Under Fire from Unions Over MTA Comments, Cynthia Nixon Says She Wants Sacrifices from Billionaires

Kate Aronoff

Cynthia Nixon speaks to people at the Bethesda Healing Center in Brooklyn, New York on March 20, 2018 at her first event since announcing that shes running for governor of New York. (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Speak­ing with a local news reporter this week, recent­ly-announced New York guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Cyn­thia Nixon, an actress and edu­ca­tion activist best known for her role as Miran­da Hobbes on the HBO series Sex and the City, was asked for her thoughts on how to fix the MTA, the city’s state-fund­ed and oft-belea­guered pub­lic tran­sit sys­tem. The unions have to under­stand … with the deals that they have now,” she said, you can’t hope to make improve­ments to the trains in a fis­cal­ly respon­si­ble way … Everybody’s got to pull togeth­er, and everybody’s got to make sacrifices.

The New York State AFL-CIO and Trans­port Work­ers Union were quick to fire back. Mario Cilen­to, pres­i­dent of the New York State AFL-CIO, said in a state­ment Thurs­day that Nixon’s com­ments rep­re­sent­ed an alarm­ing dis­re­gard for work­ing men and women.”

Instead of attack­ing unions and the con­tracts they nego­ti­at­ed in good faith with their employ­ers, Ms. Nixon should rec­og­nize the con­tri­bu­tions of a high­ly trained and skilled work­force,” Cilen­to con­tin­ued. It is astound­ing at just how mis­guid­ed and unin­formed Ms. Nixon is on the vital role work­ing men and women play in the eco­nom­ic and social well-being of our great state.”

The TWU issued a sim­i­lar state­ment, with Pres­i­dent Tony Utano scold­ing, If Cyn­thia Nixon is talk­ing about tran­sit work­ers and wants to learn about our sac­ri­fices, she should attend the funer­als of the two tran­sit work­ers who were killed on the job in the last eight days.”

Nixon — a long­time mem­ber of the Screen Actors Guild — exclu­sive­ly told In These Times Fri­day in a state­ment sent over email that, I am and have been a proud union mem­ber for forty years. My wife Chris­tine was a union orga­niz­er. I opposed Gov­er­nor Cuomo’s vile attacks against teach­ers and pub­lic sec­tor unions dur­ing his first term,” ref­er­enc­ing the governor’s active back­ing in 2014 of a gen­er­ous set of pro­tec­tions for char­ter school oper­a­tors. I always have and always will stand with work­ing fam­i­lies and my union broth­ers and sisters.”

On the MTA sys­tem in par­tic­u­lar, Nixon added, Union fam­i­lies should nev­er have to foot the bill for Cuomo’s mis­man­age­ment of the MTA.” She said she is pre­pared to go after the crony­ism and mis­man­age­ment that has led to a neglect­ed, con­gest­ed sys­tem where tran­sit users, tax­pay­ers and work­ers are left hold­ing the bag.”

Nixon’s team said the state­ment pro­vid­ed is not meant as an apol­o­gy for her pre­vi­ous com­ments, empha­siz­ing that this state­ment is intend­ed to clar­i­fy her posi­tion on fix­ing New York’s tran­sit system.

Nixon’s state­ment appeared to refer to sev­er­al facts uncov­ered by an exten­sive inves­ti­ga­tion by Bri­an M. Rosen­thal for the New York Times late last year. The probe found that con­tracts nego­ti­at­ed between the state, MTA con­trac­tors and unions includ­ed pay­ment for work, such as repairs along a 3.5 mile stretch of the Long Island Rail­road, that could not be proved to have been need­ed. The lead­ers entrust­ed to expand New York’s region­al tran­sit net­work have paid the high­est con­struc­tion costs in the world, spend­ing bil­lions of dol­lars that could have been used to fix exist­ing sub­way tun­nels, tracks, trains and sig­nals,” Rosen­thal noted.

Sev­er­al trans­porta­tion experts and con­trac­tors the Times spoke with observed inflat­ed con­tracts and staffing. One tun­nel-bor­ing machine in the city, for exam­ple, was oper­at­ing with upwards of 20 staffers, where in most cities that machin­ery would be run with few­er than 10. I’m the union, and some­times I’m say­ing to myself, What the hell are they even doing?’” Richard Fitzsim­mons, a Local 147 busi­ness man­ag­er, told the Times.

The report fur­ther con­trast­ed the con­di­tions gov­ern­ing the MTA with the Parisian Metro sys­tem, where work­place pro­tec­tions are noto­ri­ous­ly strong. A con­struc­tion project in Paris, France that involved sim­i­lar work and goals as the Sec­ond Avenue Sub­way, which opened last year in Man­hat­tan, cost $450 mil­lion per mile, com­pared with the $2.5 bil­lion per mile spent on the MTA expan­sion project.

Con­struc­tion com­pa­nies and con­sult­ing firms,” Nixon says, dri­ve up the costs because they get a cut as prof­it for them­selves. Then they turn around and donate mas­sive amounts of mon­ey to politi­cians like Andrew Cuo­mo. It’s a pay-to-play sys­tem that lines the pock­ets of peo­ple on top while work­ing fam­i­lies pay the price. … The lack of fund­ing to fix our sub­way sys­tem and short­changed safe­ty mea­sures means the jobs of our union work­ers become that much hard­er and dan­ger­ous as work­ers strug­gle to keep the trains run­ning with too few hands on deck.”

As the Times inves­ti­ga­tion also high­light­ed, con­struc­tion com­pa­nies and con­sul­tants that han­dle MTA con­tracts have donat­ed gen­er­ous­ly to Cuo­mo over the course of his admin­is­tra­tion. The New York Dai­ly News, in a recent report, found that Tul­ly Con­struc­tion Co. was recent­ly award­ed a $282.5 mil­lion MTA con­tract this month. After sub­mit­ting the low­est bid for the tun­nel repair project, they added on an addi­tion­al $68 mil­lion. Com­pa­ny head Peter Tul­ly has giv­en more than $221,000 in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to Cuo­mo. In total, Tul­ly Con­struc­tion has col­lect­ed $468 mil­lion in state Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion contracts.

Cuo­mo has also col­lect­ed rough­ly $890,0000 from two dozen of his polit­i­cal appointees — includ­ing to the MTA board — along with $1.3 mil­lion more from those appointees’ spous­es, chil­dren and businesses.

When I’m talk­ing about sac­ri­fices, I’m talk­ing about mak­ing tough deci­sions about whether we pri­or­i­tize the dai­ly func­tion­ing of our crum­bling sub­way sys­tem or throw mon­ey down the drain in pay-to-play crony­ism and mis­man­age­ment,” Nixon wrote in ref­er­ence to her orig­i­nal state­ment. When I’m talk­ing about sac­ri­fices, I’m talk­ing about mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires, real estate devel­op­ers, and Wall Street bankers who are not pay­ing their fair share.”

This week’s exchange high­lights what an uphill bat­tle Nixon could face in gain­ing sup­port from orga­nized labor in New York. Since she declared her can­di­da­cy, a num­ber of the state’s unions, while stop­ping short of full-on endorse­ments, have issued glow­ing praise of Cuo­mo to the press. We have to com­plete our inter­nal process, but I am total­ly con­fi­dent that the union will be 100 per­cent with the gov­er­nor,” Bob Mas­ter, assis­tant to the vice pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca Dis­trict 1, told Politi­co. He has been a stead­fast ally, he has stepped up when­ev­er we’ve asked his assis­tance and he’s deliv­ered for work­ing peo­ple,” Mas­ter added.

SEIU 32BJ pres­i­dent Héc­tor Figueroa offered sim­i­lar praise: We are going through our inter­nal endorse­ment process at 32BJ but we ful­ly expect that the governor’s pro­gres­sive record of stand­ing with work­ing fam­i­lies — the strongest of any gov­er­nor in the coun­try — will earn him our mem­bers’ support.”

A long­time labor oper­a­tive in New York state, who pre­ferred to speak anony­mous­ly giv­en their ongo­ing work in state pol­i­tics, wasn’t sur­prised by the pile-on of sup­port. It’s very wide­ly known that the gov­er­nor and his team are extreme­ly aggres­sive in mak­ing calls to their allies to be pub­lic in their oppo­si­tion” to his polit­i­cal oppo­nents, the source told In These Times. In all fair­ness, labor lead­ers have to make some hard deci­sions for their mem­bers, and the rela­tion­ship between exist­ing gov­ern­ment lead­ers is vital.”

Giv­en labor’s close ties to Cuo­mo – and that most union endorse­ment process­es are ongo­ing – find­ing labor oper­a­tives will­ing to go on record ques­tion­ing union sup­port for the gov­er­nor can be difficult.

While his admin­is­tra­tion has seen the pas­sage of a plan for $15 min­i­mum wage, paid fam­i­ly leave and, just recent­ly, a grad­ual increase to a $19 wage for air­port work­ers, Cuomo’s rela­tion­ship to unions hasn’t always been unam­bigu­ous­ly friend­ly. Before his 2014 char­ter school push, Cuo­mo made chal­leng­ing union pow­er in Albany one of the main­stays of his 2010 guber­na­to­r­i­al cam­paign. As the New York Times wrote of an inter­view they did with the gov­er­nor short­ly before that elec­tion, Cuo­mo pledged to mount a pres­i­den­tial-style per­ma­nent polit­i­cal cam­paign to counter the well-financed labor unions he believes have bul­lied pre­vi­ous gov­er­nors and law­mak­ers into mak­ing bad decisions.”

As right to work” efforts were being rolled out in states like Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan, Cuo­mo also accept­ed tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from David Koch, an influ­en­tial con­ser­v­a­tive donor who has fund­ed anti-union efforts around the coun­try. Dur­ing her first speech as a can­di­date, Nixon quipped that The Koch broth­ers donat­ed $87,000 to Andrew Cuo­mo when he first ran in 2010 because they knew a good invest­ment when they see one.”

Of Nixon’s com­ments about the MTA, the labor source says that the guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date poten­tial­ly touched on a nerve inad­ver­tent­ly. Because the tran­sit sys­tem sit­u­a­tion is so fraught, labor unions are extreme­ly sen­si­tive that their work­ers being used as scape­goats to hide what the needs are for the sub­way: more mon­ey for infra­struc­ture, and more support.”

It’s nat­ur­al to have a learn­ing curve when talk­ing about labor,” the source con­tin­ued. Every­thing you say is not going to be per­fect, and what cam­paigns do is use what­ev­er gaffe that comes out to say this per­son will be anti-labor. I haven’t seen that from her.”

On Cuo­mo, the source said, I think he’s ner­vous … the nar­ra­tive here is that, If she wins, the whole world will come apart. We’re deliv­er­ing. We have a good plan. We’re work­ing hard togeth­er as a move­ment. We can’t shake things up, and we need you to be out there. This is a can­di­date that doesn’t have what it takes to become gov­er­nor.’ It’s not a fair way to do it. The labor move­ment is not at the whim of the gov­er­nor, but there is pressure.”

The source also observes that Cuo­mo has a his­to­ry of becom­ing more overt­ly pro-labor around elec­tion sea­sons, not­ing that the gov­er­nor became more explic­it­ly pro­gres­sive after his pri­ma­ry chal­lenger in 2014, Zephyr Tea­chout, gar­nered 34 per­cent of the vote that year. I think the shift was very real when he real­ized the pow­er unions and labor have,” the source told In These Times. What he real­ized is that he could not take that rela­tion­ship for granted.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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