Magazine article The American Prospect

Solidarity Sometimes

Magazine article The American Prospect

Solidarity Sometimes

Article excerpt

NOTHING DIVIDES THE labor movement like a good city election. To watch the calculus of narrow self-interest play out in the scrambled union endorsements of candidates in this month's New York mayoral primary is to be grateful that all politics isn't literally local--that at least rudimentary concerns of ideology tend to loom larger in state and national contests.

In the several recent presidential, elections, the national labor movement has gone to great lengths to unite behind a single Democratic candidate early and to stay unified. Though some of these candidates were not everything labor might have wished, a look at the fragmentation in many local elections gives one a new appreciation for the unity-above-all strategy.

To be sure, the four-way contest for the Democratic nomination, culminating in the September 11 primary, hasn't exactly been a rousing battle of ideas--or one, for that matter, of contesting political forces or charismatic candidates. "So far, this is a race where nobody has much reason to do anything for any of the candidates; they're all identical," says one of New York's leading longtime progressive activists. They're not identical, of course, but the more liberal candidate (Mark Green) has thus far run somewhat to his right while the more centrist candidates (the other three) have tacked left.

So it should come as no surprise that many of New York's unions have surveyed the field with an eye toward their own parochial concerns; this, in fact, is the normal course for local unions in big-city elections. But this year, it stands in sharp contrast to the course charted by labor in Los Angeles's mayoral election this spring. Both cities' labor movements have faced essentially the same set of circumstances: their populations grown increasingly nonwhite and Democratic, their Republican mayor ousted by term limits, and an array of chiefly Democratic candidates vying for top office. But the two cities' movements could not have responded more differently from each other.

Over the past several years, under the leadership of the County Federation of Labor, L.A. unions have been remarkably successful in advancing a common, broad progressive agenda; this year, much of that agenda set the terms of debate in Los Angeles's mayoral election. Most of those unions came together early to endorse the candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa, a former state-assembly speaker and onetime local-union organizer who'd come to personify the city's labor-Latino alliance every bit as much as Al Smith once personified Tammany Hall. By so doing, the Los Angeles labor movement risked more than its New York counterpart did in this election cycle and may well have lost more, too, when Villaraigosa went down to defeat.

In the long run, however, it also achieved more. "The exceptional thing about the Villaraigosa campaign," says David Koff, a Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union staffer who is a key figure within L.A. labor's brain trust, "is that you had a charismatic leader with a charismatic following--a movement intensely supportive of a leader they learned from but whom they also instructed, as they did the city." That's an assessment no one is likely to make of any of New York's candidates or unions at the conclusion of this fall's mayoral contest there.

AT FIRST GLANCE, THE MOST LOGICAL recipient of union support in New York's mayoral race would seem to be Mark Green, long a standout among the nation's most progressive and intelligent leaders-in-waiting. Green has been a major figure in New York politics for at least 20 years; over the past eight, in the city's elected position of public advocate, he has emerged as Mayor Rudy Giuliani's most trenchant critic--forcefully condemning Giuliani's pro-developer and anti-minority biases and his generally sadistic intemperence, while championing the economic interests of working-class New York.

In return for all this, Green has won the institutional backing of much of New York's working class--but not as extensively as he might have anticipated. …

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