The Working Families Party, which over its 20-year history has depended heavily on union support—both financially and in the voting booths—for its candidates and agenda, seems likely to go its separate way after two key unions withdrew from membership in a dispute over the party’s endorsement of Cynthia Nixon for Governor.
Most of the left-of-center unions that have had working relationships with the WFP are expected to support Governor Cuomo’s re-election, particularly after he signed a bill earlier this month that figures to limit the potential damage to public-employee unions should the U.S. Supreme Court rule later this spring that agency-shop fees violate the Constitution.
32BJ’s Binding Ties
One of the unions that withdrew its membership, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, represents primarily private-sector building-service employees, but it had a strong working relationship with the Governor. At virtually the same time it left the WFP, it completed a four-year contract deal with the Realty Advisory Board of New York providing more than 11 percent in raises to its members a week before the Local 32BJ contract was due to expire, which had created the possibility of a strike. Its president, Hector Figueroa, was elated in 2016 when Mr. Cuomo, after claiming earlier in the year that it was unrealistic to expect that union demands for a state minimum wage of $15 an hour would gain legislative approval, helped push the measure to passage as part of a state budget deal.
The other defector, District 1 of the Communications Workers of America, was one of the early supporters of the WFP at its inception in 1998, seeing the party as a vehicle to push the national Democratic Party to the left.
Over the past two decades, the WFP has succeeded in doing that, while also achieving some notable successes here. Letitia James, the Public Advocate, was first elected to the City Council 15 years ago running solely on the party’s line and easily defeating her Democratic opponent. Mayor de Blasio, who preceded her as Public Advocate, made the jump to that job in 2009 with the strong backing of the WFP, which made clear even then that it viewed him as its future choice for Mayor. The party that year also backed John C. Liu in his successful run for State Comptroller; he relinquished that job in 2013 to run in the mayoral primary and was among the candidates left in Mr. de Blasio’s wake.
The 2014 Fireworks
There was tension within the WFP during the 2014 gubernatorial endorsement process, with some party leaders disenchanted with Mr. Cuomo. Particularly during his first two years in office, he had taken a tough line with public employees in gaining both a state contract packed with concessions to help balance the state budget and then in persuading the State Legislature to adopt Tier 6 of the pension system, under which future hires had to work longer to get a less-generous retirement allowance than was previously available.
But the party ultimately abandoned its initial choice for the nomination, Zephyr Teachout, under prodding by some of its union members. It also was swayed by strong urging from Mr. de Blasio, even though he had just endured a bruising battle with the Governor over using a tax hike to cover an expanded pre-kindergarten program and the Mayor’s attempt to limit space made available to the Success Academy charter-school network.
Mr. Cuomo was able to get the party’s ballot line in May 2014 after pledging, among other things, that he would work to help Democrats regain control of the State Senate in that November’s elections. While Mr. de Blasio spent major political capital in that unsuccessful effort, Mr. Cuomo was of little help, and after obtaining the WFP endorsement, at times seemed to make a point of showing his disdain, even creating a party with similar initials—the Women’s Equality Party—whose line he encouraged supporters to vote on if they weren’t pulling the Democratic lever.
Didn’t Hide Frustration
The night of the Democratic primary, when Ms. Teachout did surprisingly well in gaining 34 percent of the vote against the better-known and better-funded Mr. Cuomo, WFP state director Bill Lipton made no effort to conceal his anger at the forces he believed had tipped the party’s nomination to the Governor.
Some of the sour feelings from that process carried over into this year’s discussions, and it quickly became apparent that while most unions were ready to support Mr. Cuomo based on a series of pro-labor positions he has staked out during his second term, rank and file members of the party gravitated to Ms. Nixon when she entered the race, with Ms. Teachout serving as her campaign treasurer. The Governor’s move to the left, which became particularly noticeable once Bernie Sanders began having success early in the 2016 presidential primaries, has not stopped Ms. Nixon from pursuing the same line of attack on the Governor that Ms. Teachout deployed four years ago: she has argued that he has been too cozy with Republicans and their Wall Street backers and began acting like a traditional liberal Democrat only because it became politically advantageous to do so.
When it became clear that the power of incumbency and Mr. Cuomo’s huge edge in campaign funds weren’t going to persuade the WFP to back him again and that the party intended to move forward its nominating process, the Governor declared April 12 that he was no longer interested in its nomination.
Claimed Cuomo Coercion
After Local 32BJ and CWA District 1 announced they were leaving the WFP, taking with them nearly $500,000 in combined annual support to the party, Mr. Lipton charged that the Governor had forced the defections by sending a message to unions that they should “lose his number” if they remained aligned with the party.
But Professional Staff Congress President Barbara Bowen said in an April 19 phone interview that her union—which began paying dues to the WFP in late 2011—had gotten no threats. She said of Mr. Cuomo and his campaign operatives, “I had no conversations with them” about a possible withdrawal.
She said her union’s board had made no decisions yet on either its future in the party or an endorsement for Governor and was “in our process of deciding how to move forward.”
The PSC, which represents faculty in the City University of New York system, is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, whose flagship New York local, the United Federation of Teachers, has had a fairly messy divorce with the WFP that began to take root several years ago.
The estrangement was underscored after Mr. Lipton April 13 made allegations of pressure tactics by the Governor being a factor in some unions leaving the WFP and cutting off their contributions to it and to some of its advocacy-group supporters. UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who a day earlier had hosted the bill-signing ceremony attended by many prominent labor leaders, including the head of the State AFL-CIO, at which Mr. Cuomo enacted the measure shielding the unions from part of the impact of the expected Supreme Court decision, offered a stinging response.
‘Doesn’t Speak for Workers’
“Mr. Lipton is misguided and delusional if he believes the Working Families Party still represents the voices of labor and working people in New York,” he said in a statement. “We walked away years ago when it became evident that their focus was on personal political agendas and a few egos. When asked to behave responsibly, they react like children throwing a tantrum in the classroom.”
Union spokeswoman Alison Gendar said the UFT made its last dues payment to the WFP in January 2015. She did not respond to a follow-up question about the origins of the rift between the union and party officials.
Transport Workers Union Local 100, which had been engaged with the WFP for a good part of the last decade when Roger Toussaint was president of the union, has carved out a strong relationship with Mr. Cuomo under first John Samuelsen—who is now president of the TWU International—and the current head of the local, Tony Utano. The alliance was accentuated during the battle that began last summer over whether the de Blasio administration would help fund major infrastructure repairs in the subways, with Local 100 brushing off the Mayor’s argument that Mr. Cuomo previously siphoned $456 million in money intended for mass transit to other budget purposes by accusing him of failing to pay his fair share of the repair costs.
The hostilities between the WFP’s leadership and the prominent unions that have walked away from the party figure to continue through the primary campaign and probably beyond. One reason the WFP four years ago somewhat reluctantly endorsed the Governor’s re-election was the fear that if it nominated Ms. Teachout and she failed to get 50,000 votes in the November election, it could lose its line on the state ballot. Her surprisingly-good showing in the Democratic primary suggested she would have easily cleared that threshold, which may have been what triggered Mr. Lipton’s anger as he saw the returns come in.
Ms. Nixon’s greater name recognition and the mix of acting skills and poise that early in her campaign have suggested she could be a formidable opponent despite the odds against her make it likely that she will have no problem getting more than 50,000 votes on the WFP line in November. But there is some apprehension, judging by a statement Mr. Lipton made last week in a radio interview, about her willingness to campaign seriously in the general election if Mr. Cuomo easily repels her challenge in the primary.
Assessing that possibility in light of concerns expressed by some Cuomo supporters that Ms. Nixon could draw enough votes from him in the general election to give the Republican nominee a chance to prevail in a three-way contest, Mr. Lipton said during an interview on the Capitol Pressroom radio show that the party had no desire to be a spoiler in the general election, and would look to move Ms. Nixon off its line in favor of the Governor if she lost in the primary. To do that, it would have to nominate her for some other office, most likely either a legislative seat or a judgeship.
The WFP official’s publicly discussing such contingency plans this early in the contest—while the Governor had a 31-point lead in the poll released last week, that was 16 points below what a previous poll showed—was an indication of the pressure its leadership is feeling in the wake of the gamble on someone with no political experience against a two-term Governor whose edges in funding and union support are imposing.
Ms. Bowen, asked what she believed the long-term impact of its break with many key labor backers would be on the WFP, replied, “It’s too early to tell.”