Old-School New York Labor Leader Girds for Potential Cuomo Administration

This is the fifth in a new five-part series called "The New York Vote," a partnership between WNYC and Capital New York. We will be painting a portrait of the New York electorate in 2010, as explained by a diverse cast of political players.

Today, a look at Lillian Roberts, leader of the city's largest public-employee union, at the end of what has been a particularly tough electoral cycle for organized labor.

"People like to separate labor and the community," Lillian Roberts said. "We all live together. We're all one."

Roberts is the executive director of District Council 37, the city's largest municipal union, and this point about unity is one that she and other labor leaders have been making recently with as much force as they can muster. It's not an easy time for labor, particularly for public employee unions, whose wage demands and massive pension funds have been blamed for making it difficult for states to surmount the recession. Even candidates from the traditionally union-friendly Democratic party--most prominently Andrew Cuomo--have been wary of seeming too much in labor's lap. Cuomo has made it his goal to change state government in a way that Roberts will almost certainly be obliged to fight, yet she is outwardly unperturbed. She's keeping her eye firmly on the interests of the union, whose goals are far more important to her than party allegiance.

"We put our money and our bodies where our mouth is," she said in an interview in her spacious office overlooking the World Trade Center site. (The union's building was used as a command center after 9/11). "I refuse to play any games with anybody. If a Democrat comes to me against a Republican who has been good for this union, I'll tell them to mind their own business. We're very objective when it comes down to what it means to us."

Those seem like fighting words, but Roberts unleashes them gently. At 82, she is soft-spoken and grandmotherly, neatly coiffed and with a voice that only once in while--when she talks about the opponents of health care reform or the greed of hedge fund managers--takes on a steely edge. Those are the only moments when it's possible to reconcile her appearance with the fact that she was once jailed for two weeks for organizing an illegal strike. Then again, that was 41 years ago. When you've been around for as long as Roberts has, your life goes through a lot of stages. You might even retire for years, and then end up in the top spot at DC 37, which encompasses a huge range of mostly nonuniformed jobs and where Roberts is currently in her eighth year as executive director.

Roberts may have had her angry phase a few decades ago, but it's an experience that might may make her particularly well-suited to harness the mood of her members.

"I think just because people aren't breaking windows and running through the streets like mad doesn't mean there isn't a lot of anger and frustration," she said. "It has to do with jobs and one's ability to take care of oneself. Nobody wants a handout. And I think our union has toiled with trying to keep people on the job."

Though she professes a nonpartisan interest in focusing on whatever and whomever is good for DC 37, she is certainly well aware of the importance of electing candidates who share her goals. She says that her members are afraid--of layoffs, of homelessness--but she's tried to instruct them not to act rashly on Election Day, to remember who their friends are rather than to have the knee-jerk response to throw the bums out. "Sometimes you get the best or meekest bum there is," she said, "and then you educate them."

"We want to know how we fit into their world," she said of screening prospective endorsees. "What it means for a candidate to have our support is that they've got a friend. We're very loyal, we're very forthright. If we say we're not supporting you, we're not. But if we say we're supporting you, it means we're running like hell to win. We begin to prepare and work with and say to them, 'What do you think we need to do to be helpful to you?' At that stage of the game we begin to decide how we play our role, whether we do robocalls to our members, pass out literature, get out the vote, stand on corners."

DC 37 has five offices hosting phone banks and sending out volunteers, whose ranks, Roberts claims, are greater than ever. It's still a pretty old-fashioned operation, based largely on paper lit and the telephone. Roberts had to be reminded of the union's radio and television shows, and the Internet doesn't seem to to play much of a role at all.

But as any campaign will tell you, labor's support can make all the difference. Though Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, DC 37's choice in this year's attorney general race, lost badly in the Democratic primary, the union can be a powerful force. Their endorsement provided a major boost for Bill Thompson's better-than-expected showing in the mayoral election last year. The move had been a particular surprise since the union had gone for Michael Bloomberg in 2005. Bloomberg had reportedly refused, in his 2009 endorsement interview, to promise to stop using private contractors to save money, to reduce pension benefits for new union members, and not to cut DC 37 jobs.

That decidedly un-deferential treatment is similar to what union members have been getting this year from the Democratic nominee for governor, Andrew Cuomo, who has run as a New Democrat, strenuously avoiding any action that could be perceived as coddling a public union. In his Labor Day op-ed for the Daily News, Cuomo paid tribute to "the essential role that organized labor plays in our society," but went on to write, invoking the fiscal crisis of 1975, that "today is another moment in time where the public sector (along with everyone else) must make sacrifices for the common good."

"Obviously he has talked a great deal about what he's going to do and that the unions are too big and whatnot," Roberts said. "I think that's a one-sided discussion. I don't really know, because our unions and our presidents had asked him to come before them, and that's how we operate. I don't dictate to them, but we put everything out there and he has refused to come. So I don't think they expect a great deal from him. They will be watching him. People have their own minds, you know. They're not robots. Since we're not endorsing anyone for governor, I don't know how that's going to go."

She was far less ambivalent about the union's choice for comptroller: the Democratic incumbent, Tom DiNapoli. DiNapoli has the big picture in the center of DC 37's endorsement fliers--not United States Senators Kirstin Gillibrand or Chuck Schumer, who were endorsed by the union, and certainly not Cuomo. Roberts referred over and over again to the power of the comptroller in advancing the union's agenda.

"The most important thing right now is getting a comptroller who will analyze the way money is spent so that we have a fair chance at survival," she said. "He's done a good job and because he knows how to analyze, he knows how we feel, we have some experience with him auditing certain programs. He deserves our support. The story from New York State will be that we elected a team of checks and balances, and I like to think of the comptroller as a checkmate." Referring to the legislature and the comptroller's office, she predicted, "We'll be able to control what happens to us. The governor's not the only one."

Roberts has deep roots in the labor movement. She grew up on welfare in Chicago, and though she won a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, she struggled to pay for it and returned to Chicago. She became a nurse's aide back in Chicago at the age of 18, and gradually worked her way up the union hierarchy. When one of her organizing mentors, Victor Gotbaum, was transferred from Chicago to New York, she eventually became his second-in-command at District 37. She led a massive organizing effort within the city's public hospitals, and became known for her militancy: she was jailed for two weeks in 1969 for leading an illegal strike and clashed with Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor Abe Beame in the 1970s.

She served as the state's labor commissioner starting in 1981, under Hugh Carey, and stayed in the position after Mario Cuomo's election a year later. In 1987, she resigned, claiming that she had been forced out of her post (the Daily News reported this week that it was Andrew Cuomo who delivered the news) and accusing the Cuomo administration of "character assassination." She worked in the private sector for a few years, and after about a decade of retirement came back to DC 37 to lead it out of a difficult period: widespread corruption had resulted in a three-year trusteeship designed to clean out operations, and Roberts' return implied a return to the glory days of the 1970s, when she and others swelled the union's membership and flexed its muscles.

It's a different time, labor has lost a lot of its old friends, and it might seem difficult to get 120,000 people really pumped up about, well, a comptroller race, but Roberts insists that she and her members still know how to channel their frustrations and fears into action.

"I think our members will be mobilized based on their needs and who will help them out of this mess we find ourselves in," she said. "I think people get excited based on their self-interest. It may not be as spirited as two years ago, but people are paying attention."