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Democrats have no real plan to tackle union back pay

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One of the reasons New York has had Republican mayors for the last 20 years is because the city’s public- and private-sector unions have not rallied behind the same candidate during Democratic primaries.

And even though labor talked about unifying around one candidate in 2013, history is about to repeat itself.

The conventional wisdom last year was that city Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, one of the founders of the labor-backed Working Families Party, would be the consensus choice for mayor.

But since City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) was so far ahead in the polls until recently, labor leaders were wary of backing de Blasio too soon, and a few renegade unions peeled off early and supported Quinn or city Comptroller John Liu, with the Retail Workers going to the speaker and city employees — District Council 37 — to the comptroller.

De Blasio reeled in one big fish, though: the healthcare workers union, which has a large membership and a strong political and field operation.

The Uniformed Officers Unions lined up for Bill Thompson recently, and it seems likely that the United Federation of Teachers will back Thompson or DeBlasio.

Where does that leave the Working Families Party, an amalgam of unions that needs a 60 percent quorum to give its line to a loser— again? It will likely jump in strong for the inevitable Oct. 1 Democratic run-off.

This gives the four major Democratic candidates not named Anthony Weiner — the johnny-come-lately, scandal-scarred wannabe who will not get union backing no matter what he does at this point — a claim to significant union support.

Why should voters who do not belong to unions care about who these organizations support?

Because the city’s fiscal health and tax policies are linked to how the next mayor handles labor negotiations.

For the past four years, all the city’s union have been working without a contract, and some believe they now deserve retroactive raises.

That means the next mayor may be facing an unfunded liability of approximately $10 billion in back pay. That is almost 15 percent of the annual $70 billion budget — a looming gap that would either necessitate deep cuts to services or a whopping tax increase.

That is not a great choice for an incoming mayor.

What does the current crop of contenders actually say they will do?

GOP candidates John Catsimatidis and Joe Lhota say the city cannot afford retroactive raises, and that is that.

At least they have a position.

Among the Democrats, Weiner has half-attempted to confront this issue by saying any retroactive raises have to be weighed against requiring city employees to pay a portion of their health care premiums.

Thompson, Quinn, and de Blasio all say they do not want to negotiate future union deals in public, which translates to either they do not want to jeopardize those union endorsements or they do not have a clue how they will pay for retroactive raises.

Liu, running so far to the left he should see if the Socialist Party line is available, believes we must pay those $10 billion in retroactive raises, but as far as I can tell he has not offered a concrete plan on where that money will come from.

So it looks like another circular firing squad on the Democratic side this year with four union-backed candidates alternately pandering for endorsements and then trying to swivel back to the middle to try to assure New York’s powerful business and real estate interests that they will be their champion, too.

And once again, the labor unions’ fragmented support may deliver a mayor to City Hall who has not been endorsed by many of the major players — just as it happened in 1993 and 2001, when Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg were swept into office without much of big labor’s backing.

Tom Allon was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left the race to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallon@cityandstateny.com.

Updated 2:01 am, June 21, 2013
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