Anti-Cuomo unions work to engineer rebuke, if not defeat

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Andrew Cuomo. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
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ALBANY—In one sense, the AFL-CIO's decision Monday not to endorse Andrew Cuomo's re-election is bigger than it looks. That's because the union's decision, sources say, was partially the result of heavy lobbying from other labor groups that are snubbing or actively opposing the governor. 

The union's decision is somewhat smaller in terms of the likelihood that it will have a meaningful impact on the election, though. 

You would think it's a no-brainer for the largest labor organization in the state to back a Democratic governor who, despite frustrating actions, has worked to create jobs for its members. All signs—polls, resources—point toward him winning in November, show his principal opponents in the primary and general elections are widely unknown and, in the case of the Republican, Rob Astorino, far less eager to toe the labor line. 

The AFL-CIO's decision to stay on the sidelines anyway will be embarrassing to Cuomo and fuel buzz about his challenger Zephyr Teachout. But the governor has enough money and infrastructural support (including the backing of other unions) not to have to rely on the group.

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“I find it hard to imagine that anything the unions are doing is ultimately going to make a big difference in a primary,” said Joe Mercurio, a Democratic political consultant. “This is going to be a turnout-driven election, and he has way more resources than she does to generate turnout.”

So what's driving the renegade action of a major labor group?

Cuomo still enjoys staunch support from two key labor groups—SEIU 1199, which represents health care workers, and the Hotel Trades Council—known to have vigorous get-out-the-vote operations. He has over $30 million in the bank and has been steadily advertising for months, drowning out negative coverage about his troubles with U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and his probe into how the governor interacted with his now-defunct anti-corruption panel.

The AFL-CIO's endorsement convention was closed to the press, but sources say two unions that were already breaking against Cuomo—New York State United Teachers and AFSCME—led the charge to prevent an endorsement. Last week the Public Employees Federation, which represents white collar state workers but is part of the American Federation of Teachers, voted to endorse Teachout.

There is a reservoir of resentment among AFSCME affiliates like the Civil Service Employees Association—which represents blue-collar state workers—where officials have bristled at Cuomo's attrition of the state workforce, push to reduce pension benefits for new government employees and cap on local property tax increases. CSEA president Danny Donohue has publicly denounced Cuomo as a “moron” and a “monkey.”

NYSUT, for the second time, declined to make a Cuomo endorsement, but its decision to join with AFSCME to block the AFL-CIO endorsement is an escalation. It's notable that both NYSUT and P.E.F. have new presidents who were elected partly by claiming their predecessors were not aggressive enough toward Cuomo. (A NYSUT official on Monday also boasted it had over $4 million ready to spend on this year's elections, but that money seems targeted for legislative races.)

Ryan Delgado, the AFL-CIO's public policy director, said simply, “There is no consensus and unless consensus is reached there will be no recommendation.”

The governor has so far declined to do much campaigning, hoping he can coast to victory while lawyers challenge Teachout's ability to stay on the ballot (there's a hearing today) and Astorino pleads for debates that will likely never come to fruition.

Cuomo's own press operation declined to comment.