On Monday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law two bills that would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. The first increases the minimum wage (staggered and unevenly across the state) to $15 an hour. The second establishes New York as the fourth state with a paid-family-leave policy; at twelve weeks of paid leave, it will cover twice as much time as its closest competitors.
Politicians are famous for their short memories, but even an amnesiac would have difficulty forgetting Cuomo’s past stance on the $15 minimum wage. As late as last year, Cuomo called Mayor Bill de Blasio’s request to allow New York City to raise its minimum wage to $13 a “non-starter.” Cuomo confidently asserted that there was “no appetite” in Albany for a paid-family-leave bill.
Lest anyone be confused, Cuomo has not suddenly decided that he prefers social provision for the many over his traditional protection of the super-rich. The Occupy movement’s epithet for Cuomo — “Governor 1%” — was entirely apt. He may well be the most cynical politician in America today. His reversals are the product of hard political calculation, not a change of heart.
Cuomo’s moves have to be understood within the specific configuration of political power in New York State. For most of the state’s modern history, Democrats have dominated the New York Assembly while Republicans controlled the Senate.
Despite a two-to-one statewide registration advantage for Democrats, and despite Republicans failing to win a single statewide election since 2002, Democratic governors have repeatedly lent their weight to redistricting schemes that allow Republicans to keep control of the Senate. Andrew Cuomo — like his father Mario, who was governor from 1981 to 1995 — preferred to have a Republican senate, because it meant that no bill he didn’t want to sign would ever come across his desk.
The result of this arrangement has been the persistent tendency for policies that enjoy considerable popular support to stall and ultimately expire in Albany. The Republican-controlled Senate has held up not only the minimum wage, which remained stuck at the federal minimum until 2004, but also, and perhaps more importantly, laws to protect tenants and public financing of elections. For both Cuomos, this has been an all-too-convenient scapegoat for their own unwillingness to offend powerful interests and cede initiative to progressive forces in the state.
There have always been limits to voters’ willingness to accept Republican intransigence as grounds for inaction. Cuomo has thus had to walk a narrow path with steep cliffs on either side. He needs enough progressive legislation to pass in order to justify his continuing passive support of a Republican senate.
In his first term, he convinced Senate Republicans in vulnerable seats that they would lose if they opposed a marriage equality bill. In 2016, when support for paid family leave is polling at 69 percent among Republicans and at 77 percent in the New York suburbs, he has again convinced Republicans who statewide Democrats are targeting in this cycle that their seats, and therefore Republican control of the Senate, depend on caving on this particular principle.
But recent events have also convinced Cuomo that he has to be mindful of challenges from his left, something that in 2012 would not have concerned him. In 2014 Cuomo faced a real scare — polls showed that if the Working Families Party (WFP) put forward a third-party challenger, their candidate could take upwards of a quarter of the vote, enough to imperil Cuomo’s reelection chances.
After weeks of acrimony, de Blasio, a close WFP ally, brokered a deal whereby Cuomo pledged (through a video recorded and transmitted to the party’s state convention) to support a spate of progressive measures, including public financing of elections, in return for the WFP’s nomination. Crucially, the WFP insisted that Cuomo publicly commit himself to supporting candidates running to unseat Senate Republicans, a necessary step if any of these measures were actually to pass.
In a move surprising only for its brazenness, Cuomo distanced himself from his commitments as soon as the WFP’s paperwork had been filed. Not only did he lend no support to the State Senate challengers, all of whom went on to lose, but also, with assistance from failed mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, he created a new Women’s Equality Party to try to undercut the WFP’s vote.
Nevertheless, Cuomo did not get out of the water nearly as fast as he had hoped. The WFP had recruited Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham, to challenge him. After Cuomo offered policy concessions and won the WFP’s backing, Teachout decided to challenge him in the Democratic primary.
With no money, organization, or name recognition, she took a stunning 34 percent of the vote, thanks largely to her opposition to hydraulic fracking, and her attacks on Cuomo’s austerity budgets and the role of big money in Albany politics.
The large vote for Teachout was humiliating for Cuomo, who until that moment had seen himself as a potential presidential nominee should Hillary Clinton falter or choose not to run. Since then, he has had to pay far closer attention to his left than he ever imagined he would.
Senator Bernie Sanders’s run for president has also had an effect on Cuomo’s thinking. Not only do recent polls have Sanders within striking distance of Clinton in the state she represented in the Senate for eight years, but the Working Families Party endorsed Sanders after an open poll of its membership showed over 80 percent support for him. This endorsement almost certainly would not have happened were it not for Cuomo’s actions in 2014 — and Cuomo no doubt took notice.
Still, victories like a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave do not make themselves. For several years now organizers and activists in New York, led especially by organizations like SEIU 32BJ, Citizen Action of New York, Make the Road NY, New York Communities for Change, and the WFP have been pressing relentlessly for these measures.
And of course, none of this would have happened were it not for the workers who walked off their jobs and marched in the streets to demand improved wages and conditions. Earlier this year Cuomo presented advocates with a bill that they thought wasn’t good enough, and they sent him packing.
Above all, these forces have made sure that there is a political price to pay for failing to deliver. They have organized most aggressively in battleground Republican state senate districts, challenging Cuomo’s desire to keep a Republican senate in order to continue to play the role of power broker in the state. But the growing strength of an organized left in New York is steadily increasing the scale of concessions Cuomo needs to make to maintain his delicate equilibrium.
What these developments portend for the future depends on many factors. Perhaps most importantly, the looming question for progressive organizations in New York is whether the tens of thousands who have heeded Bernie Sanders’s call for a political revolution can be persuaded to join existing political projects oriented towards reform.
There are cultural and generational differences between the rank-and-file of Bernie enthusiasts and organizations like the Working Families Party. Come 2018 there will be many who will argue that Cuomo’s support for $15 and paid family leave should earn him the WFP’s endorsement. Others are likely to press for still bolder measures. The challenges of an inside-outside strategy do not go away, even when that strategy appears to be working.
There also remains the glaring question of whether the ability to win gains for workers through political power can be translated into gains in bargaining power for workers on the shop-floor level against employers. The demand, after all, is $15 and a union. So far, however, the popularity of pro-worker measures has not translated into the kinds of organizational gains that would be necessary to challenge employer power in the workplace.
Still, the millions of New York workers who will benefit from these measures — and the movement that fought to deliver them — have cause to celebrate.