For leaders of the nation’s largest union, Democrat Barbara Buono’s selection of union leader Milly Silva to run for lieutenant governor transformed New Jersey’s governor’s race into a national referendum on working class issues and the labor movement. That belief was reinforced by the Christie campaign’s dismissal of Silva yesterday as “wholly unqualified” and a “special-interest organizer.”
George Gresham, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1199 Healthcare Workers East, to which Silva belongs, pledged that the SEIU would go all out raising money and mobilizing volunteers to support Buono and Silva, the first labor leader to run for statewide office in New Jersey in 70 years.
“We see this not just as a New Jersey race, but as a national election focused directly on the needs of working people, especially now that we have a labor leader on the ticket who is a working mother and a Latina and understands the needs of working families,” Gresham said in an interview after Silva gave a rousing speech to a hotel ballroom packed mainly with union people.
“We are the largest union in the country, we have the largest political action committee of any union, and over 75 percent of our members make voluntary contributions to our political action fund because they know that politics has a distinct effect on their lives,” Gresham said. “We expect to raise considerable sums to make this campaign meaningful. The sky is the limit.”
Asked if the SEIU could raise several million dollars for the cash-starved Buono campaign and aligned independent expenditure committees, Gresham said, “That’s totally my expectation.”
Gresham said he would discuss the SEIU’s commitment to the Buono-Silva campaign when he meets with SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry today in Washington.
“Milly is one of the up-and-coming young leaders of our unions, and she is well-respected down there,” Gresham said. “We will be talking about what effort we need to make, both on the ground and with money. We’re serious about this campaign, and we have to have a plan to win.”
It’s not just money, it’s volunteers, SEIU leaders noted.
“In 2009, we put 1,000 workers out on Election Day for Jon Corzine, and we didn’t have a member of our union running at the top of the ticket,” Lizette Delgado-Polanco, executive director of the SEIU New Jersey State Council, pointed out. “The whole labor movement will be energized. She speaks to us.”
Buono and Silva, in their speeches at the Meadowlands Hilton yesterday, pounded away at the theme of working-class opportunity that Buono called “this campaign’s guiding principle -- that a strong and vibrant New Jersey doesn’t come from the top down, but from a robust middleclass.” It is a vision of New Jersey as a state with 400,000 unemployed and a struggling middleclass -- not a New Jersey of affluent suburbs and the third-highest average income in the nation.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie has failed on the issues that affect Latinos, African-Americans, women and the people of New Jersey, Silva declared.
Christie’s New Jersey, Silva said, is “a New Jersey that gives $2.1 billion in tax credits to corporations but denies working people the right to an increased minimum wage tied to the cost of living.” It is “a New Jersey where the cost of college makes higher education impossible for some of our best and brightest students.” It is “a New Jersey where the men and women I work with every day must choose between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table,” she declared.
“I have knocked on doors, I have marched and rallied and poured my heart and soul into communities in need of affordable housing and safe playgrounds and a chance at the American Dream,” Silva said, touting her union and progressive credentials. “It is who I am.”
It is who Silva is that the Christie campaign objects to.
”Milly Silva is entirely unqualified to be lieutenant governor,” Christie campaign spokesman Kevin Roberts asserted in an email to reporters.
“Silva has spent her career as a special-interest organizer. She has never held elective office, served in government, or worked in the private sector,” he declared, evidently not including organizing healthcare workers in the private sector to qualify as private sector employment. “Silva’s only previous employer was the controversial organization ACORN,” he added, saying that Silva has no interest in helping small businesses that create jobs.
Roberts charged that “Buono has put her own narrow political interests and payback to the SEIU ahead of picking a qualified running mate,” characterizing the choice of Silva as “a sell-out to entrenched Trenton special interests who have backed Buono’s campaigns and Democratic politics over New Jersey taxpayers' interests for years.”
The Republican spokesman noted that the SEIU donated $22,000 to Buono over her 18-year legislative career, and that it has donated $2.5 million to Democratic candidates and committees in New Jersey since 1997.
The Buono campaign, of course, is not running away from labor issues or from labor support. It hopes that the SEIU will give Roberts twice as much to complain about before the November election rolls around.
Roberts’ attacks on Silva as “a union pick that provides a political benefit, rather than a running mate who is qualified” are seen by labor leaders and committed rank-and-file union members as an attack on the labor movement itself, and likely to be used repeatedly to rally members to the Buono-Silva ticket.
Delgado-Polanco noted that the SEIU already works closely on the national and state level with the unions Christie has most often targeted for attack: + the Communications Workers of America; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees, who together represent more than 75 percent of the state government workforce and a majority of county and municipal employees;
the New Jersey Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers; and
the American Federation of Teachers, which represents college professors and staff.
It is those unions that have been among Buono’s staunchest supporters. The SEIU, which broke away from the AFL-CIO in 1995 and formed Change to Win as a rival labor federation dedicated to organizing low-paid service-sector workers, is back in the AFL-CIO fold, has a seat at the AFL-CIO’s Unity Table to plan national strategy, and has worked closely with the progressive Working Families United coalition in New Jersey to push for a higher minimum wage, Delgado-Polanco added.
State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech yesterday echoed the Buono campaign’s themes in praising the Silva choice.
“Just like her running mate, Silva understands the struggles of working people because she lived those struggles herself,” Wowkanech said in a statement. “We know that she will fight for working- and middle-class families because she has done so throughout her career.
“New Jersey working families are contending with 8.7 percent unemployment, net property taxes have risen 18.6 percent over the past three years, and making ends meet in New Jersey is becoming more difficult every day. The Buono-Silva team is ready to take on these challenges and to implement the policies that will revitalize New Jersey’s middle class. … Barbara Buono and Milly Silva have always stood on the side of workers, and every New Jersey worker should stand with them,” Wowkanech added.