Samantha Maldonado, THE CITY
As business and real estate-funded groups spend big to make their mark on a soon-to-be new class of City Council members, labor unions are putting serious last-minute dollars behind worker-friendly candidates.
Five union-affiliated independent expenditure groups have dropped over $2 million to boost 47 City Council candidates across the five boroughs, an analysis of spending as of June 17 by THE CITY shows.
That comes out to an average of nearly $44,000 per candidate — but Crystal Hudson, who is running in a crowded Brooklyn race, has benefitted most as the June 22 primary approaches.
With competitive races for 35 of the 51 seats that make up City Council, interested parties see a historic opportunity to elect a slate of members who will act as a check on the new mayor and push legislation that shepherds the city into a post-pandemic future.
One of the groups, Labor Strong 2021 — a coalition of SEIU 32BJ, Communications Workers of America District 1, public employee union District Council 37, Hotel Trades Council and New York State Nurses Association — has spent $980,949, the most money of all the union-affiliated super PACs.
The money has paid for digital video ads and multilingual mailers that declare candidates “labor strong.”
“Unions [are] joining together with a clear message that’s more or less solely focused on workers, and workers rights,” said Hae-Lin Choi, a spokesperson for both CWA and the independent expenditure group. “We really feel like we have the power, the responsibility and the opportunity to shape these Council races… We are at the table, basically, to shape the recovery to make sure that we don’t forget about the essential workers.”
While the five unions have long worked closely together, Labor Strong represents the first time they’ve joined to financially support political candidates — an effort about a year and a half in the making, according to Choi.
Recovery for Workers
Although the five groups are not always aligned on a single candidate in a district, their messages on postcards, digital ads, flyers and websites are similar: They emphasize the importance of protecting workers during the pandemic recovery and highlight candidates — a mix of newcomers and incumbents — who pledge to fight for union jobs, affordable housing and healthcare.
“We know how quickly after a crisis the focus is going to be on supporting businesses and making sure the economy recovers — according to real estate and big business,” Choi said. But the labor groups want to ensure a focus on ongoing support for “the workers that we all applauded for during the darkest times.”
Labor Strong has so far backed 29 City Council candidates, but with a total budget of just over a million dollars, the PAC plans to support a total of 34 candidates. The group will not spend in other races, unlike the four other labor-affiliated independent expenditures.
Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC backed 15 Council candidates with $145,804. Carpenters for Progress, an independent expenditure affiliated with the District Council of Carpenters, spent $113,544 to back four City Council hopefuls.
Labors Building a Better New York dropped $142,610 in support of 14 Council candidates endorsed by the Mason Tenders and Laborers Local 79, a construction workers union. Hotel Workers for Stronger Communities, funded by hospitality unions Hotel Trades Council and UNITE HERE, backed 11 Council candidates with a total of $677,987.
In all, the groups made it rain the most in Queens, spending $762,840 to support 17 candidates. Those top three beneficiaries were Austin Shafran, Amit Bagga and Sandra Ung, with $133,137, $116,299 and $93,671 spent on each, respectively.
Candidates have jockeyed for and then touted union endorsements, which sometimes come with the manpower required to make lots of calls and knock on many doors for candidates.
The spending from labor independent expenditure groups — which aren’t allowed to coordinate with campaigns — goes beyond a mere badge of approval. It’s an endeavor to compete with other interests throwing money into races and to allow candidates to stand out in a crowded field.
“We’ve been naïve to think you could do this without getting more serious about the money,” said Ed Ott, former executive director of the New York Central Labor Council and a former distinguished lecturer at CUNY.
The $2.06 million the union-affiliated PACs have spent outpaces the spending of two independent expenditure groups primarily funded by real estate money, Common Sense NYC and Voters of NYC, which have dropped $783,920 and $184,444 respectively on City Council races.
In some cases, the labor and real estate-backed candidates overlap. Shaun Abreu of Manhattan, for example, is backed by Voters of NYC, Empire State 32BJ, Labor Strong and Hotel Workers.
In other cases, Common Sense NYC has opposed labor-backed candidates, such as Alexa Aviles of Brooklyn, when benefited from spending by Labor Strong.
“With the real estate industry and the workers who build things, we want to eat and they want to grow. There’s a symbiotic relationship on that,” Ott said. “Where we differ: They want to build it as cheap as they can, and we want to make a really decent wage with benefits.”
The groups have collectively spent the most money on behalf of Hudson, a candidate in Brooklyn’s District 35. Three of the five groups — Carpenters, Empire State 32BJ and Hotel Workers — backed her to the tune of $187,892.
The second-highest amount, $153,844, was spent on behalf of Carmen De La Rosa of Manhattan, a current member of the state Assembly, by four of the five groups: Empire State 32BJ, Hotel Workers, Labor Strong and Laborers Building a Better New York.
“My campaign is talking about the things that working families care about: more union jobs, a paycheck guarantee, worker protections like expanded paid sick leave, a permanent city-sponsored worker relief and benefits fund, and truly affordable housing,” Hudson said in a statement.
She added that she’s focused on uplifting working people who were “on the frontlines of this pandemic.”
That’s a message that’s resonating with John Santos, vice president of 32BJ and the New York Metro director, who is also concerned about union members who have not been working because of the pandemic.
“Hundreds of our members at the Barclays have been out of work for almost a year and half and our residential members put their lives on the line each day at the height of the pandemic to keep everyone safe,” Santos said.
He said he believes Hudson will promote good jobs and fight for the more than 1,000 members of his union who live or work in the district, which encompasses Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Downtown Brooklyn and part of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Michael Hollingsworth, a tenant organizer and Hudson’s primary rival in the district, saw only $4,575 of spending on his behalf from Laborers Building a Better New York. (Labor Strong didn’t spend in the district because the groups involved couldn’t agree on a candidate, Choi said.)
His winning the support of the Mason Tenders rested on his involvement in a particularly fraught development project in the neighborhood: the Bedford Union Armory.
The armory is an abandoned city-owned building that’s being turned into a community recreation center with attached apartments. The construction workers complained about the use of non-union labor on the project, which also drew fierce opposition from local tenant advocacy organizations that voiced concerns about gentrification.
“There was a big fight a couple of years ago about the Bedford Union Armory project, which we opposed, and Hollingsworth was out there on the picket lines with us,” said Mike McGuire, director of the Mason Tenders District Council. “We love him. We love Crystal too, but the preexisting relationship with Hollingsworth trumps.”
Term-limited Democrat Councilmember Laurie Cumbo supported the development. As they run to replace her, Hollingsworth and Hudson have both said they oppose the project. Hudson previously worked for Cumbo.
“I’m proud to have fought alongside Laborers Local 79 against the redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory, and I continue to stand with them,” Hollingsworth said in a statement.
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