UFT Meeting Stokes Fire of Democratic Unity
NEW YORK—As far as most New Yorkers were concerned, the talk of Democratic unity began on the morning of Sept. 16 with a surprise press conference in which Bill Thompson dropped out of the race and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as well as Thompson, formally endorsed Bill de Blasio for mayor.
The rally set off a series of press conferences in which rival Christine Quinn, as well as supporters from losing candidates, came out in droves at the beginning of the week to unify behind de Blasio for the Democratic nomination. This happened before the votes were counted that would officially verify de Blasio’s win.
The unity rally was actually the result of a secret meeting arranged by Michael Mulgrew, president of the powerful United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which had backed Thompson in his losing bid for mayor. Mulgrew gathered Thompson and de Blasio at UFT headquarters without the scrutiny of the press for a candid conversation about the future of New York City.
The trio sat for nearly two hours on Saturday at UFT headquarters with one goal in mind: do whatever it takes to ensure a Democrat is elected in the Nov. 5 general election.
“It was one of the most refreshing political conversations I have ever had in my life,” Mulgrew said of the meeting, while speaking to reporters on Wednesday. “I feel grateful that I was in that room with those two gentlemen.”
Mulgrew said at the meeting Thompson asked the UFT to support de Blasio because the city could ill afford to go in the direction it is going.
Mulgrew did not take credit for the outcome of the meeting, saying he acted only as a facilitator.
“They left their egos and it really was a genuinely great conversation to listen to the two of them,” Mulgrew said. “It really was about, ‘listen, we both have a vision and the city has been in the wrong direction.’ They really kept working it.”
On Wednesday the delegate assembly of the UFT heeded the advice of the candidate they had chosen to back and voted to endorse de Blasio in the general election.
“The support of the UFT adds immeasurable to our coalition,” de Blasio said from UFT headquarters Sept. 18. “This is a huge step forward for our campaign. It gives us the ability to reach so many more people.”
De Blasio spoke of a need for unity between educators and the mayor’s office, a relationship that has been strained during the latter half of current Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure.
“We have suffered for years for the lack of that unity,” de Blasio said.
The UFT had snubbed de Blasio during the primary campaign, choosing Thompson instead. At the time of the endorsement in late June, de Blasio was polling at 10 percent and his campaign seemed to be going nowhere.
There appeared to be no hard feelings as Mulgrew stood alongside de Blasio, who took 40 percent of the votes on the Sept. 10 primary.
“We know in primaries there are going to be some different choices but we are Democrats, we are progressives, we are people who believe in core shared values,” de Blasio said. “I knew we would find a way to work together again.”
If elected, the two groups will have a tough task as their first order of business: a new contract. The UFT has been without a new contract since October 31, 2009. Bloomberg has let all of the city’s union contracts expire, leaving the next mayor with the bill.
It is estimated for every union to get retroactive pay and a raise would cost the city over $7 billion, something the city cannot afford. De Blasio has repeatedly said he would not negotiate the contracts in public. He was coy with what role the issue of contracts played in the negotiations.
“It will be resolved,” de Blasio said. “We will work through these issues, I have no doubt.”
Joe Lhota, who is running on the Republican ticket, had requested a meeting with Mulgrew about an endorsement, but was not granted one.
“I have already heard Lhota’s position on education and his positions on the union which I am the president of and I didn’t think those conversations would be very fruitful,” Mulgrew said.