NEW YORK—Republicans and Democrats across the nation are increasingly polarized on the issue of collective bargaining rights for unions. In New York, the Democratic majority tips the legislative scale in favor of unions. However, New York Democrats remain wary of the events in Wisconsin and have vowed not to become too complacent.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has moved to suspend collective bargaining rights, while stripping unions of other benefits they currently enjoy, in the hopes of balancing the state budget. Walker's legislation to this effect is being held up by Democratic senators, who are staying out of state to boycott the session and refusing to vote on the matter.
Over the past week, a series of boisterous demonstrations have crowded City Hall in solidarity with Wisconsin unions, culminating in Saturday's gathering of thousands of union supporters. New York state and municipal elected officials held a relatively subdued gathering in support of their Democratic colleagues in Wisconsin on the steps of City Hall Sunday afternoon.
“We've been seeing a lot of solidarity marches, and there was one here at City Hall yesterday,” said Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito. “We thought it was important that the elected officials come out in support of what is happening in Wisconsin,” she added.
Letitia James, Debi Rose, and Brad Lander were among the 13 City Council members in attendance. Other officials at the event included Rep. Charles Rangel, state Sen. Bill Perkins, and state assemblymen Guillermo Linares, Robert Rodriguez, and David Weprin.
“We want to thank those 14 [Wisconsin] Senate Democrats who will not be complicit in [Walker's] agenda, which seeks to break the backs of our unions,” stated Mark-Viverito. “It should matter to all of us what happens in Wisconsin, because that will be the gauge by which others will be emboldened,” she added.
On the New York City Council, 45 out of 51 seats are held by Democrats. While Republicans hold a slight majority in the New York state Senate, Democrats enjoy a majority in the state Assembly. The Democratic presence is fairly strong, but Councilwoman Debi Rose of Staten Island cautioned against complacency. She pointed out that unions are the proposed target of budget-cutting measures in New York, as well as in Wisconsin.
“In New York City, we are already seeing it with the mayor's conversations about changing pensions [and] about seniority rights. These issues are being put on the table in terms of ways to help alleviate our budget problems, which is really a farce,” asserted Rose.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that the situation in Wisconsin has nothing to do with New York. The mayor has not mentioned collective bargaining rights while discussing the reduction of pensions for firefighters and police officers, and debating the role of teacher seniority when it comes to layoffs.
“The mayor is having those discussions [about pensions and layoffs] with the governor, and the governor hasn't said whether or not he's supportive of them,” noted Rose. “But I am sure that with us having a Democratic City Council, they will not pass that type of restrictive legislation [here],” she added.
The common message at Sunday's gathering at City Hall was that unions did not create the deficit and should not be held accountable for it. Many claimed that the Republican agenda is catering to corporate interests and taking from the poor and middle class, instead of looking to the rich to close the gap by renewing the millionaire's tax.
Republican council members and state officials could not be reached for comment by press deadline. While the Democrats blast what they see as an unjustified Republican cash grab, Walker and the Republican Party's websites both hound on union spending.
Union Spending Scrutinized
The first things that catch the eye when visiting the Republican Party's website are two quotes in bold letters from the Wall Street Journal: “Labor union PACs [political action committees] and employee contributions to Democrat candidates in 2010: $280 million,” and “In 2008, unions spent over $400 million to elect Obama and other Democrats.”
A blogger for BuffaloBeast.com taped a prank call he says took place between himself and Gov. Walker. The blogger pretended to be David Koch, a billionaire Wisconsin conservative, and thereby lured Walker into a now highly publicized exposition of his thoughts on unions.
Walker summed up the Republican message: “[Unions spend] tax payers' money to lobby for more tax payers' money to be spent.” He also accused the unions of paying for the absentee senators to stay out of state.
“If the union has been paying to put these guys up out of state, we think there's a minimum ethics code violation, if not an outright felony. … It's not just a political contribution. If they're being paid to keep them from doing their jobs, we think that's legally an obstruction of justice,” Walker said in the recording.
In New York, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has recently been the focus of criticism for its exorbitant spending.
The New York Daily News article, titled “UFT spends millions on dinners, parties, parking, coffee as thousands of teachers face layoffs,” exposed a $1.4 million bill for the UFT's 50th anniversary celebration at the Hilton last year. The paper reported a $100,000 a year coffee habit, nearly as much spent on parking, and thousands of dollars spent on catering, gift baskets for events, and training retreats at luxurious resorts throughout 2010.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the Daily News that teachers work hard to do the city a great service, and “a cup of coffee, a bottle of water, and a few parking spots is the least we can do for them.”