When Gov. Kathy Hochul won the governor’s race in November, she wasted no time acknowledging a powerful force that helped propel her to a closer-than-anticipated victory: Labor unions.

Union leaders stood shoulder to shoulder with Hochul at events across the state leading up to Election Day, with the Democratic governor vowing to be the “most friendly, supportive governor” to organized labor the state has ever seen.

“Labor, you helped us bring it home,” Hochul said less than two minutes into her Nov. 8 victory speech.

Less than two weeks into Hochul’s first full term, some labor organizers are already having second thoughts.

On Monday, the same day roughly 7,000 nurses launched a strike in New York City while the governor called for arbitration, a handful of labor leaders were at the state Capitol speaking out against Hochul’s selection of Hector LaSalle — who critics have branded as anti-union — for chief judge of the Court of Appeals, the state’s top court.

“When [Hochul] was worried that she was going to lose this race for governor, I was Team Hochul,” Jimmy Mahoney, president of the New York State Iron Workers District Council, said at the Capitol. “The phone rang and the phone rang and the phone rang. ‘We need more money. We need more volunteers. We need labor behind us.’ She promised us that we were going to have a seat at the table. She put us on the menu.”

Manhattan and Bronx State Sen. Robert Jackson speaks at a rally opposing Hector LaSalle, Gov. Kathy Hochul's pick for chief judge in the state Court of Appeals on Monday, January 9.

Power of labor

In New York, labor unions are key Democratic allies for statewide races, with an unmatched ability to mobilize their members to get out the vote for candidates they support. They’re also active with political contributions, soliciting donations from their membership to help fund campaigns they support.

The unions played a key role in Hochul’s election, kicking into high gear when a series of October polls showed the Democratic governor leading Republican Lee Zeldin by single digits heading into the stretch run. Almost all of the state’s major unions were behind Hochul, including the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, whose president, Mario Cilento, was a Hochul campaign surrogate who often introduced the governor on stage.

The relationship between Hochul and factions of the labor movement has been showing significant signs of stress since late December, when she first nominated LaSalle. But it was even more evident Monday, when nurses at multiple campuses across Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx and at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan walked off the job, angered by stalled negotiations over staffing ratios.

Late Sunday, with the state and city preparing for the strike’s implications, Hochul called on the hospitals and the nurses to agree to binding arbitration, in which a neutral, agreed-upon third party hears both sides of a dispute and issues a resolution.

Hospital administrators quickly agreed, but the New York State Nurses Association — the nurses’ union — wasn’t pleased. Three hours after Hochul called for arbitration, the union issued a statement that, in part, called on Hochul to “join us in putting patients over profits and to enforce existing nurse staffing laws.”

“Governor Hochul should listen to frontline COVID nurse heroes and respect our federally-protected labor and collective bargaining rights,” the union’s statement read.

Nancy Hagans, president of the nurses union, said her members are “not in the process of doing binding arbitration.”

“What we are asking the governor to do is to encourage the hospitals to come back to the table and bargain in good faith and provide us the safe-staffing issue that we are desperately needed in order for us to care for our patients,” Hagans said Monday on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.”

Last week, Hochul said her office was in contact with the nurses and hospitals on a near-hourly basis, noting that strikes had been averted at four other hospital systems in the city. The state health department has posted “strike review teams” at Montefiore and Mount Sinai facilities to enforce staffing levels in the wake of the strike, according to Hochul’s office.

"No one puts more on the line to care for New Yorkers than our nurses, which is why my team has been pushing for a fair labor agreement for these dedicated professionals and to ensure they have safe working conditions,” Hochul said in her statement Sunday.

What we are asking the governor to do is to encourage the hospitals to come back to the table and bargain in good faith and provide us the safe-staffing issue that we are desperately needed in order for us to care for our patients.
Nancy Hagans, president, New York State Nurses Association

Standing by the judge

The strike comes as Hochul continues to face criticism for her chief judge nominee: LaSalle, a mid-level appeals judge who oversees the Appellate Division in a wide-reaching district that includes Brooklyn and Queens.

A key union, the Communications Workers of America District 1, had warned Hochul against making the pick in late December, noting that LaSalle had signed on to a 2015 decision that allowed Cablevision to sue CWA leaders for defamation as part of a long-running feud. The ruling found the leaders were acting in their “individual capacities” — not as union leaders — and therefore not subject to protection usually afforded labor leaders.

But Hochul selected LaSalle for the role anyway, calling him the “best person for the job.” The selection enraged some — but not all — union leaders, who had hoped Hochul would have picked one of the other six finalists for the job.

Despite the criticism, Hochul is not backing down on her pick for chief judge. It’s a key role that not only leads the Court of Appeals, but also the entire judicial branch, a sprawling system of state and local courts across New York.

Putting LaSalle on the hot seat

On Monday, labor leaders joined with a handful of left-leaning state senators to speak out against LaSalle, holding a news conference at the Capitol to label him as — among other things — an enemy of the labor movement. The Senate has to confirm LaSalle’s nomination in order for it to take effect. The judiciary committee has not yet scheduled a hearing on LaSalle, but is expected to do so soon. By law, the Senate has until Jan. 21 to accept or reject Hochul’s selection.

“We were very excited that we were able to get her elected for the first time, and then hopeful about what that meant for our relationship going forward,” said Deborah Wright, political director for UAW Region 9A. “This opening first move isn’t the greatest, because in many ways, she could have reached out to so many people to vet this a little bit more.”

Mahoney, of the Iron Workers union, said Hochul’s nomination of LaSalle sent a clear signal to unions.

“You should not, in your first dramatic act, take the legs out of organizing and organized labor,” Mahoney said.

Not all labor unions are on the same page, however — at least not yet.

John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union International, which represents 39,000 MTA workers, said LaSalle should have the opportunity to answer questions about his record before anyone takes a position on his nomination.

Samuelsen was reluctant to say whether this moment — the nurses' strike, coupled with LaSalle’s nomination — could mark a turning point for Hochul’s relationship with organized labor.

“I think that the answer to that question will come about in a public hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Samuelsen said.

He continued: “I think, right now, the back and forth about what Hector LaSalle’s positions are on the trade-union movement are being played out on Twitter, on Instagram and elsewhere in other media. I want him to sit in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and answer the hot questions. Put him on the hot seat. Let's get to the bottom of it.”

I want him to sit in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and answer the hot questions. Put him on the hot seat. Let's get to the bottom of it.
John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union International, said of LaSalle

Hochul and LaSalle’s allies have accused progressives of mischaracterizing his record, cherry picking a few cases out of more than 5,000 on his résumé to paint him as anti-union and anti-abortion.

“I selected the very best person,” Hochul said Friday. “Hector LaSalle has an exceptional record. He'll be the person that'll bring a fractured court together.”