In the rest of the country, organized labor has been on the decline for decades. But following a highly successful 2013 election season in New York City, unions here have suddenly taken a seat at the table once reserved for the city's most powerful Democratic leaders.
The local political world now has moved its attention to the campaign for city government's second-most-powerful seat, City Council speaker. The vote of the council's 51 members won't happen until January, but the behind-the-scenes process has already yielded an eyebrow-raising move that demonstrates the political and legislative gains unions are likely to make in the coming years.
A top union official who was labor's lead negotiator in the deal to pass landmark paid-sick-leave legislation this year is now the chief negotiator for the council's Progressive Caucus in the horse-trading that will determine the next speaker. Alison Hirsh, the political director of the influential building workers' union, 32BJ SEIU, is bargaining with the county Democratic bosses who control other blocs of votes in the race.
A recent negotiating snafu demonstrates the conflict between the city's old and new political forces. About three weeks ago, council members from Queens who are part of the Progressive Caucus scheduled a meeting at the Queens office of law firm Sweeney Gallo Reich & Bolz. The firm's partners run the day-to-day operations of the borough's Democratic Party, and the progressives hoped to persuade them to partner in lining up the 26 votes needed to elect a speaker.
Just hours before the meeting, the leaders of the Queens Democratic machine learned that Ms. Hirsh of 32BJ would attend in her capacity as lead negotiator, according to multiple sources. The Democratic leadership, whose executive director declined to comment, demanded that only elected officials be allowed in the room.
The Progressive Caucus refused, and the meeting was canceled, sparking tensions between the two most powerful forces in this year's speaker race. A flurry of phone calls seeking to mend the rift has ensued, according to sources.
"Folks who were used to deciding things themselves are upset," one Progressive Caucus member said. "There's someone new that's going to make decisions."