SUNDAY, JANUARY 12, 2014
George Gresham was one of the first guests to arrive at Mayor de Blasio’s inauguration.
The president of the powerful health care workers union SEIU-1199 took a seat in the front row of the VIP section, tucked himself under a blue blanket and stared up at City Hall with a serene look on his face.
“I’ve never been as excited to be there since 1990,” Gresham said last week. “Maybe because it’s been 20 years of Republican leadership, but more than that, I think it’s because this is a progressive candidate and that’s the core of who he is.”
If de Blasio owes his landslide election to anyone, it’s Gresham and his union. The 200,000-member group was the only major labor union to endorse de Blasio in the primary and did so back in May when he was languishing in fourth place.
“We wanted to grow even more labor leaders to come out and support de Blasio,” said Gresham, who poured millions into the race. “That didn’t happen. The greatest support we were able to garner for de Blasio came through 1199 and our relationships.”
The union followed up with a second big win: It leaned hard on City Council members to elect Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former 1199 organizer, as Council speaker. She was unanimously voted in last week.
“I made it very clear: We need a speaker that is going to work in cooperation with the mayor in order to make sure we have the most possible chance of realizing the vision,” Gresham said.
After helping to secure the election of the city’s two most powerful officials, 1199 has restored its reputation as a political powerhouse in the city.
“They’ve got basically unlimited resources,” said a labor source. “Nobody’s got the amount of membership. A lot of respect comes to them because George has been a leader in progressive causes.”
Now the question is what the union decides to do with that clout.
With a membership made up almost entirely of private sector workers, 1199 does not need to negotiate labor contracts with City Hall. Its priority is advancing its overall political agenda.
Political director Kevin Finnegan said the union will be pushing social and economic justice issues like raising the city’s minimum wage, reforming stop and frisk and raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for universal pre-k.
“We have good relationships with a lot of people in Albany,” said Finnegan. “We will be making it absolutely clear what our priorities are this year and they include Bill de Blasio’s agenda.”
Much of that agenda has already been shaped by 1199’s priorities.
It was not a coincidence that de Blasio staked out hospital closures — a crucial cause for 1199 — as a battleground during the campaign, campaign sources said. Gresham also motivated de Blasio to lobby in the speaker’s race, multiple Democratic sources said.
City Hall is now filled with 1199 alums. De Blasio’s chief of staff, Laura Santucci, worked for Gresham’s political arm, and the mayor’s longtime top aide Emma Wolfe was a field organizer for the union.
De Blasio and Gresham are also tied together by a common sounding board: Patrick Gaspard, President Obama's ambassador to South Africa. Gaspard, a former 1199 vice president, is part of de Blasio’s inner circle and someone Gresham still turns to regularly for advice, sources said.
For now, Gresham is so powerful he is actively trying to fight off the impression that he helps run this town.
At a press conference last week where top labor officials pledged support for de Blasio’s pre-k plan, Gresham took a back-seat role. “I wanted people to hear the other voices of labor.”
He pointed out that people can turn against a winner — especially if the winner seems arrogant. “I grew up as a Yankee fan,” said the Bronx resident. “But there are as many haters because of their success.”
Some insiders doubt that the union will bring its full court press to Albany. “I would be very surprised they’d be committed to a full-scale campaign, given the rest of the business they have before the state,” said a Democratic insider.
For now, Gresham said he is committed to seeing that de Blasio’s campaign pledges become a reality.
“The union doesn’t have permanent friends or enemies,” he said. “We have permanent interests.”