Last week, Governor Hochul nominated Hector LaSalle as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals for the Empire State. Her choice to nominate him and not seeing the coming backlash demonstrates a serious lack of political adeptness.
Back in November, The Governor published a Daily News op-ed outlining her criteria for a chief justice. Among requirements like being able to manage the large court system, Hochul wrote:
“The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken — with decisions such as Dobbs vs. Jackson, taking away a woman’s right to choose, and New York State Rifle and Pistol Association vs. Bruen, tossing a century-old law protecting New Yorkers from the proliferation of guns. We are now relying on our state courts more than ever to protect our rights. We need our courts to defend against this Supreme Court’s rapid retreat from precedent and continue our march toward progress.”
Now, with LaSalle’s nomination, Hochul has nominated someone who curtailed investigations into crisis pregnancy centers. LaSalle also allowed Cablevision to sue union members as individuals for defamation over their criticism of the telecom company’s response to Hurricane Sandy, circumnavigating protections normally afforded to union members.
The news created a backlash with a handful of state senators saying they would vote no or expressing skepticism. Multiple unions, including the powerful 32BJ SEIU, came out hard against the nomination, labeling him as anti-worker.
LaSalle’s nomination is historic. If confirmed, he would the first Latino Chief Justice to preside over the Court of Appeals. But his record would also help move the court more rightward.
In response to the backlash, Hochul said that “I never wanted to have a political litmus test.” This statement alone shows Hochul’s weak politics, entertaining the fantasy idea that justices are completely neutral just because they wear a robe.
It’s a political appointment. Full Stop.
Even if his record on these issues didn’t personally bother us, the nomination shows a critical misunderstanding of current political winds. All the eyes are on the courts now, and having someone with these views is not tenable in the modern Democratic Party – where issues such as labor and abortion rights are key issues.
United Metro Energy, the Brooklyn-based oil company owned by radio host and former GOP mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis, declined to sign a longstanding, industry-wide collective bargaining agreement that expired last Friday, Dec. 16.
The contract had represented only three truck drivers, who haul fuel from the Greenpoint refinery, as members of Teamsters Local 553 for decades. But additional United Metro workers, including about two dozen technicians and mechanics, have been on strike for union recognition since April 2021.
In an interview with THE CITY on Thursday, Catsimatidis said — as United Metro executives have in recent months — that the company was never bound by the agreement, a matter Local 553 is disputing with the federal National Labor Relations Board.
Overall, that contract spans some 800 workers in New York City and is negotiated by the New York State Energy Coalition (NYSEC), which deals with labor contracts with unions across the state on behalf of several energy corporations.
United Metro’s refusal to sign the master agreement was largely seen by workers as an attempt to further thwart the efforts of striking workers at the expense of the facility’s three union members.
“That’s all part of the fight to undercut the union effort that we started, and he seems to be getting away with it,” said Andre Soleyn, a terminal operator and union leader on strike at the terminal since April 2021. “So he is definitely using that as a perch to come against us as a group to prevent us from getting what we deserve.”
The new contract that went into effect on Dec. 16 includes a $5.50-hour increase over the three-year life of the agreement — the “largest increase ever,” according to a memo sent to Local 553 members — and the addition of Juneteenth as a paid holiday.
“We are abiding by whatever terms everyone else is abiding by. And if they make an agreement with the rest of the industry, we will most likely abide by that, too,” Catsimatidis said.
“Somebody shows it to me, whatever agreement they abided by, with the other people, we will abide by it,” he added.
In response to Catsimatidis, Local 553 secretary-treasurer Demos Demopoulos said in a statement to THE CITY on Thursday: “I expect Mr. Catsimatidis to be a man of his word and that he will honor his commitment to abide by and sign the Industry Agreement when I present it to him.”
600 Days on Strike
Even as it honored the terms of past industry-wide agreements settled in 2017, United Metro Energy claimed — in a Sept. 20 letter from president John McConville to NYSEC CEO Rocco Lacertosa — that the company was not bound to the contract that expired on Dec. 16 in the first place, because it did not sign the contract.
United Metro, McConville wrote, “is not bound by the current Master Contract with Local 553. To the extent that any such agreement is in effect — which it is not — it will not renew after December 15, 2022.”
Local 553 charged the company had “unilaterally canceled a valid collective bargaining agreement” in an unfair labor practice charge it filed against United Metro with the NLRB in October.
“For the employees that are covered under that contract, they have been paying all the wages, benefits and medical, vacation schedule — everything that’s covered under the master contract,” Demopoulos said last Wednesday. “So it’s ridiculous for them to claim now that they’ve never been covered under that contract, when for years, they’ve been more or less honoring that contract.”
Catsimatidis is the CEO of Red Apple Group, a conglomerate of energy, real estate, media and grocery companies, including Gristedes food markets, which have a longstanding collective bargaining agreement with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500.
The dispute adds another chapter in a multi-year labor dispute at United Metro Energy, which distributes heating oil to New York City schools and hospitals and the MTA, as well as diesel fuel to gas stations. About two dozen of its Greenpoint refinery oil technicians, terminal operators and fleet mechanics are on a strike that has stretched for more than 600 days.
Those workers voted to join Teamsters Local 553 in 2019 and went on an indefinite strike in April 2021, more than two years after fruitless contract negotiations began.
United Metro workers earn hourly wages averaging $12 below the industry average, according to Local 553.
“Basically, they’ve just been dragging out negotiations,” union rep Vic Castellano told THE CITY last year. “And we wouldn’t take this action if they were negotiating the way they claim to be. Nothing should take over two years.”
In April, a year after the strike began, Local 553 called on Mayor Eric Adams to halt a $52 million contract with United Metro brokered by his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, because of the dispute. The mayor’s office said it could not sever the deal because the company is in compliance with local regulations, the New York Post reported.
Catsimatidis told THE CITY that the workers “are always welcome to come back to work.”
“Check my record — in 50 years in labor, in New York City, I’ve been a CEO for 50 years, we’ve never had a strike. And the union just on a Monday morning, decided to put these people on strike,” he said.
United Metro responded by firing nine terminal operators at the onset of the strike in 2021 — union leader Andre Soleyn among them. The company was ordered by the NLRB to reinstate the nine employees in July of this year; those workers are separate from the truck drivers whose contract the company is disputing.
The company complied, and all but two of those workers remain on strike, taking other jobs to make ends meet while holding the line.
“There’s a certain resolve that the guys have, and that’s because we all have families that we need to take care of, and we want them to do better than we did,” Soleyn said.
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Voters will have more time to register to vote next year, thanks to Governor Hochul signing new legislation sponsored by Brooklyn electeds.
The new legislation, which takes effect on January 1, shortens the registration deadline from 25 days before an election to 10 days. While the state constitution stipulates that voters have 10 days to vote before elections, election law made the timeline longer by requiring voters to either be submitted 25 days before the election in person. If you wanted to mail in your registration, the previous law mandated that it be postmarked 25 days in advance and received by the board of elections within 20 days of the election.
The new legislation was sponsored by Assemblymember Robert Carroll (D-Park Slope) and State Senator Brian Kavanagh (D-Greenpoint). (Kavanaugh will not represent Greenpoint in the upcoming term due to redistricting.)
“In recent years, we’ve taken many significant steps to change our laws and make elections more voter friendly. We know that many New Yorkers, with busy lives and many competing priorities, may choose to engage with the election process within the final weeks before an election. With the registration deadline set nearly a month before elections, new voters are routinely excluded from participating,” Kavanaugh (D-Greenpoint) said in a statement.
The legislation builds on top of voting rights reform that has occurred in the past year. Earlier this month, Governor Hochul signed the “wrong church” legislation, also sponsored by Assemblymember Robert Carroll, which requires the counting of affidavit ballots if a voter showed up to the wrong polling location.
Back in July, the Governor signed the John Lewis Voting Act of New York. The legislation made many changes to voting law including: requiring language assistance with areas that have enough population of minority language groups, establishing civil liability for voter intimidation and requiring preclearance of changes to voting by the Civil Rights Bureau under the attorney general’s office.
“New York State must ensure that New Yorkers don’t face unnecessary obstacles in exercising their right to vote and this legislation, which reduces the voter registration deadline from 25 to the constitutional minimum of 10 days before an election, is a good step,” Carroll said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues and voting rights and election reform advocates in making New York State a true model when it comes to fair, transparent, and well administered elections.”
Governor Hochul vetoed legislation concerning freelancer work last week.
The Freelance isn’t Free Act, sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes, would have created a right to a written contract from a hiring party for contracts over $250, creating a process for the Department of Labor to investigate complaints and the ability for the Attorney General to investigate patterns of non-payment, among other changes.
“Much of the language in this new section 191-d in the Labor Law is drawn from existing language in Article 6 that provides wage theft protections for traditional employees, creating parity between the two different types of laborers,” according to the bill’s memo.
Citywide legislation on the issue was passed in 2017. Complaints are handled through the New York City Department of Consumer and Workplace Protections. More than $1.3 has been recovered in penalties or restitution from 2018 and 2019 complaints alone, according to the bill.
The bill argues that the enforcement mechanism at a citywide level isn’t strong enough as the New York City Department of Consumer and Workplace Protections, as they cannot compel hirers to pay, leaving freelance workers to take their cases to small claims court.
A 2019 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, UpWork and the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment found that over a third of New York City residents are freelance workers.
“It’s unfortunate that this holiday season will leave freelancers out in the cold, but that only strengthens my resolve to go back to Albany next year and keep fighting to protect these workers,” Senator Gounardes said in a statement.
According to a report from the Independent Economy Council, 59% of freelance workers are owed $50,000 or more for their work.
“With 39% of the entire U.S. workforce freelancing this year and a total of $1.35 trillion in annual earnings to the U.S. economy from freelance contributions, we are saddened by the Governor’s calculation that there is not enough room in our budget to adequately protect the growing independent workforce in the state,” Executive Director of the Freelancers Union Rafael Espinal said in a statement. “We thank the legislature for passing this significant legislation and we will be no doubt back in January to make sure we get this done next session.”
“The National Writers Union and the tens of thousands of freelance writers, authors and media workers in NYS are extremely disappointed in the Governor’s veto. Freelance Isn’t Free simply requires a written contract and payment within 30 days of invoicing, which should be the bare minimum in worker protection,” Larry Goldbetter, President of the National Writers Union, said in a statement. “To veto a package of bills over a lack of funding for the Department of Labor at the last minute is disturbing, particularly when Freelance Isn’t Free, like the other bills in the package, passed both houses in a legislative session that ended over six months ago. This is especially concerning given that Governor Hochul was elected in November with the support of unions and workers.”