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Union Boss Says Even Democrats Can Err


January 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved. 

Dennis Rivera, presidente del gigantesco sindicato de trabajadores de atención sanitaria de Nueva York, ha sido siempre conocido por su agresivo liberalismo, pero recientemente ha hecho algunas cosas evidentemente llenas de prejuicios.


Dennis Rivera, the powerful union leader, has recently made some surprising alliances with Republicans.

[PHOTO: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times]


Dennis Rivera, the president of New York City's giant health care workers' union, has long been known for his aggressive brand of liberalism, but recently he has done some decidedly unliberal things.

Last Tuesday, while pressing lawmakers to enact a multibillion-dollar health care plan that would in part finance raises for hospital workers, he organized a rally in Albany where his union's members hailed Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican. The week before, his union, 1199/S.E.I.U., New York's Health and Human Service Union, endorsed the Republican running for a State Senate seat on Manhattan's East Side. And a few days ago he urged his union's members to do everything they could to ensure that Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican, remains majority leader of the State Senate.

By embracing Republicans in such a visible way, Mr. Rivera, widely seen at the most powerful union leader in the state, has scrambled the odds in political campaigns across the state. If the 210,000-member union endorses Governor Pataki in his run for re-election this fall, or even if it remains neutral, that could go far to spoil the chances of his Democratic challenger.

In another unliberal move, Mr. Rivera telephoned newspaper reporters on Friday to upbraid the Democratic candidates for governor, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall and Andrew M. Cuomo. Accusing them of demagoguery, he said they had betrayed the state's hospital workers and health care needs by attacking the health care plan approved last week.

Not surprisingly, many Democrats are puzzled and perturbed that Mr. Rivera is romancing so many Republicans. They remember that he, and the thousands of foot soldiers in 1199's vaunted get-out-the-vote operation, played an important role in electing Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer.

"It hurts," said a Democratic leader long close to Mr. Rivera. "It's troubling that a labor leader who is a member of the Democratic National Committee is in such a public embrace of a Republican governor."

Mr. Rivera's political maneuvering hit the jackpot last week. Pressured by Mr. Pataki and Mr. Rivera, the State Senate and Assembly approved a bill that provides $1.8 billion over three years to finance raises and recruitment money for health care workers. There is $500 million for nursing home workers, $600 million for home care aides, and $700 million for hospital workers, helping finance the 13 percent raise over 42 months that Mr. Rivera recently obtained for 50,000 city workers.

Editorial writers across the state kicked Mr. Rivera around last week, comparing him to the fedora-wearing union bosses of old, saying that he used raw political muscle to push around politicians and pursue his union's narrow self-interest.

But Mr. Rivera said his political strategizing made perfect sense. "We get into politics to advance the interests not only of our union members, but of society as a whole," he said, noting that his union had repeatedly and successfully pushed Albany to expand health coverage for low-income uninsured New Yorkers.

Mr. Rivera, a reed-thin native of Puerto Rico, often sounds like a silver-tongued missionary when he holds forth on his twin goals, providing better health care for all New Yorkers and improving the lives of 1199's members, who are at the low end of the health care ladder – bedpan emptiers, cafeteria aides, hospital janitors.

He is a leading practitioner of the philosophy adopted by his parent union, the Service Employees International Union, that unions can accomplish more by not being taken for granted by any political party, namely the Democratic Party.

"Hundreds of thousands of people have health care coverage today because we were pragmatic in our politics," Mr. Rivera said. "We could have been dogmatic rather than pragmatic and then have nothing to show for it."

Exercising such pragmatism to help a friend, Mr. Rivera is hinting that 1199 might break with tradition and endorse Mr. Pataki for governor. In an interview on Thursday, he lavished superlatives on Governor Pataki, Mr. McCall and Mr. Cuomo. "We have three good friends running for governor," he said, adding that Mr. Bruno and Sheldon Silver, the Democrat majority leader of the Assembly, were also close friends.

But on Friday, after learning that the two Democratic candidates had assailed the health care package, Mr. Rivera lashed out against them and signaled that he was leaning toward Mr. Pataki. On Thursday, Mr. McCall and Mr. Cuomo faulted the health care plan, saying it relied on fiscal gimmicks, was passed hastily and was negotiated secretly, though they later said they supported its goal of providing raises for the health workers. Mr. Rivera said the two Democrats should be ashamed for trying to score political points against Mr. Pataki over a law that would shore up financing for hospitals and improve health care for low- income New Yorkers.

"I find that it's amazing that our so-called friends, Andrew Cuomo and Carl McCall, are calling for the repeal of this legislation," Mr. Rivera said Friday night. "When we look at this, we see George Pataki, Joe Bruno, Shelly Silver are sympathetic to the health care industry. I haven't seen Andrew Cuomo or Carl McCall talk about the need to stabilize our health care industry right now."

Mr. Rivera insists that it is too early to say whom 1199 will endorse, saying it is up to the union's rank and file. Nonetheless, he is sending letters to all 1199 members praising Mr. Pataki's the health care bill and assailing Mr. Cuomo and Mr. McCall.

Mr. Rivera is respected for playing Albany's politicians like a fiddle. Two years ago, he almost singlehandedly arranged for Mr. Pataki and the State Legislature to approve a plan that provided health coverage for one million uninsured New Yorkers. The $1 billion to finance the plan came from increasing the state's cigarette tax and from a share of the national lawsuit against tobacco companies.

Instead of castigating Mr. Rivera, many conservatives grudgingly praise him for the way he delivers for his members.

"He certainly will be the envy of all the other union leaders on his block," said E. J. MacMahon, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group. "It's hard to accuse him of doing anything other than his job. He has played his political hand quite shrewdly."

If Mr. McCall were to receive the Democratic nomination and 1199 were to endorse Mr. Pataki, that would undoubtedly upset Mr. Rivera's allies who have sought to build a progressive black-Hispanic political coalition. Working with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Representative Charles Rangel, Mr. Rivera endorsed Fernando Ferrer for mayor, sending 7,000 union members into the streets on primary day to help Mr. Ferrer. After Mark Green won the Democratic nomination, Mr. Rivera angered many Democrats by having his union do nothing on Election Day to help Mr. Green, who lost the race to Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican.

Mr. Rivera's embrace of so many Republicans has worried Democratic leaders. Judith Hope, the finance chairwoman of the New York State Democratic Party, said, "We hope that both Dennis and his membership will come home to the party that fights day and night for the issues his union cares about – better pay, better health care, affordable housing."

But Mr. Rivera voices loyalty to some of his newfound Republican friends. One reason he has been so successful in Albany is the strong bond and friendship he has developed with Senator Bruno, who shares the goal of improving health coverage. The two have even gone horseback riding together.

"One of the most beautiful experiences for me has been to get to know Joe Bruno, who is an incredibly wonderful man," Mr. Rivera said.

The two became so close partly because of the concerns that Senator Bruno developed about health care as a child in Glens Falls, N.Y. His mother had seven operations over 11 years because of gall bladder problems and often had to stay at home rather than the hospital because the family had inadequate health insurance.

In a telephone interview, Senator Bruno said that he loved Mr. Rivera. "He's very sincere, very real; he cares a lot about people," he said. "He doesn't muscle people or threaten. He communicates very openly and candidly about his goals. In this instance, it was to help pay more to the lowest-paid people in the health care industry."

Mr. Rivera said 1199's members should do their utmost to keep Senator Bruno as majority leader.

"At the end of the day," he said, "we should fight for the people who agree with us."

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