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October 21, 2002

Unions Endorse Pataki- So what?

Upfront, let me say I'd be voting for McCall on the Working Families party line if I voted in New York. But I still think too many people are overworrying and overthinking the fact that a bunch of big NY unions endorsed Pataki.

The prime case is Harold Myerson in an article a few weeks ago in the American Prospect Union Seeks Republicans. In an article chock with interesting sub-stories and facts, Myerson manages to create a problem, so-called "Patakism", an ism as he himself documents that it limited to unions' endorsement of GOPer Pataki. As Myerson himself notes, even the Teamsters and the Carpenters are sticking with Democrats in almost every other contested race. Some unions have upped their contributions to pro-labor Republicans, but almost exclusively to safe incumbents, where contributions buy some goodwill but no change in Congress in the direction of the GOP. Outside Pataki, the major example of union engagement with GOP politics is the hotel union engaging in a contested Republican primary in Vegas to knock out a rightwing nominee possibility. Hardly a trend in sight, other than debunking the illusion that there is any serious union support for the GOP in any case where the Dems mount a serious challenge.

Except New York's governor's race. But one data point is not a trend and certainly not an "-ism." It's a story, an interesting one of opportunistic action by both Pataki and the unions, but so unique to the New York state-level politics context, that it has almost no relevance to any federal election and little to do with most other states.

The biggest component was the one-off deal where, as Blue Cross converted to for-profit status, there was a huge pot of money sitting on the table in Albany. Pataki agreed to use it for wage increases for health care workers, sealing the endorsement of the powerful 1199-SEIU union. Pataki also signed a major pro-labor bill denying state funds for any company's union busting expenses. He also signed legislation allowing workers at Indian casions to organize more easily, a priority of the hotel union HERE. All of this pulled in union support that he could never have gotten in past races.

Now, Pataki is not a good guy on a lot of labor issues, opposing a minimum wage increase and other key issues. But the fact was that post911, he was so dominant that he looked to win reelection easily, so supporting him was less a choice of him over McCall as governor, but of choosing between rewarding him symbolically with endorsements or siding with symbolic support for McCall losing's campaign.

I'd probably stick with McCall if it was my call, but if we are talking symbolism, the Pavlovian gain of rewarding a Republican willing to suck up to unions on significant issues is not unreasonable. It gives encouragement to potentially pro-labor Republicans that there is a union doggie-treat available if they do roll over occasionally on labor issues. And it's a high enough profile race to allow unions nationally to point to their bipartisanship, even as they endorse Democrats almost exclusively in contested races.

Maybe McCall could have pulled it out with complete union support, so maybe this is not as symbolic as I'm painting it. But it is clear that unionists of good faith could make these calculations on likely outcomes in a way that the Pataki endorsement was the best thing in their view for social unionism in all its forms, contra Myerson.

Yes, the next time a Republican converts a multi-billion dollar nonprofit stash into wage increases for union workers, we might see a similar repeat. But I wouldn't fit such events into serious "big think" worries about the fate of labor's soul.

Posted by Nathan at October 21, 2002 10:16 AM

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