ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul has found a new way to antagonize New York’s union leaders — with labor groups blasting expected job losses from her proposed ban on flavored tobacco.
“Our union brothers and sisters in the tobacco industry are at risk of losing their jobs, benefits, and pensions due to Governor Hochul‘s proposed ban on menthol/flavored tobacco and tax hike,” Mike Smith, president of Local 810 International Brotherhood of Teamsters, raged at a Capitol press conference on Wednesday.
He claimed that roughly 500 out of 4,000 drivers, warehouse workers and salespeople represented by Local 810 would lose their jobs if Hochul’s proposed ban gets approved in the state budget due April 1.
“While we understand the intent of the legislation is not to eliminate Teamster jobs or destabilize Teamster pension funds, the unfortunate reality is that those will be certain results,” Thomas Gesualdi, president of the Teamsters’ Joint Council No. 16 representing 25 locals and 120,000 members, said in a Feb. 8 letter to Hochul.
Union opposition to the budget proposal represents yet another clash between the newly-elected Hochul and unions that backed her campaign for a full term last year in the closest gubernatorial race in a generation.
Hochul began incurring the wrath of organized labor in December after she nominated Brooklyn Judge Hector LaSalle, who was rejected by the state Senate weeks ago, to lead New York’s highest court despite a past decision opposed by powerful unions like SEIU 1199 and 32BJ.
While teachers’ unions like New York State United Teachers stayed out of that public fight, they are now fighting Hochul over her budget proposal to allow more charter schools in New York City.
Some union leaders like Garg LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, remain on good terms with the governor despite her differences with other organized labor groups.
“I was just praising organized labor yesterday at JFK,” Hochul told City & State when asked Friday about her relationship with labor. “I’m going to continue partnering and making sure that we work on important projects that make New York the best state it can be.”
But the proposal to ban flavored tobacco faces opposition beyond tobacco companies or labor groups fearful of members losing jobs, including critics who note how any ban on menthol cigarettes would disproportionately affect Black people.
The powerful Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) said she wants the Legislature to block the proposal ahead of an April 1 deadline.
“I understand the impetus of the policy is to get people to stop smoking, which is a good thing,” Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said at a recent press conference in Buffalo. “But I think it shouldn’t be this selective. It goes way too deep … and would be a mistake, so I will be working to have it excluded.”
The NAACP, however, is among the groups backing Hochul on the proposal considering the health benefits that could result from banning flavored tobacco along with her budget proposal to increase cigarette taxes by $1 – from $4.35 to $5.35 per pack — per pack.
“With tobacco use the leading cause of preventable deaths, Governor Hochul is leading the way to a tobacco-free generation to reduce youth smoking and prevent senseless deaths. As with any budget proposal, we will work with the legislature on the final details for the best way to protect public health,” Hochul spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hays said.
But Smith said that potentially boosting the health of some New Yorkers will come at a cost for the Teamsters while encouraging smokers to buy banned cigarette flavors on the black market.
“I’m here to speak on behalf of people that I know – second third-generation employees in this industry that need to go to the dentist, they need to go to their doctors, they need to retire,” Smith said at a Tuesday press conference in the Capitol. “So we need to just back up with thinking of ideas without understanding what the ramifications of these ideas can be.”