Not So Scandal-Proof? REBNY, Labor Unions Turn Their Backs on Cuomo

Labor unions and REBNY — previously a pillar of support for the New York governor — are backtracking after a sexual harassment investigation concludes that Cuomo violated state and federal law

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What a difference a day makes. 

Up until the Tuesday release of the results of state Attorney General Letitia James’ investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo — which found that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women, including female staffers and a state trooper — his support in commercial real estate circles, particularly among trade unions, appeared rock solid. Within hours of the results’ release, that support started eroding. 

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The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) — not a union, but a powerful landlord and developer organization — is calling for an “impeachment process” for Cuomo, after previously dodging the question in late July of whether or not the organization still supported the governor.

“The state Attorney General’s findings warrant a fair, thorough and expeditious impeachment process,” REBNY President James Whelan said in a statement to Commercial Observer.

The Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ (SEIU 32BJ) represents more than 175,000 property service workers in the U.S, concentrated in the Northeast, and has supported Cuomo in the past when the union left the Working Families Party (WFP) — a small, progressive alliance of labor unions and activists — in 2018, The New York Times reported. 

Now, the union is calling for Cuomo to resign, and, if he doesn’t, for the state legislature to get involved.

“Creating work environments where sexual harassment is not tolerated is not a matter of politics, but principle, from which no one should be exempted,” Kyle Bragg, president of the SEIU 32BJ, said in a statement to CO. “We urge the governor to resign and to take responsibility for his well-documented actions and how they have hurt women, and those who have devoted themselves to advance the interests of all New Yorkers. 

“If the Governor does not resign, we will support the state legislature’s actions to bring accountability to the office with all deliberate speed,” Bragg added.

Bragg told CO last week that the union was waiting until the sexual misconduct investigation concluded before taking any sides, and praised the governor’s accomplishments, like raising the minimum wage to $15 and mandated paid sick leave minimums. Now, he’s picking a side. And other unions are following.

The New York Hotel Trades Council (HTC), too, called for Cuomo’s resignation or impeachment. That call came just a week after the organization praised Cuomo in a statement to CO. 

“The behavior described in the attorney general’s report is deeply disturbing and should never be tolerated in any workplace,” Rich Maroko, president of HTC, said in a statement. “It is clear from the conclusions of the report that Gov. Cuomo cannot continue to lead the state. If he does not resign, the Assembly should move promptly to impeach him.”

The union’s break from the governor is significant, given that the Hotel and Gaming Workers Union backed Cuomo during the 2014 gubernatorial election and praised his “hands-on” governing style and commitment to public funding. Even, last week, the union’s political director called Cuomo a “consistent ally” of New York’s working families.

The New York State United Teachers union, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the union’s support for almost two weeks, said in a statement to CO on Tuesday that he was unfit to serve.  

“The attorney general has detailed conduct that is repugnant and indefensible in any workplace and especially in the state’s highest elected office,” Andy Pallotta, president of the NYSUT, said in a statement. “Equally troubling was the governor’s response to the report. Sadly, both show he is unfit to serve in office.” 

1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, a large healthcare union that has been a major backer of Cuomo, waited days to respond to the news but finally union President George Gresham called for Cuomo’s resignation on Thursday, according to NY1.

Cuomo adamantly denied the allegations that he sexually harassed multiple women in a press conference Tuesday — even going so far as to play a photo montage showing he regularly kissed and hugged people — but he did apologize to one of his accusers while saying she was incorrect in assuming his motivations were inappropriate. A spokesperson for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment.

But, the attorney general’s report found that Cuomo created a work environment of “fear and intimidation” through his actions — which ranged from inappropriately flirting with and making sexual jokes towards female staff members, to kissing women on the cheek and lips without consent, and to inappropriately touching women’s butts and one woman’s breast. 

The calls for Cuomo’s resignation, impeachment, or both, are a new reaction for some unions —  which remained largely steadfast in their support of Cuomo, or at least didn’t openly oppose him until Tuesday — even in light of two other scandals. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is probing how Cuomo’s administration handled nursing home deaths in the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, James accused the administration of undercounting nursing home deaths by several thousand. Reports followed that the governor’s aides had altered reported death figures and overruled state health officials for months, according to The New York Times. The FBI is examining whether Cuomo and his aides provided false data on nursing home resident deaths to the U.S. Department of Justice.

There also remains the story of the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge about a half-hour’s drive north of the Bronx. An Albany Times Union investigation found the bridge had structural safety issues and that the private company building the bridge for the state may have committed fraud by concealing the fact that large numbers of bolts had been breaking due to improper installation, defects, or both. The state’s knowledge of problems with the bridge did not stop its dedication ceremony in 2018.

But, those investigations, along with the numerous sexual harassment allegations, were not enough to definitively sever union support for Cuomo. Many, instead, praised his work as governor and deferred the issue of next year’s election to a later date, until the attorney general’s report was released. Still, some unions haven’t called for Cuomo to leave office.

Gary LaBarbera, head of the New York state Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents more than 200,000 unionized construction workers, was consistent in his quiet support of the governor’s pandemic leadership since LaBarbera took over the council in January

“A core tenet of our nation’s institutions is the right to due process, and, like any other American, Gov. Cuomo has every right to it,” LaBarbera said in a statement to CO on July 28. “Under Gov. Cuomo’s administration, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created for the hardworking men and women of the New York City and New York State Building Trades …  It’s also thanks to the governor’s steadfast leadership during some of our nation’s darkest days of the pandemic that we find New York on its way towards recovery.”

However, even after James’ bombshell support, the Building and Construction Trades Council remains one of the few unions which hasn’t yet called for Cuomo to resign.

“We’re letting the process play out, and in the meantime, we’ll keep building the offices, housing, hospitals and infrastructure of New York’s future,” a spokesperson for the union told CO.

Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association, a business organization that represents 1,200 union contractors, told CO in July that his organization does not endorse candidates as a policy, but that the governor has been extremely supportive of the unionized construction industry — including requiring union contractors on state projects at John F. Kennedy International Airport and Penn Station.

“He’s done more to help build the middle class than anybody I can think of in a real, long time,” Coletti said in an interview on July 22. 

Coletti did not respond to requests for comment after James’ report was published.

Some politicians, too, have flip-flopped on their condemnation of the governor. New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins appeared with the governor during a press conference, even after calling for his resignation earlier this year, though a spokesperson for the senator said the event was about vaccinations in her district. On Tuesday, she again called on Cuomo to resign. 

New York’s two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have renewed calls for Cuomo’s resignation in a joint statement. So did state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who is reportedly considering a primary challenge against Cuomo. President Joseph Biden and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats, called on Cuomo to resign, too, after James’ report went public.

But, statements calling for resignation, impeachment, or otherwise don’t negate the millions of dollars that Cuomo has already raised for his re-election campaign. And, before this week, unions were a strong source of financial support for the governor’s re-election bid financially, though he raised less in the first half of 2021 than in almost any similar period before

The Retail Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU) — which dates back to the 1930s and represents more than 60,000 retail, food, manufacturing and warehouse workers — has donated at least $15,000 to Cuomo’s re-election campaign since 2019. The union has now called for his resignation. 

“Gov. Andrew Cuomo has provided crucial leadership during the pandemic,” a spokesperson for RWDSU said in a statement. “Yet after reading the 164-page report of the independent investigation … we cannot ignore the facts … Gov. Cuomo needs to recognize the harm he has caused the women who have bravely come forward. While we acknowledge the good things he has achieved, now is the time for Gov. Cuomo to resign.”

All told, Cuomo pulled in at least $160,000 from unions around the state since the last election, according to campaign finance records.

The hundred-thousand-dollar question is: Why has union support stayed strong, even as Cuomo has lost allies in the Democratic Party, and have New York’s unions permanently abandoned the governor? 

Gerald Benjamin, professor emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz, put it plainly. “He takes no prisoners,” Benjamin told CO. “People don’t want to be on his bad side.”

While Cuomo may have not fared well through the recent scandals, before the report came out, Benjamin thought he wasn’t doing too badly. Cuomo has been very effective at steering the conversation toward the coronavirus pandemic — a topic that the governor rode to national acclaim in his daily briefings, and that’s now a source of fear for New Yorkers as the Delta variant spurs new restrictions and an uptick in coronavirus cases.

Unions also had an electoral motivation to support Cuomo and the Democratic Party, rather than the more left-leaning WFP — which called for Cuomo to resign in March — because the Democratic voting body in the state “is center-left at best,” Benjamin said. Cuomo has also quietly attempted to weaken his rivals in the WFP. 

Still, even with all his skills for dodging scandal, Benjamin no longer sees a path forward for the three-term governor. 

“Clearly, he’s going to try to appeal to the public,” said Benjamin. “But you don’t run alone. You have to raise the money. You have to have the staff. You have to have the support. You have to have the phone bank … Where is that going to come from?”

Cuomo could face criminal consequences as well. Both the Westchester County and Manhattan district attorneys asked James for documents related to the report and Mimi Roach, the Westchester DA, plans to conduct an inquiry into whether the alleged sexual misconduct that occurred in her jurisdiction was criminal, NBC reported. The Albany County district attorney’s office is also launching its own criminal investigation.

Cuomo could survive, nevertheless, but Benjamin believes that his impeachment is imminent. And the race for the Democratic nomination for governor, which Cuomo basically had in the bag before, has already begun, Benjamin said.

“I always believed that he was a bitter-ender and that he would persist,” he added. “This is not just a debate about him. It’s a debate about his legacy … his father’s legacy … It may well be that he’ll persist, but I don’t see a path.” 

Impeachment seems to be more certain by the hour. State Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement that once his office receives the relevant documents from the attorney general, his office will look to conclude his impeachment investigation “as quickly as possible.”

“It is abundantly clear to me that the governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office,” Heastie said.

Cuomo, however, could dispute whether his actions constitute an impeachable offense, because the state constitution doesn’t clearly spell out grounds for impeachment, said Benjamin. 

Impeachment would only require a simple majority of the Assembly’s 150 members before the process heads to the High Court of Impeachment, which consists of all sitting state senators, except the majority leader, and the seven members of New York’s Court of Appeals. Benjamin said he expects the Democrats to back impeachment, and that Republicans have no reason to stand behind Cuomo. 

“Impeachment is certain — conviction is a likelihood,” Benjamin said.

Celia Young can be reached at cyoung@commercialobserver.com.