BEHIND THE HEADLINES
Legislature Democrats stay true to labor-friendly roots


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Unions helped give Democrats control of county government, and that support has paid off.

By MATTHEW SPINA
News Staff Reporter
6/26/2006

Erie County's Democratic lawmakers are showing a zeal for pro-labor causes. But then, organized labor fortified last year's election campaigns and helped the party cement its grip on the County Legislature.
Unions and pro-labor groups in 2005 invested $80,000 in the Democrats, who took control of the Legislature, 12-3, when their previous edge over Republicans had been 8-7. Pro-labor donations to today's Democratic lawmakers tripled those from business owners and dwarfed any other special interest.

The $80,000 does not include donations from individual union officials. Nor does it count the invaluable support unions offer by passing nominating petitions, circulating leaflets and dialing up voters for candidates they like.

It averages out to $8,000 for each Democratic incumbent when excluding Buffalo's Demone A. Smith, who had not filed his 2005 campaign reports as of last week, and West Seneca's Cynthia Locklear, who, as a Primary Challenge-sponsored candidate, sought no money from special interests.

The donations didn't flow from just those unions that represent county workers and want to protect their jobs and benefits. Money poured in from unions that want to become more effective through laws requiring apprentice-training programs, private-sector health care benefits or project labor agreements on public projects.

Their influence, through money and manpower, can't be ignored. It can cost $45,000 to $55,000 to run a Legislature campaign through a contested primary and general election.

"When you consider the "rule of three' - that every member can influence three votes - that's a lot of votes," said Michelle Marto, who works in the political department for Local 1199, Service Employees International Union, which has 4,500 members in Erie County and gave about $14,000 to Democratic incumbents.

Local 1199 represents no county employees, but it works for employee rights and for quality-of-life concerns, Marto said. This month, SEIU helped persuade the County Legislature to stand up for the "Fair Share for Health Care" movement, which began in response to Wal-Mart's Spartan insurance package but can affect other businesses as well.

Over the objections of business groups and some lawmakers who considered the matter outside their role, the body voted, 10-5, to urge the State Legislature to pass a bill forcing employers of 100 people or more to spend at least $3 an hour per worker for employee health care. The bill, stalled in the State Senate as this year's session ended, was panned by business groups as another burden that would send struggling employers out of New York.

Erie County's statement was pushed by Buffalo Democrats Maria R. Whyte, who raised nearly $19,000 from labor unions, and Timothy Kennedy, who raised almost $12,000. Their pro-labor advocacy should be well known to their voters, and a candidate indifferent to labor could not expect to win Kennedy's South Buffalo district.

"Unfortunately, money has become a part of the process at all levels of government," said Kennedy, who also said it's not wrong to take money from supporters. "I think organized labor is going to support individuals at every level of government who stand up for working men and women. I'm proud of their support."

Whyte doubts she would have been elected without organized labor, which gave her $1 of every $3 she spent.

"I had five opponents in my race. With each additional opponent, you have to raise additional money . . .," she said. "Because I have accepted money from those organizations doesn't preclude independent thought."

Contrast Whyte and Kennedy with conservative Republican Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Amherst. Ranzenhofer in 2005 was the Legislature's best fund-raiser, collecting more than $18,000 just from businesses linked to construction, particularly road construction, and more than $30,000 from myriad business interests. But he lacks the clout to get something passed, as Whyte and Kennedy can.

The Democratic caucus sets the Legislature's priorities and takes many requests from the pro-labor interests that helped elect its members in a turbulent year. Consider:

The Legislature just last week overrode County Executive Joel A. Giambra's veto of a law forcing contractors on county projects to have a state-certified apprentice training program. The law, seen as favoring union contractors over non-union, was passed in January, vetoed by Giambra, refined and passed again, and vetoed again. Even with the override, Giambra says the law is unworkable, and he will ignore it.

When an out-of-town company hired non-union workers to rid the Rath County Office Building's 14th floor of asbestos, Laborers Local 210 was watching, and in time its members were testifying to a Legislature committee about how the job had been botched, especially since the contractor had hired undocumented, and presumably untrained, aliens. Giambra already had halted all work and insisted the contractor hire trained, unionized workers in order to keep the job.

With the Legislature just hours from letting the Department of Social Services hire a firm to help duplicate millions of pages of records it must retain, a contingent of Civil Service Employees Association officers asked for time before the Democrats' caucus meeting to say the work rightfully belongs to the union, even if more employees need to be hired. The contract, branded as "outsourcing," was bounced back to a committee for more study.

Advocates of project labor agreements are circling. PLAs establish unionlike rules by which all contractors on a project must abide, union or non-union. They also can promote harmony by offering a way to settle disputes. Erie Community College's dormitory projects, now in a Legislature committee, have become an object of PLA desire for union forces.

Organized labor's link with the Democratic Party is hardly new with county government. There has been a symbiotic relationship for years.

But if this year's Legislature has an election mandate, it is to ensure that the budget crisis of 2004-05 not happen again.

So is the sporadic focus on labor's agenda a distraction from Erie County's upcoming budget, its recovery plan and the matrix of money-saving ideas that include union concessions roundly seen as unlikely to happen?

"I don't think it's a distraction whatsoever," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. "Very much, when I became chair, the agenda was to do the fiscal stability and to go through the matrix items and to look at how the services are being delivered."

The Legislature today begins an unusual series of midyear hearings to assess this year's financial status.

"The other side makes it look like we are always getting everything we want," said Brad M. Rybczynski, a former Legislature staffer who is now executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council, which won passage of an apprentice-training bill less potent than many members wanted.

"We had to compromise here," he said, moments after the Legislature overrode Giambra's veto Thursday. "And in other places, we have flat-out failed."

For instance, the Legislature's decision to cap borrowing for large-scale public improvements this year at $12 million, rather than $22 million, "doesn't exactly help my industry," he said. "But we have sat with Lynn Marinelli, and we understand what's best for the county.

"We don't always get our way," he said.


e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com