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Cuomo's relationship with unions was not always so rosy

Governor's Office
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs a pro-union bill on April 12 in New York City.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is enjoying solid support from the leaders of most of the major unions in New York as he runs for a third term in office. But Cuomo’s relationship with organized labor was not always so sunny.

Cuomo’s frequent appearances with union leaders in recent months have included lavish praise on both sides.

Mario Cilento, head of the state’s AFL-CIO, which has 2.5 million members, spoke at an event with Cuomo in the spring.

“Our governor truly understands and respects and appreciates that value of organized labor,” said Cilento, who added Cuomo “has set a standard for the rest of this country.”

Gary LaBarbera, head of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, at an event this summer announcing upgrades to LaGuardia airport, echoed Cilento’s sentiments, saying Cuomo is an “example” for the nation.

“We are blessed in the state of New York with the greatest governor in this entire country,” LaBarbera said.

Cuomo is quick to return the compliments. His support for labor featured prominently in his acceptance speech at the Democratic State Convention in May.

“It is the labor unions that build and grow the middle class and safeguard workers,” he said as the crowd cheered wildly. “And that’s why we support them 100 percent.”

Things were quite different just a few years ago. On New Year’s Eve 2014, shortly after Cuomo was elected to a second term, members of the New York State United Teachers union were at odds with Cuomo over a number of issues, including the Common Core learning standards. They protested outside the governor’s mansion, where Cuomo was greeting holiday guests.

Cuomo was antagonistic as well, vowing to break up what he called “the public school monopoly” and pressing to link teachers’ yearly performance evaluations with the results of students’ standardized test scores.

Teachers also were angry over a property tax cap championed by Cuomo that limits the growth of property taxes that help fund schools in New York.

And that wasn’t the first time he butted heads with the unions. In 2011, Cuomo’s first year in office, he went to war with the state’s public worker unions over new contracts. He persuaded the Legislature to enact a new pension tier that reduced benefits for newly hired state and local government workers.

Cuomo later proposed closing some state facilities that would result in job losses for members of the Civil Service Employees Association. Its president, Danny Donohue, at a rally at the Capitol in January 2014, called Cuomo a “moron” and a “monkey.”

Neither union endorsed Cuomo for governor that year.

But in 2018, CSEA is backing Cuomo. The union said the biggest reason is Cuomo’s pro-union action. The governor advanced a bill to help unions retain members in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court Janus case. That ruling said public workers did not have to pay union dues but could still enjoy many of the benefits provided through collective bargaining contracts.

Donohue acknowledged the rocky past when he appeared with Cuomo at an event in late June.

“There have been times when me and the governor have not always agreed,” Donohue said. “But let me be just as candid about it, when the governor does the right thing, we’re more than willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.”

At that event, the governor was signing an executive order to protect the personal information of union members who might be contacted by anti-union forces in the aftermath of the Janus decision.

The AFL-CIO also sat out the 2014 governor’s race but is endorsing Cuomo this year. Cilento, its president, said Cuomo has delivered on a number of priorities for union members in the past four years, including a phased-in minimum wage hike to $15 an hour in some parts of the state, and enacting partial paid family leave.

Cilento said it’s time to leave the past behind.

“All relationships have ebbs and flows,” he said.

Cilento said in an era where President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress are trying to weaken unions, it’s in organized labor’s self-interest to back politicians who stick up for them.

“We’re under attack by conservative right-wing ideologues,” Cilento said.

Union leaders also have helped Cuomo by acting as surrogates for his campaign in going after his Democratic primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon. The head of the Transit Workers Union, John Samuelsen, in a press release called Nixon a “Prosecco-sipping Manhattanite.”

Since New Year’s Eve of 2014, Cuomo has tried to mend his relations with the teachers union. He appointed a task force that concluded the Common Core was flawed and needed to be revised. And he now leaves most education policy to the state agency in charge of it, the State Education Department, which the governor does not control.

NYSUT will decide in August whether to endorse a candidate for governor this year. A spokesman said they have not yet made up their minds.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.