday described it as a case of going from "bad cop to worse cop." Mr. Schwartz, a veteran of state government, is otherwise best known for running New York City OTB into extinction in 2010 when, as its operating head under Gov. David Paterson, he arranged a legislative vote on a bill that would have keep it in business in return for employee concessions on a day when three Democratic State Senators were out of town, so the bill came up just short of approval.  

Mr. Paterson was genuinely interested in saving New York City OTB, which was why he placed it under state control two years earlier when Mayor Michael Bloomberg was ready to shut it down. Mr. Cuomo, who succeeded him as Governor less than a month after the bill foundered, was at best indifferent to the fate of the city betting operation and its employees.

Once elevated from his previous job as State Attorney General, he spent his first year in office wiping out a $10-billion state budget deficit at the expense of state workers, whose unions he muscled into accepting contracts that featured three-year wage freezes, major increases in health-care contributions and job furloughs by threatening 9,800 layoffs if they balked.

While his father, three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo, liked to refer to the state as "the Family of New York," Andrew continued treating public employees as if they were unadoptable foster children: less than three months into his second year, he persuaded state legislators to approve a cheaper pension plan known as Tier 6 for new hires by backing off his campaign promise to have an independent commission set district lines. Union leaders grumbled, but the combination of sticking it to future public workers and reneging on a good-government pledge endeared him to his new best friends: hedge-fund operators. 

But his pushing through a tough gun-control bill at the beginning of 2013 cost him potential crossover support from upstate Republicans, and so the following year, seeking re-election, Mr. Cuomo began cultivating alliances with public-employee union leaders, and found Mr. Samuelsen among those willing to play.

"I'm a trade-union leader, I'm a pragmatist—I'm not an ideologue," was Mr. Samuelsen's explanation. 

That spring, while still president of TWU Local 100, he reached a five-year contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, more than two years after its old pact expired, with the Governor's initial resistance to the terms the reason for the delay.

Helped Cuomo More?

To those who criticized the wage terms as not keeping up with the projected rise in the cost of living over that period, Mr. Samuelsen responded that they were better than the 4-percent in raises state workers got for a largely overlapping five-year period. He added, "They're modest wage increases, but we made massive benefit gains." 

The biggest one was an increase in the line-of-duty death benefit for transit workers from $100,000 to $250,000, which was later doubled by his successor, Tony Utano, in a December 2019 contract deal that became especially important when more than 130 union members died of the coronavirus last year.

But the deal undercut the bargaining position of the Long Island Rail Road unions, which a few months earlier gained a recommendation from a Federal mediation panel that they be given contracts with 17 percent in raises over six years, although it would have required them to pay 2.25 percent of their salaries towards health-care costs.

Things got comfortable enough between Mr. Samuelsen and Mr. Cuomo that in 2017 the Governor was named the union's Man of the Year. The following spring, as Cynthia Nixon posed a potentially serious challenge to Mr. Cuomo's bid for a third term, she misunderstood a news article talking about excessive costs for subway construction that was actually done by building-trades workers and criticized Local 100 members, providing a rallying cry for Local 100 to attack her while boosting the Governor. 

Besides the public denunciations of his opponent, Local 100 and the TWU international donated more than $275,000 to Mr. Cuomo's re-election campaigns in 2014 and 2018. For that kind of money, the least they expected was that he and his MTA board appointee, Mr. Schwartz, would not bear false witness against union members.

But in May 2019, the MTA was under fire for two separate overtime issues--apparent overtime abuses by a small group of LIRR employees, one of whom collected $344,000 in extra pay, nearly tripling his salary, the previous year, and a soaring overtime bill for the agency as a whole, much of it involving the city transit system.

Schwartz No Surgeon

Rather than using a scalpel in his public comments to separate the two issues, Mr. Schwartz deployed a blunt instrument at an MTA board meeting, declaring, "People need to either go to jail, they need to be prosecuted and we need to collect the money that they stole from the taxpaying public."

The Governor disdained the chance to distinguish between those who were suspected of cheating the LIRR and the city transit workers who legitimately earned their overtime, stating, "This is about stealing. This is about fraud...and that's criminal."

No, replied Mr. Samuelsen, who by then was president of the International TWU, this was about demagoguing. "It's a big lie," he said then. "This is what Donald Trump does."

Anyone wondering about soaring overtime costs in the city transit system, he added, should consider that after a consultant recommended that the MTA hire an additional 2,000 workers to deal with subway repairs, it actually brought on fewer than 800, which reflected a management decision to compensate by using overtime while saving on health-care costs.

Asked now why he thought the Governor was willing to cause that rupture in their relationship, he suggested Mr. Cuomo was trying to shift blame after all the heat he got once "the subway system implodes in 2017," and the focus on his responsibility for the MTA took on added baggage with the introduction of corruption into the mix. (When employees were finally indicted for overtime abuses last December, all five of those charged came from the LIRR.)

Speaking of the double-barreled attack on the integrity of transit workers as a whole by the Governor and Mr. Schwartz, he continued, "That was malicious, and it was a tactic they used as part of a broader attack on the unions and the MTA. Schwartz painted with a broad brush at the urging of the Governor. At the heart of it was transforming the MTA on the backs of the workers."

'With Friends Like This...'

That dust-up soured Mr. Samuelsen's relationship with the Governor. "The last time I spoke to Cuomo [face to face] was in November 2019," he said, adding that they had a few phone conversations last year during the heart of the pandemic. "With friends like this, who needs enemies?"

One veteran official who's had dealings with both men said, "The problem with Cuomo and his people is they think no one's ever gonna call them out on their s---." One reason for that, the official said, was that with most labor leaders, "Either they're so happy to be in the same room with him or they're afraid to get on his bad side."

Mr. Samuelsen had more freedom than most of his colleagues, this official, who spoke conditioned on anonymity, said, because of his union's past militance, adding, "The Governor has to be careful with the TWU because they're the only ones who ever go on strike."

At the tail end of the legislative session in early June, Mr. Cuomo tried to slip through one of his last-minute surprises: dividing the job of MTA Chair/Chief Executive Officer into two positions, and allowing him to appoint the Chair without consent by the State Senate. While he persuaded the State Assembly to approve the bill, opposition by the TWU and the objections of the Senate, which over the past two-plus years of clear Democratic control has frequently taken on the Governor, the bill stalled in the upper house of the Legislature.

Mr. Samuelsen said his union opposed the rush job on two grounds: "the bifurcation of the organizational  structure of the MTA, without any conversation with either the workers or the riders," and, when the TWU got involved, "He threatened us with Larry Schwartz into the Chair's job," instead of Mr. Cuomo's initial choice.

He added, "If Larry Schwartz is the Chair of the MTA, it would be detrimental to the riders, and we'll pummel him every day for the next four years."

He scoffed at the suggestion that Mr. Schwartz would serve as the Governor's revenge on the union, explaining, "A bad boss is always the best union organizer. It would be the golden years of internal organizing. The notion that we would hide under our beds at the thought of Larry Schwartz is a joke. He has no knowledge of the MTA system."

Denies Election a Factor

In a letter to this newspaper, Joseph Campbell, a former candidate for Local 100 President, asserted that Mr. Samuelsen was picking a fight with the Governor to preserve his own power and help Mr. Utano win re-election in December.

Mr. Samuelsen denied there was an ulterior motive in his taking on the Governor, saying that he had "no declared opposition" for his September election and "Tony is well-positioned to win his election" without an extracurricular battle.

The tensions between himself and Mr. Cuomo, he added,  would have stayed "far under the radar if he hadn't raised the bifurcation with Larry Schwartz."

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the Governor, a day earlier had branded Mr. Samuelsen "an extortionist" whose motive for attacking him was "trying to undo pension reform." He also added that the TWU President was an ally of State Attorney General Letitia James, who may be considering a challenge to Mr. Cuomo's bid for a fourth term next year.

Mr. Samuelsen laughed at the notion that he was trying to pressure the Governor into amending Tier 6, saying Mr. Azzopardi was "manufacturing stuff" on his boss's behalf, but added that this had long been a goal of Local 100, dating back to when it was on good terms with Mr. Cuomo.    

Asked whether he believed his recent antagonist could gain re-election even with scandal clouds hanging over him, he said, "His odds are probably fairly good, unless a prominent Democrat would step up and challenge him in a primary, or if the independent report commissioned by the State Attorney General finds he mistreated those women" who have accused him of sexual harassment, including more than a half-dozen past or present aides.

If those accusations are sustained, Mr. Samuelsen said, Mr. Cuomo "becomes extremely vulnerable in a primary."

Noncommittal on James 

Could he see backing Ms. James if she ran against the Governor? "We are supporters of Tish James, and for good reason," the TWU President replied. "She's among the best of the Democrats when it comes to consistent support for public-employee unions. And I've supported her for a long period of time before I supported the Governor," dating back to her tenure as a Brooklyn City Council Member and her successful 2013 run for Public Advocate.

Without prompting, he continued, "I don't wanna say for sure we'd support her if she ran, but outside the context of a Governor's race, she's gonna enjoy the support of the TWU and a good many other unions."    


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